Two years after the Detroit riots (also known as the the 12th Street Riot, the 1967 Rebellion and the Uprising of 1967), and one year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Gwendolyn Brooks – the first Black person to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, for her book Annie Allen (1949) – did something unprecedented. After publishing six books of poetry and one novel with Harper & Row Publishers, Brooks – newly inspired by the younger generation of Black Arts Movement poets – decided to publish Riot with Broadside Press in 1969. Broadside Press was the pioneering Black Press founded by poet and librarian Dudley Randall in 1965.
As Gloria Wade Gayles writes in the introduction to Conversations With Gwendolyn Brooks: “Subsequent works, major among them Report from Part One, saw the light of day from black presses: Broadside, Third World, the David Company, and her own Brooks Press. She was the first nationally celebrated poet in the history of American letters to travel this route.”
But in the early 1970s, I don’t know these things.
I am in the 6th grade. My homeroom teacher’s name is Mr. Olschefski. When we enter his classroom at the beginning of the year there is a poster on the wall next to the door. It looks like another kid made it: the coloring job, the way the lettering is black and raw and lacks uniformity from one letter to the next; the deceptively simple rhyming of words like school with cool and sin with gin. My first reading of “We Real Cool” is a puzzlement and an annoyance. Who is Gwendolyn Brooks? Encounters with the poetry of Robert Frost and Christina Rossetti have not prepared me for this and I wonder if Mr. Olschefski is mocking us black kids some kind of way.
We have a lot of grammar lessons to twist up our brains, some milquetoast “social studies” readings, and, for part of the year we even have a long-haired bell-bottomed-pants-wearing male student teacher who causes major upheaval in the school by redecorating Mr. Olschefski’s traditional and orderly classroom with a long, squishy couch, a rug, and some psychedelic artwork. There’s note-passing, there’s fights, there’s keeping nasty boys from squeezing my booty on the playground. Some days I don’t give “We Real Cool” more than a passing glance. Other days I look at it, reading it over and over again in my mind when I’m supposed to be doing classwork. I don’t know it yet but the poem is getting under my skin so much that by year’s end I finally have to break down and ask Mr. Olschefski about it.
I say “break down” because I’ve struggled all year to maintain a cool, disinterested attitude toward everything we do in his class. On more than one occasion he and my mother have cooked-up extra reading and writing assignments for me that the other students don’t have to do. For this offense I have been nursing a grudge against both teacher and parent.
One day near the last day of school I slow-drag around my desk while the other kids bum-rush the door when the bells rings. With tight lips I approach Mr. Olschefski’s desk.
“What can I do for you, Leslie?” He always seems to be holding papers, he always seems to be wearing brown pants; and his couple of ties are always brownish, always beige-ish, with a line of mustard or burnt orange accent somewhere about. Some kids like to say that his breath stinks. Behind the cloudy lenses of his glasses, Mr. Olschefski’s eyes are not unkind.
I try to swallow down my grudge.
“Who wrote that?” I point to the We Real Cool poster on the wall.
“Gwendolyn Brooks.” He turns to look and make sure that the poster has “by Gwendolyn Brooks” on it.
“But I mean: who wrote it? Is she a kid?”
My teacher cocks his head. Maybe he is stumped that the whole year has gone by and I didn’t know who Gwendolyn Brooks was.
“No, Leslie. She’s a woman. She’s a Black woman who is a poet.”
I’m not ready for this and I am just dumbfounded.
I am embarrassed.
I am also excited; and I think there’s some tears coming in my eyes. I think I need to walk out on my teacher, now.
Before I can get out of the classroom I hear Mr. Olschefski say that I “can probably get her books at the library.”
Uttering “Okay, bye,” chokes me up and I hurry, not sure I want this guy to know that all is forgiven.
Today is the centennial birthday of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) and I am having my own little celebration of reading from her poetry, as well as reading other people’s tributes to her. There are two new anthologies of works paying homage to the life and work of Gwendolyn Brooks just out this year: Revise the Psalm: Work Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks edited by Quaryash Ali Lansana and Sandra Jackson-Opoku; and The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks edited by Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar, and Patricia Smith.
Yesterday I found a slim volume titled Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks edited by Gloria Wade Gayles at the library. It’s a compilation of 16 interviews with Miss Brooks conducted between 1961 and 1994. The May/June issue of Poets & Writers magazine has an article written by the poet Major Jackson, titled “Anatomy of a Pulitzer Prize Letter” in which he takes us back through time to explore prevalent literary attitudes and positions in 1950, the year Gwendolyn Brooks became the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry – so I’ll be reading that. I’m fortunate to be in Chicago where the city will be formally celebrating Gwendolyn Brooks thru June 2018 with Our Miss Brooks 100 programming; so, later this evening I plan to attend “BrooksDay@Nite: Praise and Jubilation.”
If you are familiar with the work of Gwendolyn Brooks, do you remember your first encounter with one of her poems?