Gwendolyn Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, to David Anderson Brooks and Keziah Wims, their first child. Her mother was a former school teacher who left teaching for marriage and motherhood, and her father, the son of a runaway slave who fought in the Civil War, had given up his ambition to become a doctor to work as a janitor because he could not afford to attend medical school. When Brooks was only six weeks old, her family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she grew up. She went by the nickname, "Gwendie," which her close friends called her.
Her home life was stable and loving, although she encountered racial prejudice in her neighborhood and in her schools. She attended Hyde Park High School, the leading white high school in the city, before transferring to all-black Wendell Phillips. Brooks eventually attended an integrated school, Englewood High School. In 1936, she graduated from Wilson Junior College. These four schools gave her a perspective on racial dynamics in the city that continued to influence her work.
Her enthusiasm for reading and writing was encouraged by her parents. Her father provided a desk and bookshelves, and her mother took her, when she was in high school, to meet Harlem Renaissance poets Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson.
Brooks published her first poem in a children's magazine at the age of thirteen. When Brooks was sixteen years old, she had compiled a portfolio of around seventy-five published poems. Aged 17, Brooks stuck to her roots and began submitting her work to "Lights and Shadows", the poetry column of the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper. Although her poems range in style from traditional ballads and sonnets to using blues rhythms in free verse, her characters are often drawn from the poor inner city. During this same period, she also attended Wilson Junior College, from where she graduated in 1936. After publishing more than seventy-five poems and...