Raised in Chicago, Gwendolyn was a shy, solitary child who did not make friends easily. She was unpopular, and her peers found her strange. She was made fun of as early as first grade, where the other kids called her “Ol Black Gal.” Light-skinned children made fun of her for her dark skin and “bad” hair, and the brown-skinned ones called her “stuck-up.” She withdrew even further and read voraciously, as a way of coping with her social inadequacies. She began writing around the same time (the age of 7). Her first poems were published in a local newspaper at the age of 11. Her parents broke up for a short time, and her mother took Gwendolyn and her brother to Kansas. After hearing of their financial struggles, her father retrieved them, returned to Chicago and raised them as a single parent for a year. When her parents reconciled and her mother Keziah returned, Gwendolyn was outraged with her mother for abandoning them, and lashed out. Perhaps this painful incident contributed to her having primarily male relationships and friendships throughout her life. Her social life didn’t improve with adolescence. In fact, like an outcast, and unwanted. She didn’t try to make friends, or join social groups. After being allowed to retreat into her books and writing for so many years, she likely lacked the skills to assimilate with her peers (Rhynes 10-20). The authors of a study of adolescents and the importance of social acceptance explain “Peer relationships provide an important context for learning and developing interpersonal skills that are necessary for both friendships and romantic relationships later in life” (McElhaney, 720). I believe that this desire went unfulfilled for Brooks until her union with lifelong friend and “cultural son” Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti).
Although her social life was painfully barren, Brooks had already gained professional success as a writer by the time she was sixteen. Greatly influenced by Langston Hughes, (a famous African-American poet who was popular and widely read during the Harlem Renaissance), Brooks had 75 poems published in The Chicago Defender (National Distribution) between high-school and college. She received encouragement from prominent male figures very early on in her teen years from James Weldon Johnson, secretary of NAACP, and also Langston Hughes. He encouraged her to read modern poetry. Despite these important male alliances and connections, her mother seemed to be her biggest advocate.
Like many teenage girls, Gwendolyn didn’t get along with her mother in her teens. She was very strict, and she gave beatings. She attended three different high schools, within the span of three years. She wasn’t accepted by white students, and while she did not experience verbal abuse she said she was simply invisible. Nor did she fit in with black kids, because she wasn’t cool. In Junior College, she reconnected with James Weldon Johnson, who spent a lot of time critiquing her work, and eventually published one of her poems in the NAACP publication, The Crisis. She began dating at that time, and finally made a few “friends.” Her overbearing mother attended her first job interview as a reporter for the Chicago Defender. She was not hired. Later she remarked that she was happy she didn’t let journalism distract her from poetry.
Bloom, Harold. Comprehensive Research and Study Guide: Gwendolyn Brooks. Bloom’s Major Poets. Chelsea House Publishers, a subsidiary of Haights Cross Communications, 2003.
Mcelhaney, Kathleen B., Jill Antonishak, and Joseph P. Allen. “”They Like Me, They Like Me Not”: Popularity and Adolescents’ Perceptions of Acceptance Predicting Social Functioning Over Time.” Child Development 79.3 (2008): 720-31. Print.
Rhynes, Martha E. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poet from Chicago. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds Pub., 2003. Print.