Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, and died on December 3, 2000 in Chicago, IL. She was the first child of David Anderson Brooks and Keziah (Wims) Brooks. Her father was a janitor for a music company who had hoped to pursue a career as a doctor but sacrificed that aspiration to get married and raise a family. Her mother was a school teacher as well as a concert pianist trained in classical music. Family lore held that her paternal grandfather had escaped slavery to join the Union forces during the American Civil War.
When Brooks was six weeks old, her family moved to Chicago during the Great Migration; from then on, Chicago remained her home. According to biographer Kenny Jackson Williams, Brooks first attended a prestigious integrated high school in the city with a predominantly white student body, Hyde Park High School, transferred to the all-black Wendell Phillips High School, and then moved to the integrated Englewood High School. After completing high school, she graduated in 1936 from Wilson Junior College, now known as Kennedy-King College. Due to the social dynamics of the various schools, in conjunction with time period in which she attended them, Brooks faced racial injustice that over time contributed to her understanding of the prejudice and bias in established systems and dominant institutions in her own surroundings as well as ever relevant mindset of the country.
Brooks began writing at an early age and her mother encouraged her saying, ”You are going to be the lady Paul Laurence Dunbar.”
After these early educational experiences, Brooks never pursued a four-year degree because she knew she wanted to be a writer and considered it unnecessary. “I am not a scholar,” she later said. “I’m just a writer who loves to write and will always write. ” She worked as a typist to support herself while she pursued her career.
She would closely identify with Chicago for the rest of her life. In a 1994 interview, she remarked on this,
“Living in the city, I wrote differently than I would have if I had been raised in Topeka, KS…I am an organic Chicagoan. Living there has given me a multiplicity of characters to aspire for. I hope to live there the rest of my days. That’s my headquarters.”
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