Gwendolyn Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, the eldest child of Keziah (Wims) Brooks, a schoolteacher, and David Anderson Brooks, a janitor, who, because he lacked the funds to finish school, did not achieve his dream of becoming a doctor. Brooks grew up in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents often read to her and encouraged her to do well in school, but she was a shy girl. According to George Kent, she was "spurned by members of her own race because she lacked social or athletic abilities, a light skin, and good grade hair."
Brooks was deeply hurt by this rejection and spent most of her childhood writing. She became known to her family and friends as "the female Paul Lawrence Dunbar" (1872? 1906; a famous African American poet). She received compliments on her poems and encouragement from James Weldon Johnson (1871?1938) and Langston Hughes (1902?1967), well-known writers with whom she began correspondence and whose readings she attended in Chicago. By the age of sixteen she had written over seventy-five poems.
After graduating from Wilson Junior College in 1936, Brooks worked as director of publicity for a youth organization of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1939 she married Henry L. Blakeley, another young writer, and together they would raise two children. Brooks continued to write poetry when the children were asleep or later while they were in school. She participated in poetry readings and workshops at Chicago's South Side Community Art Center, producing verse that would appear in her first published volume,?A Street in Bronzeville,?in 1945. A second collection titled?Annie Allen?was released in 1949. In 1950 Brooks was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, becoming the first African American to be granted this honor. She also wrote a novel,?Maud Martha,?in 1953. Other poetry collections included?The Bean Eaters?(1960) and?Selected Poems?(1962).
During the 1970s Brooks taught poetry at numerous institutions for higher learning, including Northeastern Illinois State College (now Northeastern Illinois University), the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the City College of the City University of New York. She continued to write. Yet, while her concern for African Americans and hope for racial harmony was the main subject of her verse in the early 1970s, the energy and positive feeling of?Riot?and?Family Pictures?was replaced in the late 1970s with a sense of disappointment resulting from the disagreements and lack of unity among members of the civil rights and "Black Power" movements. This mood was reflected in?Beckonings?(1975) and?To Disembark?(1980), where she urged African Americans to break free from the controls of white American society and seemed to favor violence and disorder as acceptable ways of achieving that freedom.
Brooks spent her time encouraging others to write by sponsoring writers' workshops in Chicago and poetry contests at prisons. In short, she took poetry to her people, continuing to test its worth by reading and speaking in taverns, lounges, and other public places as well as in academic circles. In 1985 she was named as the poetry consultant (one who gives advice) for the Library of Congress. In 1990 her works were guaranteed a permanent home when Chicago State University established the Gwendolyn Brooks Center on its campus. In later years Brooks continued to write, with?Children Coming Home?and?Blacks?both being published in 1992. She also continued to inspire others to write, focusing on young children by speaking and giving poetry readings at schools around the country.
In 1997, on her eightieth birthday, Gwendolyn Brooks was honored with tributes from Chicago to Washington, D.C. Although she received many words of tribute, perhaps the best description of Brooks's life and career came from her publisher, Haki Madhubuti, when he said, "She is undoubtedly one of the top one hundred writers in the world. She has been a chronicler (record keeper) of black life, specifically black life on the South Side of Chicago. She has become almost a legend in her own time." Gwendolyn Brooks died of cancer at her Chicago home on December 3, 2000.