I have loved the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) since I first read “We Real Cool” decades ago in school. At first, her poems seem to offer an elegant simplicity. But the more one reads, the longer one sits with a particular poem — and I’m talking years — the more layers and shades of meaning one discovers. I was brought back to her again yesterday, during a trip through the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. In their “Struggle for Justice” exhibit, they display the bust, pictured above. (Photo credit: Robert Waxman)
For many who know her work, she might seem to be the least likely poet to be memorialized in bronze. But I think it is very appropriate. Her poetry is so earthy, breathing and talking right where we live, that some might feel the classic heroic sculpture of the bust does not fit her life or work. I say, her work will endure. So let’s memorialize her precisely in the way we have memorialized other literary giants throughout the centuries.
Brooks wrote of the many struggles urban African Americans, particularly women, faced in the first part of the 20th century. She wrote of struggle, hard work, violence, and prejudice of all sorts.
I met her briefly, when she came to the University of Notre Dame to give a reading. Before the meeting she met with some of the African American students who were having an internal debate about the terms “African American” or “Black.” She listened to their concerns for several minutes and then told them, with the kindness and clarity one learns from suffering, precisely which she preferred. In her reading that evening, she told stories about the lives of women in Chicago, women in violent homes, desperate decisions people have to make everyday. I recall looking around the standing-room only Library Auditorium as silent as I had ever seen it.
Even after she died, I felt she had an effect on me and my work. In the Spring of 2001, (she died in 2000) I was director of the Writing Center at Carroll High School, in Washington, D.C. We were deciding on the name for our literary magazine. Several students were in the Writing Center typing out poems for the yet untitled magazine. One of the students was sitting and reading her poem “MLK.” He read the last few lines aloud and then changed some of her words: He read:
“The word was justice.
So it shall be spoken. So it shall be done.”
Then he said aloud: “So it shall be spoken? So it shall be written.” They all looked at one another smiling, knowing they found their title. For the next nine years, “So It Shall Be Written” was the title of the school’s literary magazine.