The Illinois State Library building is named in honor of Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), whose poems touched millions with their eloquence. Appointed Illinois Poet Laureate in 1968, she remains a towering figure in Illinois literary history and is considered one of the most influential American poets of the 20th century.
Born June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, Brooks moved to Chicago with her family shortly after her birth. Her mother was a schoolteacher, while her father was a janitor who had abandoned his dream of becoming a doctor because he did not have enough money to finish school. Brooks’ home life has been described as happy, although she did not find such satisfaction outside the home. Writer George Kent reported that, as a child, Gwendolyn “was spurned by members of her own race because she lacked social or athletic abilities, a light skin, and good grade hair.” 1
As a result, Gwendolyn sought comfort in reading and writing. She composed her first poem at age 7, and by age 13 had a poem published in a children’s magazine. By age 16, over 75 of her poems had been published. “Very early in life I became fascinated with the wonders language can achieve,” remembered Brooks, “And I began playing with words.” 2
Brooks married Henry Blakely in 1938 and moved to a small apartment on Chicago’s south side. She gave birth to a son, Henry, Jr., in 1940 and a daughter, Nora, in 1951. In between, while working a string of menial jobs, she began attending a series of poetry workshops taught by Inez Cunningham Stark in 1941. Surrounded by other creative African-Americans in a dynamic environment, Brooks flourished and her work began to attract more attention. 3
In 1943, she won the Midwestern Writers Conference Poetry Award. Two years later, Brooks published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, which earned widespread acclaim. She was one of 10 women to receive the Mademoiselle Merit Award for Distinguished Achievement in 1945. Brooks was also awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1947-48. A second collection, Annie Allen, appeared in 1949 and earned Brooks the Pulitzer Prize, the first time that an African-American writer had ever won the prestigious honor. 4
Brooks used her poetry to depict the struggles of everyday African-Americans, including their battles with poverty and discrimination. Using the sonnet-ballad – a method she invented – Brooks blended humor and irony to support themes such as family life, war, honor, and hardships. A contemporary, Richard Wright (whose name is also engraved on the frieze of the State Library) lauded Brooks’ ability to “capture the pathos of petty destinies, the whimper of the wounded, the tiny incidents that plague the lives of the desperately poor, and the problems of common prejudice.” 5
In 1953, Brooks produced an autobiographical novel, Maud Martha, which dealt with racism, sexism, and classism in the eyes of an African-American woman in the World War II era. More book titles, Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956) and In the Mecca (1968), followed in addition to another major poetry collection, The Bean Eaters (1960). The last examined the fiery integration of the Little Rock school system, lynchings of black men in the South, and the failed efforts of white liberals to help the plight of African-Americans. In these works, Brooks demonstrated her growing concern with social issues and began a move toward free verse, rather than traditional styles. 6
Brooks underwent a spiritual transformation while attending the Second Black Writers’ Conference at Fisk University in Tennessee in 1967. There, she said, she “rediscovered her blackness.” Writing in her autobiography, Brooks declared:
“I – who have ‘gone the gamut’ from an almost angry rejection of my dark skin by some of my brainwashed brothers and sisters to a surprised queenhood in the new Black sun – am qualified to enter at least the kindergarten of new consciousness now…I have hopes for myself.” 7
Some critics have asserted that Brooks’ work took on a more radical tone following this transformation. But her critical respect blossomed, and people of all races and social backgrounds continued to appreciate her message. As D.H. Melhem wrote in Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice, Brooks “enriches both black and white cultures by revealing essential life, its universal identities, and the challenge it poses to a society beset with corruption and decay.” 8
During her life, Brooks taught poetry at Columbia College in Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, Clay College of New York, and the University of Wisconsin. Brooks also taught at Chicago State University, where her papers are held. She also received over 70 honorary degrees, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Book Foundation Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Brooks served as a Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985-86 and was named a Jefferson Lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1994, the government’s highest honor for career achievement in the humanities. In 1998, the U.S. Congress declared Brooks “a living legend.” 9
However, Brooks considered her greatest accomplishment to be her work with youth. For three decades, she sponsored poetry competitions for students, paying expenses out of her own pocket. Brooks once noted that, “all my life is not writing. My greatest interest is being involved with young people.” 10
Brooks’ name is etched on the frieze of the Illinois State Library, and in remarks at the dedication of the new library building on June 20, 1990, she considered the honor one of the highest of her life. She died in her home on Chicago’s south side on Dec. 3, 2000. 11
In a ceremony on June 6, 2003, the State Library building was named in honor of Gwendolyn Brooks, a gentle spirit who provided a powerful and influential voice in Illinois and American literature.
- New York Times Dec. 5, 2000; www.gale.cengage.com/free_resources/bhm/bio/brooks_g.htm.
- Melhem 8-9; www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/brooks.life.htm.
- Melhem 9, 11; www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/brooks.life.htm.
- Melhem 69; New York Times Dec. 5, 2000.
- www.gale.cengage.com/free_resources/bhm/bio/brooks_g.htm; Melhem,100-105.
- Melhem 12, 15;,www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/brooks.life.htm.
- www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/brooks.life.htm; Melhem 241.
- Chicago Sun-Times June 14, 2002; www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/brooks.life.htm.
- Chicago Sun-Times March 10, 2003.
- State Journal-Register June 21, 1990, Dec. 5, 2000; New York Times, Dec. 5, 2000; Chicago Tribune Dec. 5, 2000.