I got my first library card at the Hall Branch Library on 48th in Michigan on Chicago’s south side. I was thirteen years old and still needed my mother’s signature. I wasn’t into Black History back then. I chose this library because I wanted to check out books, and it was down the street from my grandmother’s house.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
Yesterday, I discovered Hall Branch was named for the renowned African American surgeon, social activist, and civic leader Dr. George Cleveland Hall (1864-1930). It was the first Chicago Public Library location with a Black branch manager, Vivian G. Harsh, who served as its first manager. We will get deeper into Hall’s background on this Friday’s Black History Fun Fact, the last one of the year.
In 1949, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks visited the Hall Branch to celebrate the publication of The Poetry of the Negro Anthology.
On July 7, 2000, the Friends of Libraries USA (now United for Libraries) and Illinois Center for the Books designated Hall Branch as a literary landmark. This was in recognition of its promotion of African American literary culture by serving as a meeting place for such writers as Arna Bontemps, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Richard Wright. (Learn more about the Chicago Renaissance of the Black Belt Here).
I thought I had picked this library at random and for no particular reason. I had no idea it was so rich with Black History or that it was this hub for Black writers.
This helped me to see how unique each of our journeys are. No one has walked in your shoes or experienced what you’ve experienced. No one is you, and that is your power.
Everything is a stepping stone to get us to the place Yah has destined for us, every path like a thread weaving and connecting everything together.
It would be years before I learned who Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks were, and many more years before I would publish a collection of poetry of my own.
Little did I know I was building on the same foundation as those who came before me.
Talk about the power of purpose!
Also, I still got that library card!
Have you read My Soul is a Witness? I am striving for 20 book reviews at minimum before the year is out. If you read this book, I would appreciate so much if you reviewed it! Go to the page here. Scroll down to Write Customer Review, click that, rate and review. Boom. Done.
Today I will be critiquing Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool” for today’s Blogging U assignment:
We real cool. We Left school. We Lurk late. We Strike straight. We Sing sin. We Thin gin. We Jazz June. We Die soon.
Gwendolyn Brooks is the renowned poet from Chicago that we have grown to love. In her own words, Brooks explains her inspiration behind this poem, which began while walking passed a pool hall in a Chicago neighborhood. She saw there a group of young men and pondered to herself how they felt about themselves. “I wrote [‘We Real Cool’] because I was passing by a pool hall in my community one afternoon during school time, and I saw, therein, a little bunch of boys – I say here in this poem, seven – and they were shooting pool. But instead of asking myself, ‘Why aren’t they in school?’ I asked myself, ‘I wonder how they feel about themselves?” Gwendolyn Brooks
I think when people read this poem they are put in the mind that these boys are too cool for school and when I first read it, years ago, I have to say I summed it up to pretty much mean that. Here are a group of young men who would rather partake in other activities rather than an education and as a result they die living the life they have chosen. However, with maturity came a different understanding of this poem.
“We Real Cool” is a poem that speaks from the point of view of these seven young men and it is why Brooks recites it the way that she does. The “We” is to carry lightness. Not so much to be pronounced harshly, but it is a slang that is carried in a kind of whisper and you’ll hear this if you’ve ever heard Brooks recite it. So it is indication that this is not Gwendolyn Brooks who speaks, but it is the young men speaking and they are expressing a feeling about themselves that has been brought on due their interaction with a certain establishment.
“We Jazz June.”
June is a symbol of an establishment. Typically, Americans adore June as a month. It is the time of summer; a time where school ends and the sun is out, and children play. June is in short a fun time. A time where people are married, and children have birthday parties. Traditionally, people cannot wait for June to come because it represents that transition into the summer months where things are happy and vibrant and lively and fun. For these young men however they “Jazz June” meaning they do not like it. They are not looking forward to June but they “Jazz” June. Jazz is a slang word meaning that the young men are willing to do anything that would annoy June; anything that would rebel against June. And so June is a symbol for an establishment. It is to say that these young men feel left out of it. They do not feel part of the system and so they leave school, they stay out late, they sin (which is not so much a transgression of biblical law in this sense but more so a transgression of the laws of the land. It is a symbol of their rebellion) and they do anything in general that will contradict June.
“We Die soon.”
The final line, “We die soon” is a result of the life that they live. Not so much how fast living leads to death (which it does) but more deeply it is the treatment of their lives by the institutions in which they are rebelling against itself. Because they are locked out of it, their lives are not as valid, valued, or cherished and so eventually they die. The young men are expressing, in this poem, their low self-esteem and low self-worth inside of the communities in which they live.
In an interview, Brooks discussed an experience she had at a University where she’d done some reading. She spoke concerning a young black woman who stood up and said, “Why do you keep talking about blackness? We all know that the time for that is over. We are now merely American’s”. Brooks’s response, in brief, was that she’d like for blacks to be proud of where they come from.”
They say that youth is wasted on the young; that their minds have not fully developed into the capacity to appreciate certain things, particularly a sense of pride in heritage and identity. As I listened to that interview about the young woman I think back to this poem. What strikes me as important to note in regard to “We Real Cool” is its focus on manhood, or rather boyhood. The experience of a black boy in America is different than that of a black girl. And this is a fact that is often gone under the radar. We talk a lot about black women, particularly in regard to a focus on feminism and gender identity and double discrimination far as being both black and woman is concerned. I think this is in many ways a trap because it can easily develop into hatred for our men and if not hatred, blindness to the struggles that they endure and their discrimination’s as well as our own. I think we spend a lot of time focusing on doing it ourselves that we miss the purpose. The purpose being that the strength of black family life is directly tied into the respect and honor that we either have or don’t have for black men as black women. Gwendolyn said it best, “If we don’t pull together then we won’t be here to pull at all.”
I say this to say that there’s a lot of focus on black women and not so much black men. It is not to say that the black experience in America is limited to gender, of course we know that we have all experienced psychological trauma especially the black woman. But we do have to admit that there is not as much attention toward the same kind of trauma exposed to black men. It is a fact that to be a black man is quite different in many ways than to be a black woman. One of these ways is a black man’s treatment in America by its varying institutions be that employment, or simply his struggle to lead his own family. Being unlawfully pulled over by the police is another example, even the calculation of prison beds against the reading scores of black males in the public schools. And so this poem is a reminder, at least to me that black men in America are, in the words of Toni Morrison, criminalized more than any other man or woman for that matter in America, and they are in constant dread for their lives, be that spiritual or physical.
We real cool. We Left school. We Lurk late. We Strike straight. We Sing sin. We Thin gin. We Jazz June. We Die soon.
I would like to present first Philips Wheatley because as I embark on publishing my third collection of poetry, I cannot help but wonder what it must have been like for her to be the first. Phillis Wheatley was the first black poet in America to publish a book. She was born on May 8, 1753 in West Africa and brought to New England in 1761, where John Wheatley of Boston purchased her as a gift for his wife. Like many of her time, Phillis was taught to read by her owners and could read and write English by the age of nine.
Many people are under the impression that slaves were of pure ignorance; that they muttered broken English because they were imbecile. This is not truth. Slaves were only ignorant so far as the English language is concerned, at which they could not read, write, and could barely speak. They were strangers in a foreign land and introduced to ways to which neither they nor their fathers had known. Put me in the middle of a street in China and see how dumb I will be.
Nonetheless, Wheatley also became familiar with Latin, Greek, the Bible, and selected classics at an early age. She began writing poetry at thirteen (around the same time I started writing), modeling her work on the English poets of the time, particularly John Milton, Thomas Gray, and Alexander Pope. Her poem “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield” was published as a broadside in cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and garnered Wheatley national acclaim. This poem was also printed in London.
Anne has too many names for me to keep up with so we’ll stick with Anne Spencer. Anne was born in Virginia in 1882. She was the daughter of a former slave and her mother enrolled her in school for the first time when she was eleven years old. She graduated seven years later as valedictorian. Known as a “Harlem Renaissance Poet”, Anne was good friends with many Harlem Renaissance writers, including James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Spencer’s poetry engages themes of religion, race, and the natural world. Thirty of her poems were published during her lifetime, in such anthologies as The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) and Caroling Dusk (1927) and was the first African American woman poet to be featured in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1973).
For some reason, whenever I say this woman’s name I think of Books. Seems like it should be Gwendolyn Books, but anyway, Brooks and I do actually have something in common: we are both from Chicago. Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, but her family moved to Chicago when she was young. Her father was a janitor who had hoped to become a doctor; her mother was a schoolteacher and trained pianist. They were supportive of their daughter’s passion for reading and writing. Brooks was thirteen (again around the same age I was when I began writing) when her first published poem, “Eventide,” appeared in American Childhood; by the time she was seventeen she was publishing poems frequently in the Chicago Defender, a newspaper serving Chicago’s black population. After such formative experiences as attending junior college and working for the NAACP, she developed her craft in poetry workshops and began writing the poems, focusing on urban blacks, that would be published in her first collection, “A Street in Bronzeville”.
I could probably leave this part blank and many of you would still know who this woman was. The poet and award-winning author known for her acclaimed memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and her numerous poetry and essay collections. Born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou is known for her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. In 1971, Angelou published the Pulitzer Prize-nominated poetry collection “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die”. She later wrote the poem “On the Pulse of Morning“—one of her most famous works—which she recited at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. Angelou received several honors throughout her career, including two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category, in 2005 and 2009. She died two days after my 27th birthday on May 28, 2014.
Sonia is another poet whose name rings with such prominence that I could leave her bio blank too and many of you would still know who she is. Born Wilsonia Benita Driver, on September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama Sanchez lived with her paternal grandmother and other relatives for several years after her mother died in childbirth a year later. In 1943, she moved to Harlem with her sister to live with their father and his third wife. Sonia married and divorced Albert Sanchez, a Puerto Rican immigrant whose surname she kept.
In the 1950s, Sanchez formed a poets’ group, the Broadside Quartet. Sanchez began teaching in the San Francisco area in 1965 and was a pioneer in developing black studies courses at what is now San Francisco State University, where she was an instructor from 1968 to 1969. Sanchez is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, including “Morning Haiku” (Beacon Press, 2010); “Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems” (Beacon Press, 1999); “Does your house have lions?” (Beacon Press, 1995), which was nominated for both the NAACP Image and National Book Critics Circle Award; “Homegirls & Handgrenades” (White Pine Press, 1984), which won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. From the 1970s through the ’90s, she wrote poetry, plays and kids’ books. She retired from her Laura Carnell chair in English in 1999.
Giovanni’s collections, like the women before her, focused on African American identity. Born Yolanda Cornelia, Nikki Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee on June 7, 1943 and raised in Cincinnati Ohio, a place I got the chance to visit for our 8th Grade school trip. On July 28, 2000, when I was thirteen years old, I lost my Dad to cancer. In December of 2014, I lost my Aunt to the same disease. In some way or another I can sympathize with Giovanni, who is not only a poet but a Lung Cancer survivor and has contributed an introduction to the anthology Breaking the Silence: Inspirational Stories of Black Cancer Survivors (Hilton Publishing, 2005). Giovanni has been awarded The Langston Hughes award for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters in 1996, as well as more than twenty honorary degrees from national colleges and universities. She has been given keys to more than a dozen cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami, and New Orleans. She has served as poetry judge for the National Book Awards and was a finalist for a Grammy Award in the category of Spoken Word.
She is currently professor of English and Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies at Virginia Tech, where she has taught since 1987.
I fell in love with Shange’s poems almost instantly. I really enjoy the raw truth of experience embodied in the words and the style in which they occupy the page is hard to ignore. I like how she allows the words to be written just how they are spoken, how they ignore the “professionalism” of the edit. (though poetry does tend to allow for this kind of freedom).
Born Paulette Williams, Ntozake Shange was born into an upper middle-class African-American family. Her father was an Air Force surgeon and her mother a psychiatric social worker. Cultural icons like Dizzie Gillepsie, Miles Davis and W.E.B. DuBois were regular guests in the Williams home. Shange attended Barnard College and UCLA, earning both a bachelors and master degree in American Studies. But Shange is most famous for her play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1975) which is how I was introduced to her. A unique blend of poetry, music, dance and drama called a “choreopoem,” it “took the theater world by storm” said Jacqueline Trescott in the Washington Post, as it “became an electrifying Broadway hit and provoked heated exchanges about the relationships between black men and women…Its form—seven women on the stage dramatizing poetry—was a refreshing slap at the traditional, one-two-three-act structures.” The play uses female dancers to dramatize poems that recall encounters with their classmates, lovers, rapists, and abortionists. The women survive abuse and disappointment and come to recognize in each other the promise of a better future.
June Jordan is the author of children’s books, plays, a novel, and Poetry for the People: A Blueprint for the Revolution (1995), a guide to writing, teaching and publishing poetry. Her collections of political essays include Affirmative Acts: Political Essays (1998) and Technical Difficulties (1994). Basic Books published her memoir, Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood, in 2000.
Born in New York City on July 9, 1936, June Jordan attended Barnard College. She received the National Association of Black Journalists Award, and fellowships from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Her numerous books of poetry include Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), Haruko/Love Poems (1994), Passion (1980), and Things That I Do in the Dark (1977), among many others. She taught at the University of California, Berkeley, where she founded Poetry for the People. June Jordan died of breast cancer on June 14, 2002, in Berkeley, California.
Rita Dove is the first African-American woman to be named Poet Laureate of the United States, and only the second to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry (Thomas and Beulah, 1987), Rita Dove has achieved a great deal in her career. Her multi-layered poems dramatize the stories of individuals both living and dead against the backdrop of larger historical forces (I really like “Reverie in Open Air”). Rita was born in Akron, Ohio on August 28, 1952. Her books of poetry include (but are not limited to) Sonata Mulattica (W. W. Norton, 2009); American Smooth (W. W. Norton, 2004); On the Bus with Rosa Parks (W. W. Norton, 1999), which was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition to poetry, Dove has published a book of short stories, Fifth Sunday (University of Kentucky Press, 1985), the novel Through the Ivory Gate (Pantheon, 1992), essays in The Poet’s World and the verse drama The Darker Face of the Earth (Story Line Press, 1994). She also edited The Best American Poetry 2000 and The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (Penguin, 2011).
Dove is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia, where she has been teaching since 1989.
And that’s it for this week’s episode of Black History Fun Facts. Don’t forget to check out last week’s episode, in case you missed it: