She was born in Topeka, Kansas, but when she was six weeks old, her family moved to Chicago where she grew up. Although she also wrote a novel, an autobiography and some other prose works, she was noted primarily as a poet. Her 1949 book of poetry, Annie Allen, received a Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first won by an African American. In 1968, she was made Poet Laureate of Illinois. Other awards she received included the Frost Medal, the Shelley Memorial Award, and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Brooks was awarded more than 75 honorary degrees from colleges and universities worldwide.
Her poetry is rooted in the poor and mostly African American South Side of Chicago. She initially published her poetry as a columnist for 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. Her bluesy poem "We Real Cool" is often found in school textbooks. She is seen as a leader of the Black Arts movement.
After her first book of poetry was published in 1945, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship. After John F. Kennedy invited her to a Library of Congress poetry festival in 1962, she began a college teaching career which saw her teach at Columbia College Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, Clay College of New York, and the University of Wisconsin. She was the 1985 Library of Congress's Consultant in Poetry, a one year position whose title changed the next year to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. In 1994, she was chosen as the National Endowment for the Humanities's Jefferson Lecturer, one of the highest honors for American literature.
Brooks returned to her birthplace, Topeka, Kansas on May 1, 1996 as the keynote speaker for the Third Annual Kaw Valley Girl Scout Council Women of Distinction Banquet and String of Pearls Auction. During her speech at the banquet, she paid tribute to the Kaw Valley Girl Scout Council, to the other Women of Distinction who were to be honored at the banquet that night, to all women, to the Bias Busters of Kansas, and to Cathy Henderson, who as a Missouri elementary school student 20 years ago, wrote the Topeka Chamber of Commerce for information about any monument here honoring Brooks. Brooks also attended a ceremony the next day at a local park that was named after her, located at 37th and Topeka Boulavard.
Brooks also shared her view of the art of poetry, stating to create bigness you don't have to create an epic. "Bigness." said Brooks "can be found in a little haiku, five syllables, seven syllables."