I had the pleasure of seeing Gwendolyn Brooks on more than one occasion at Chicago State University. She was a professor there at the same time that I had a teaching stint. I attended the reception when they opened the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing named in her honor.
Several dignitaries were present and I remember having a brief chat with the illustrious historian, Lerone Bennett. It was a jovial, low-key, yet gala affair as people stood around talking and nibbling on light snacks. Of course, she was there with her ever-present smile.
I also saw Gwendolyn Brooks at a couple of literary conferences which were held annually on the campus. At another event, those of us who were in a modern dance class danced and she read poetry. It was a very memorable day.
Gwendolyn Brooks had a smile that could light up any room and I never saw her look cross or unpleasant. She seemed to give life the light touch and there was this subtle, gracious aura surrounding her each time I was in her presence. Isn’t that a nice thing to be able to say about someone?
Gwendolyn Brooks was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950, becoming the first African-American to be granted this honor. She was also became Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968 and held that title until her death in 2000. And, she was appointed the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985.
As a Poet Laureate her role was to ‘promote citizens’ awareness of poetry as well as heighten their appreciation of the art form. The Laureate strives to forge a meaningful communion between poetry and the state’s populace (Illinois Poet Laureate). There is also high school named for her on the south side of Chicago.
Most Chicago school libraries house a copy of her book, Bronzeville Boys and Girls. Most of them are tattered and worn from use and often in need of replacement. I was happy to replace our school library’s copy for a new, fresh and colorful one.
Her poem, We Real Cool, holds the most meaning for me. It can be found in many literary anthologies. Ms. Brooks said that she had seen a group of boys in a pool hall on the corner of 79th and Cottage Grove on Chicago’s south side and was inspired to write this poem. Anyone who knows Chicago, also knows that this is a corner of high activity.
They had skipped school and years ago, it was called playing hooky. Whenever I taught this poem we would snap our fingers like the Beatniks and get into the rhythm of the motion. It is a snazzy poem and though the boys in the poem think that they are clever, the joke is on them. It reads:
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Shoot straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Only a poet can say so much in so few words. It speaks volumes! I am so glad that I had the opportunity to hear and see Gwendolyn Brooks in person.
What a perfect way to end my tribute to our Women Writers during Women’s History Month and open the door for the poets of April’s National Poetry Month!
Lynn March 29, 2015