GWENDOLYN ELIZABETH BROOKS was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, but grew up in Chicago. At the age of seven she began to write poetry, and her first poem was published when she was thirteen. Some of these poems were sent to James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, who encouraged her work. As Willard Motley had done before her, Brooks began a weekly column for the Chicago Defender when she was sixteen. After graduation in 1936 from Wilson Junior College, she worked as publicity director for the NAACP Youth Council in Chicago. Brooks married Henry Lowington Blakely II in 1939; they have two children.
Brooks's career was launched in 1945 with the publication of her first book of poems, A Street in Bronzeville. Its acclaim was immediate; Brooks received a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters the next year, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her next book, Annie Allen ( 1949), won her the Pulitzer Prize for poetry: she was the first black American ever to receive the Pulitzer Prize. More poems followed, as well a book of poems for children (Bronzeville Boys and Girls, 1956), frequent book reviews, and the novel Maud Martha (1953).
In 1967 Brooks attended the Second Fisk University Writers' Conference and as a result became increasingly concerned with black issues. She left Harper & Row, her longtime publisher, for the black-owned Broadside Press, submitted her poetry to black-edited journals only, edited the magazine Black Position, and wrote introductions to several anthologies of work by young black writers. In May 1967 she formed a poetry workshop in Chicago for teenage gang members, eventually encountering Don L. Lee (Haki R. Madhubuti) and Carolyn M. Rodgers, who would go on to become distinguished poets in their own right. Brooks's anthology, Jump Bad (1971), collects poems written at this workshop. In 1968 she was named Poet Laureate of the State of Illinois.
By the time she was fifty Gwendolyn Brooks had already become an institution. The Gwendolyn Brooks Cultural Center opened at Western