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Gwendolyn Brooks:
Poet Laureate, Encourager, Friend

Gwendolyn Brooks has influenced many poets with her powerful words and achievements. Her poems have inspired millions.

Through her writings, Brooks encourages her readers to maintain their truthfulness in the midst of pressures. She focuses a great deal on the rights of African-Americans and helping younger black poets write and publish poetry.

Gwendolyn Brooks was born on June 7, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas. Her father was the son or a runaway slave. Both of her parents were children of blacks that traveled to Kansas after the Civil War. The family shortly moved to Chicago after Gwendolyn was born.

She started writing poetry at the age of 11. Paul Lawrence Dunbar was her first inspiration as a poet. Initially, she would set up a picture of him and write one poem a day while looking at his picture.

By 1930, Brooks had her first poem published in American Childhood Magazine. Its title was “Eventide.” A few years later, she had the opportunity to meet James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, both of whom encouraged her to continue writing. Brooks went on to publish about 100 poems in a weekly poetry column for the Chicago Defender, a newspaper serving the African-American community in Chicago.

In 1938 she married Henry Blakely, who, along with the rest of her family, played a very important role in shaping her poetry. Many of her poems focused on family life and relationships that were the result of her own personal experiences.

Throughout her lifetime, Gwendolyn Brooks received many honors as a result of her poetry writing. She received the Midwestern Writers Conference Poetry Award in 1943 at the age of 26. In 1945, A Street in Bronzeville was published. This was her first book of poetry and provided many more opportunities for her to become an established American poet. In 1950 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and was the first African-American to win the prize for poetry.

After attending the Fisk University Black Writers’ Conference in 1967 her writing style changed. She became an active member of the Black Arts Movement taking place in Chicago. After this experience, Gwendolyn Brooks began to utilize the smaller black publishing houses, as opposed to the main publishing houses.

She also spent a great deal of her time helping out at poetry workshops and teaching younger poets about writing. She continued these activities throughout her tenure as poet laureate of Illinois, a post she held from 1968-2000, following Carl Sandburg. She was always present at competitions and workshops to support younger poets and encourage them to continue writing. The Library of Congress appointed her as its poetry adviser in 1985. She died in 2000, the third and longest running poet laureate of the state of Illinois.

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