Can you name these women?
I cannot remember life without these sister-poets and writers. It seems their words have been with me all my life.
I was young–a preteen in most cases–when I was introduced to Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mari Evans, Sonia Sanchez, Toni Cade Bambara. I don’t remember how I came to meet them, other than through my thirst for books, which often led me to my mother’s or older siblings’ book collections.
I encountered others later–when I was in college and in graduate school. I even met some of them in person.
Their names and words became part of my literary vocabulary, reserved for sacred moments, quiet time. Me and my sister writers. Their words filled me and spoke to an experience akin to my own–of black women speaking, loving, empowering–alive and thriving in their own spaces.
Only the black woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.’ —Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South, 1892
How many did you know? Top Row: Louise Meriwether, Pinkie Gordon Lane, Johnnetta Cole and Paula Giddings. Middle Row: Pearl Cleage, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Toni Cade Bambara. Bottom Row: Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Mari Evans
We are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.
Sometimes, I look at my early poetry and wonder where in the world it came from. I led a rather sheltered life. I wasn’t on lockdown, but I certainly wasn’t allowed to run wild and free. Everyone had a telephone, so my parents knew where I was at all times. My subject matter came not only from what I experienced but for the most part from things I observed or heard–directly or indirectly.
I wrote the poem below shortly after I turned 16–or made 16, as we say in New Orleans.
All these little boys walking around
trying to be grown men.
dropping out of school,
making love, unloving
makes a man.
by their egocentrism,
they are first
in the unemployment line.
Gambling in the streets
with ill-gotten money.
They are “kool,”
but their tempers are hott!
They have no goal in life,
not an aim
or a dream.
They only want to live
well enough to get by.
They know nothing of
a ladder of success.
Success to them is survival.
Sure, I was aware of guys who hung out all day and didn’t go to work or school, but these guys didn’t have girlfriends, “lovers,” or “hott” tempers [that I knew of]. I didn’t know them to shoot dice or smoke marijuana, so I’m not sure where this poem came from–perhaps from the books I read. I was very much into Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin during my teen years, but I don’t think this came from them.
Now that I think about it. . .maybe the influence was Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.”
My friend, Cy, “wishes [she] knew more of what [I] was thinking when I wrote this because it is not such a positive picture.”
I wish I could go back and tell my younger self to take notes on the poems I write, so decades later I wouldn’t have to respond, “I wish I knew too!”
Like the Rita Dove piece I blogged about several months ago, the Gwendolyn Brooks portrait above is part of a 24-poet/panel masterpiece by mixed media artist Malaika Favorite which honors the history of African American poetry. The work was commissioned for Furious Flower, a conference held every decade (since 1994), that celebrates, stimulates, and encourages African American poetry and poetic voices.
Brooks (1917-2000) was a prolific writer with one novel and more than 20 volumes of poetry to her credit. She was the first Black woman to serve as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, now called U.S. Poet Laureate (1985-1986), and the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize. Her book Annie Allen won for the best volume of verse published in 1950.
Sometime between the ages of 13 and 14, I fell in love with the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Nikki Giovanni, and Gwendolyn Brooks. I gained access to these poets (and many others) through the book collections of my older brothers and sisters.
Gwendolyn Brooks was my favorite. I still know by heart “To Be in Love,” the first poem I read by her:
To be in love
is to touch with a lighter hand.
In yourself you stretch, you are well.
You look at things
through his eyes.
A cardinal is red.
A sky is blue.
Suddenly you know he knows too.
He is not there but
you know you are tasting together
the winter, or light spring weather.
His hand to take your hand is overmuch.
Too much to bear.
You cannot look in his eyes
because your pulse must not say
what must not be said.
shuts a door—
Is not there—
Your arms are water.
And you are free
with a ghastly freedom.
You are the beautiful half
of a golden hurt.
You remember and covet his mouth,
to touch, to whisper on.
Oh when to declare
is certain Death!
Oh when to apprize,
is to mesmerize,
To see fall down, the Column of Gold,
into the commonest ash.
I was “mesmerized” by the way she crafted language. I recall being moved by particular phrases–
you are the beautiful half/of a golden hurt
free/with a ghastly freedom
the Column of Gold/into the commonest ash.
And I was intrigued by how she used opposites and negatives to convey the beauty and pain of love and evoke a powerful sense of loss.
My own (early) poetry was very much influenced by Brooks.
Brooks would have been 101 on June 7, so in her honor, I invite you to read about her contributions to American literature as well as some of her poetry. To get started, see the links below:
- Life and Career (no poetry)
- Gwendolyn Brooks @ Poetry Foundation
- Gwendolyn Brooks @ Poets.Org
- Gwendolyn Brooks Resources at the Library of Congress
- Pulitzer Article on Brooks’ Selection
“The Sonnet-Ballad” by Gwendolyn Brooks
Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?
They took my lover’s tallness off to war,
Left me lamenting. Now I cannot guess
What I can use an empty heart-cup for.
He won’t be coming back here any more.
Some day the war will end, but, oh, I knew
When he went walking grandly out that door
That my sweet love would have to be untrue.
Would have to be untrue. Would have to court
Coquettish death, whose impudent and strange
Possessive arms and beauty (of a sort)
Can make a hard man hesitate—and change.
And he will be the one to stammer, “Yes.”
Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?