Image by Art Shay
Image by Art Shay, Gwendolyn Brooks on the front porch of her home in Chicago

According a biography on the Poetry Foundation, “Gwendolyn Brooks is one of the most highly regarded, highly influential, and widely read poets of 20th-century American poetry.” Most notably, she was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize. She wrote articles, short stories, poetry (publishing more than 20 collections of her work), books for children, a novel, and two autobiographies. She was also a teacher, a professor of creative writing at many different universities, even though she didn’t have a university degree of her own. “I’ve had very little formal education in anything. I went to a junior college in Chicago… That is the limit of my formal education. I did not consider pursuing a four-year degree. I knew that I was going to be a writer.”

Born in Kansas, Brooks’s was raised in Chicago, and lived there until her death on December 3, 2000. Her father was a janitor who’d wanted to be a doctor, and her mother was a teacher who was also a classically trained pianist. They nurtured their daughter’s love of reading and writing. Only 13 when she published her first poem, by 16 she had published approximately 75 poems. She published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, in 1945, and the book (which was an instant success) lead to a Guggenheim Fellowship and other honors. Describing her writing process in a 1994 interview, she said, “I write and rewrite and ask myself the sterling question – Is this really what I want to say? With an emphasis on really and I. ”

Her earlier work represented black lives as they were being lived, while her later work became more overtly political. At 68 years old, she was the first woman appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, (a post now known as Poet Laureate). She also served as poet laureate of Illinois — appointed in 1968, she held the position until she died. A junior high school in Illinois was named for her, and Western Illinois University is home to the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for African-American Literature.