Illinois Center for the Book

Gwendolyn Brooks Illinois State Library

Gwendolyn Brooks
Gwendolyn Brooks

June 7, 2017, marked the centenary of the birth of poet, novelist and educator Gwendolyn Brooks. Born in Topeka, Kansas, Brooks moved to Chicago with her family as an infant and resided in the city the rest of her life. Regarded as one of the most influential poets of the 20th century, Brooks was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize. In 1968, she was named Illinois Poet Laureate, succeeding Carl Sandburg, and held that title until her death on December 3, 2000. She also served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1985 through 1986.

Brooks authored more than twenty books of poetry, including Children Coming Home; The Near-Johannesburg Boy and Other Poems; Riot; In the Mecca; The Bean Eaters; Annie Allen; and A Street in Bronzeville. She also wrote one novel, Maud Martha, and two autobiographies, Report from Part One: An Autobiography (1972) and Report from Part Two (1996).

In addition to writing, Brooks taught poetry and creative writing at numerous colleges and universities, including Columbia College Chicago, Northeastern Illinois State College (now Northeastern Illinois University), Elmhurst College, University of Wisconsin–Madison and Clay College of New York. The Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing was founded in 1990 at Chicago State University, where she served as distinguished professor and writer-in-residence.

Brooks was renowned for using her influence as a leading figure in American literature to promote the value of poetry and to inspire young writers. She established the Illinois Poet Laureate Awards in 1969 to encourage elementary and high school students to develop their skill and passion for creative writing. Brooks was also well known for her generosity, and personally funded countless literary awards and poetry events throughout her lifetime.

Brooks was awarded over seventy-five honorary degrees and a myriad of honors, including a National Medal of the Arts, the Frost Medal and a National Book Foundation Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In 1994, she was also named Jefferson Lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is the highest honor the U.S. government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

On June 6, 2003, the Illinois State Library building was officially rededicated and named in honor of Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks' name also appears among the names of Illinois authors etched on the building's exterior fourth-floor frieze. These names represent thirty-five authors who made an indelible mark in literature and in the rich history of Illinois.

“Gwendolyn Brooks was a national treasure who enriched many lives. We are proud and honored that she spent her life here in Illinois, teaching and bringing poetry to our schools, hospitals and prisons. It is fitting that her name be permanently attached to the Illinois State Library – a place where anyone can access knowledge and appreciate the contributions of such a gifted artist.”
Illinois Secretary of State and State Librarian Jesse White


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