Gwendolyn Brooks was a highly regarded, much-honored poet, with the distinction of being the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. She also was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress—the first black woman to hold that position—and poet laureate of the State of Illinois. Many of Brooks’s works display a political consciousness, especially those from the 1960s and later, with several of her poems reflecting the civil rights activism of that period. Her body of work gave her, according to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor George E. Kent, “a unique position in American letters. Not only has she combined a strong commitment to racial identity and equality with a mastery of poetic techniques, but she has also managed to bridge the gap between the academic poets of her generation in the 1940s and the young black militant writers of the 1960s.”
Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, but her family moved to Chicago when she was young. Her father was a janitor who had hoped to become a doctor; her mother was a schoolteacher and classically trained pianist. They were supportive of their daughter’s passion for reading and writing. Brooks was thirteen when her first published poem, “Eventide,” appeared in American Childhood; by the time she was seventeen she was publishing poems frequently in the Chicago Defender, a newspaper serving Chicago’s black population. After such formative experiences as attending junior college and working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she developed her craft in poetry workshops and began writing the poems, focusing on urban blacks, that would be published in her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville.
Gwendolyn Brooks in 1950 became the first African American to earn the Pulitzer Prize for her book Annie Allen, published in 1949.
Brooks started writing when she was 12 and had a poem published by age 13. By the time she was 16, she had written more than 75 poems including free verse, sonnets and ballads. Her work was published in different publications, including the Chicago Defender.
She published her first poetry collection in 1945, called , A Street in Bronzeville, which received critical acclaim and fellowships.
It was, however, her second book Annie Allen that propelled her to international fame when it was awarded the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Annie Allie followed the journey of an African American girl into womanhood. Set in three sections, the book included The Anniad, a long poem that explores Annie’s quest to identify herself in the world she’s living in. Brooks was inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid.
According to one of the judges, Alfred Kreymborg.
No other Negro poet has written such poetry of her own race, of her own experiences, subjective and objective, and with no grievance or racial criticism as the purpose of her poetry,” “It is highly skillful and strong poetry, out of the heart, but rich with racial experience.
She also received praise for making black people in her poems ‘alive, reaching and very much of today.’
The Pulitzer became just a start for Brooks, who went ahead to write American Family Brown, a series of poems on the economic situation of African Americans. From this point, her poems took a political tone and she eventually moves to a small black publishing house in a bid to nurture black literature.
Until her death in 2000, Brooks continued writing about the everyday life of black people. She travelled the world and spreading her gospel of ordinariness of black people.