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Gwendolyn Brooks

By Studs Terkel

First of all, something personal. I was very self-conscious about having forgotten my tie until I realized that our President, Ned Rorem, was minus his. When I say “President” I refer to the title in the better sense of the word.

In reflecting on Gwendolyn Brooks and her giftedness as a poet, it means little without reference to the Bronzeville Renaissance. Bronzeville was the name of the black community in Chicago and its cultural awakening. Albert Murray, seated here, reminded me of something I had forgotten; it had followed the Harlem Renaissance by ten years. At the same time and for some years afterward, Chicago was the most segregated northern city in the country; yet Bronzeville had so much vitality, richness and creativity that it was astonishing. It had Richard Wright, of course. It had Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake and their remarkable chronicle, Black Metropolis. It was a hymn to Chicago’s African-American life, “getting over” miraculously, despite a northern version of Jim Crow. It was implicit in the gospel song, City Called Heaven, with all its bumps, grinds and horrors.

Here, from the Deep SouthLouisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennesseethey came by coach, jalopy and any means possible. The stockyards, the steel mills, the farm equipment plants, the jobs; they were all were there. The CIO was being organized and black people, women as well as men, became very active in the unions. It was an alive moment and a creative one.

There was Charles White, the painter, and Marion Perkins, the sculptor. And there was Gwendolyn Brooks, a young girl who was immediately recognized by Langston Hughes, as well as by James Weldon Johnson as having the something that makes a poet.

Gwendolyn was in a remarkable situation as an observer of Bronzeville’s day-to-day life. She had worked as a secretary for a fortune-teller whose office was on the street floor of Mecca Flats. It was a huge housing complex, created before the New Deal and public housing came into being. With her gimlet eye and her compassion, she saw the daily comings and goings of the anonymous thousands.

She was to become our state’s Poet Laureate. Her poems, which she offered with the naturalness of an Eleanora Duse, played a public role in many of our city’s historic events. Who can forget her readings during the two inaugurals of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor? They were remarkable moments in our city’s history, which would have been more so had he survived his second term. She had poems for every occasion, but there is one I must recount before I read two of her brief ones and call it quits. Picasso had presented a statue, a gift to Chicago. It was to be unveiled in a public square, adjacent to City Hall. The then Mayor of the city, Richard Daley, the elder, urged (to put it mildly) all the city employees to be in attendance. There were thousands of Chicagoans in the plaza, half of whom were city employees. The statue was still not visible; it was covered by a huge white sheet. I remember Gwendolyn’s last words of the poem she read, standing before the hidden wonder: art hurts/art urges voyages. The sheet was pulled off and we all saw the statue. There was dead silence from the assembled multitude. I asked one of the city employees, “What do you think of that?” “Think of what?” “The Picasso, the statue.” A long reflective pause. His response: “I don’t know but if it’s good enough for Mayor Daley, it’s good enough for me.” This is when I realized that our city’s Mayor had not only the number one clout in town but he was the arbiter of our city’s culture.

Gwendolyn Brooks had been a guest on my radio program numerous times. She had won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection, Annie Allen. Her A Street in Bronzeville, The Bean Eaters, and In the Mecca Flats were equally deserving. The two poems I have chosen to read have especially touched me. The first is only 24 words. I call it her Bronzeville haiku. Though written years ago, its prescience is stunning. It’s those black kids on the corner, 16, 17, 18 years old. There they are, all that energy and no place to go. She called it We Real Cool.


We Real Cool
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

And that is it. As she speaks of a death that need not be, so she speaks, in this next poem, of life. (Gwen always spoke her words, never elocuted.) This is one she allowed me to read, though I was not in her league, because she knew how I felt about it. It’s called Rites for Cousin Vit. Cousin Vit was someone she says she met while working for the fortune-teller; someone all of us know; someone who lives at life’s full tide; someone who’s had her ups and downs, yet lives it to the fullest. In the words of Emile Zola, she, in effect, was saying, “I come to live out loud.” Living out loud, nothing could contain Cousin Vit, not even death.

The Rites for Cousin Vit

Carried her unprotesting out the door.
Kicked back the casket-stand. But it can’t hold her,
That stuff and satin aiming to enfold her,
The lid’s contrition nor the bolts before.
Oh oh. Too much. Too much. Even now, surmise,
She rises in the sunshine. There she goes,
Back to the bars she knew and the repose
In love-rooms and the things in people’s eyes.
Too vital and too squeaking. Must emerge.
Even now she does the snake-hips with a hiss,
Slops the bad wine across her shantung, talks
of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework, walks
In parks or alleys, comes haply on the verge
of happiness, haply hysterics. Is.

And that’s it. Talk about someone whose life beats death. Well, that was Gwendolyn and I thank you very much.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 9, 2002.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters