Celebrating the Birthday of Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)


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.

(photo by Leslie Reese)

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?

15 Comments

  1. I went just this morning, but I went. Happily, curiously, but I went. Feeling I would be inspired, and I was. I stopped reading Gwendolyn after 3. And I wondered, did she write about her life throughout her life, of observations seen through her eyes reflecting many, or simply the life and times of the life and times!?

    The point I reasoned was in her writing, my reading, your inspiring such reading, and realizing that although a bit foreign to my own sense and sensibilities I may have grown just a little more. Much appreciated!

  2. I don’t often take to poetry; I’m a stubborn mule like that. But there are a few poets that I can open, and read, and feel struck by the language as one’s struck by the beauty of a secret river in the woods. For me, that poem is “Crystal Stair” by Langston Hughes. I remember crying in class when I read it, it just…that was IT.

    Thank you for the beautiful post. 🙂

    1. Welcome, Jean Lee! I’m so glad you’ve mentioned Langston Hughes, because he was one of the poets who made Gwendolyn Brooks believe that it was possible for her to become a published poet, someday. I’ve read that she first became acquainted with his work in an anthology, and she was impressed that his work celebrated regular people. When she was a teenager, she actually met him at a church where he gave a reading. Afterward, Brooks shared some of her poems with Hughes, and he read them then and there. He recognized her talent and offered encouraging words.

      Yes! This poem is so powerful!
      (just an excerpt):

      “…. Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
      It’s had tacks in it
      And splinters
      And boards torn up,…”

      I found a great recitation of Langtson Hughes’s “Mother to Son” done by Viola Davis! Enjoy!

  3. Dear Leslie, Thank you for this beautiful and inspiring post. Have you thought of trying to get in touch with your teacher? Maybe your old school could find him. I think he would be inspired to know how much he’s still influencing you and your writing, and I think he’d enjoy reading this (as I did).

    1. Thank you – your suggestion is a good one, Margaret. My old school actually has an alumni association that may be able to help me locate my former teacher. I’m going to give it a try.

  4. I do love your ode to Brooks. I can relate to wanting to know more about something, but (in my case) I never wanted to seem too academic. As to your question, I don’t remember my first encounter, but being from Chicago, I’d say it was probably around the same middle-school age you’ve mentioned here.

  5. Oh, Leslie, I love everything about this post. The way your childhood experience celebrates Miss Brooks and highlights her works is magical. I can imagine her chuckling at the scene with you and your homeroom teacher, as I did. That interaction with him sounds like a life-changing moment.

    I still have that card with her quote that you gave me. 🙂 I’m familiar with We Real Cool, but I need to acquaint myself with the rest of her works. You’ve just made my TBR list grow some more. Thanks, my dear friend!

    1. Wow, Nadine – that’s a beautiful image of Gwendolyn Brooks chuckling at my experience with my teacher and her poem. Thank you, I love it!

      For years I told this story in a glib way, with the emphasis being on how I followed-up and went to the library in order to acquaint myself with Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems. But sitting down to write my memory for this post, I found that the 6th grader in me was there to walk me back through what it was like to find myself disturbingly captivated by poetry at a young age in such an awesome way. (You should have seen me once I read the titles of some of Brooks’ other poems, titles like “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith,” “The Egg Boiler,” and “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon”!)
      You’re absolutely right: it WAS a life-changing moment; and I think that was lost on me over time.

      I’m glad you’re still enjoying your card!

  6. I love the way you relate it all back to your own experience- it is always a pleasure to read your posts. I had never heard of Brooks until seeing another blogger’s post on her (Robert Okaji)- I’d intended to go and watch the vid to ‘we real cool’ that he’d shared later on tonight but so glad I read your post first as it will now have greater significance for me and I’ll think of the grade 6 Leslie while doing so 😊

    1. Hi Mek – I will be curious to learn if Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems speak to you, especially her unique voice and sculpting of language. As I re-read some of her work, I’ll keep a lookout for some poems to send to you – way over there on the other side of the world😊! Thanks for telling me about Robert Okaji’s post – I’ll have to go look.

      I’m glad that you can appreciate the way I weave my own experience into my posts. Sometimes I wonder if readers will think “here she goes again!” but…oh well!

      I thought to dig around for an old photograph of myself to scan into this post, but I didn’t have all day!
      Thanks for hanging out at my blog😍.

  7. Leslie, I love this post. And I do have a Gwendolyn Brooks story! As a child, I lived on the South Side of Chicago and attended public school. One day a real live poet came to visit our class. It was Gwendolyn Brooks. She read us what I thought was a story – I now think it probably was a poem – about a little boy, who got killed at the end of the story. I can remember the impact of that story/poem to this day. It was the first time I understood that words could create grief.

    I’ve been looking for that story/poem ever since. Perhaps now, with new books by and about Gwendolyn Brooks being published, I can find it. Thank you for this post about what “We Real Cool” meant to you.

    1. Lynn – I’m glad this post brought back memories for you! Thanks for sharing your Gwendolyn Brooks story – it sounds like another testament to her great love and generosity for younger generations. I wonder if the poem she read to your class was
      “the murder”?

      it begins with:
      “This is where poor Percy died,/Short of the age of one./His brother Brucie, with a grin,/Burned him up for fun.”

      and ends with:
      “Bruce has no playmates now./His mother mourns his lack./Brucie keeps on asking, “When/Is Percy coming’ back?””

  8. Aww, I love how I could vividly picture your interactions with your teacher. Excellent tribute, Leslie!
    The first time I encountered Brooks’s work was in my college first year seminar. The class was entitled – ‘Making Urban African America’ with a focus on ‘black Chicago’. It was an interdisciplinary course so we had a lot of readings from all over – literary works, geography, history, music etc. Brooks’s poem ‘The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie’ struck me and I ended up referencing it for one of the papers I wrote for the class. Her other poem ‘We Real Cool’ is a gem too. I love that bell hooks borrowed the name of that poem for her book – We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity which I read earlier this year. One day I hope to purchase one of her collections. Enjoy the year long celebrations!

    1. Darkowaa – I am so intrigued that your first year seminar had an interdisciplinary focus on ‘black Chicago’! So I imagine you got a sense of “The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie” in a richer context than had it been a purely literary one.
      “It was Mabbie without the grammar school gates./And Mabbie was all of seven./And Mabbie was cut from a chocolate bar./And Mabbie thought life was heaven.”

      …I did follow up on my teacher’s suggestion, going to the library in search of books by Gwendolyn Brooks. It “rocked my world” to see that she had written so much poetry, and in so many styles. The way she used language knocked me out, and even though I didn’t understand everything I read, I remember taking pleasure in reading her poems aloud to myself.

      As always, thank you for reading😘!

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