Twenty years ago the El-Rukns were the Blackstone Rangers, King Drive was South Park Way, and nobody wore blue jeans to my school. Most of us straightened our hair, did the Four Corners and the Bop, and watched the Rangers congregate in the school yard wearing red tams. I remember the feeling in the air of transformation, excitement. James Brown hit the airwaves with a new record full of his usual thumping bass line. But with one difference: the lyrics weren't about cold sweat or popcorn. No, this time James Brown had gone political and the words he belted were "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud!" I remember the knot in my stomach the first time I sang along. Until then, "black" was derogatory; "Negro" was the way I had described myself my whole life. Suddenly everything was upside-down. Black was beautiful, and radical was chic. We all stopped straightening our hair. And the Blackstone Rangers danced on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Which leads me to Gwendolyn Brooks. "Until 1967 my own blackness did not confront me with a shrill spelling of itself," she wrote in her autobiographical Report From Part One. Yet by 1967 she had been publishing her poetry for over 20 years. Her work had illuminated the black experience in depth long before she crossed the threshold of consciousness, and the south side I knew was rhapsodized about in poems that included the Regal Theater, Cottage Grove, kitchenettes and vacant lots, people in the front yards living their lives vividly with grace. She had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 for Annie Allen and in 1969 became poet laureate of Illinois, replacing Carl Sandburg.
In more recent years, Brooks has served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (1985-86) and has started her own publishing house, the David Company. She has received two Guggenheim fellowships, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, the Shelley Memorial Award, and more. This Saturday, June 6, Guild Books will host a party for her and D.H. Melhem, author of Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice.
"I first met Gwen at City College of New York in 1971," D.H. Melhem told me. "I audited her class and it was a turning point, so important to my life and work." (Melhem is a poet and professor in New York.) "I wrote two books about my neighborhood. My work in that way is compatible with Gwen's . . . the local is universal. If you write about black life, you're writing about everybody's life."
Melhem is first-generation American, of Lebanese, Syrian, and Greek descent. The Heroic Voice is a biocritical study tracing the development of Brooks's work from 1945 on. She analyzes not only the structure and content of the poems but the social context of the years in which they were written. Her book is an excellent accompaniment to Brooks's Blacks, providing additional insight into the artist's craft.
"Gwen says, when life gives you a lemon, make lemonade," Melhem said. And that is the essence of Brooks's poems: page after page of lemonade. Melhem's study details Brooks's creative development and the different influences on her, including T.S. Eliot, E.E. Cummings, and Langston Hughes in the early part of her life and Amiri Baraka and Haki Madhubuti, among others, later.
"It was originally my doctoral dissertation. Then I discovered the difference between my dissertation, which was about 539 pages, and others. I had to keep trimming, revising it . . . you learn the most about writing by writing yourself. And perseverance is critical in anything you do, especially in writing," Melhem said.
In the early 70s, Gwendolyn Brooks gave a poetry reading at my high school, along with her husband Henry Blakely. It was the first poetry reading I ever attended, as it was for most of my classmates. By then we all had naturals and wore African beads and peace signs. A poem she wrote about the Blackstone Rangers still calls up those earlier days of change:
"Jeff. Gene. Geronimo. And Bop.
They cancel, cure and curry.
Hardly the dupes of the downtown thing
the cold bonbon,
the rhinestone thing. And hardly
in a hurry.
Hardly Belafonte, King,
Black Jesus, Stokely, Malcolm X or Rap.
Their country is a Nation on no map. . . .
Brooks will read from her work tomorrow at the Guild Books party, 3 to 5 PM at 2456 N. Lincoln. For details call 525-3667. Sunday, June 7, Brooks not only celebrates her 70th birthday, but in a ceremony at the University of Chicago will present awards to the ten best elementary and high school poets in Illinois, chosen in an annual contest. This year, as part of her birthday celebration, she will also award prizes to adult poets; these awards are financed by Brooks herself. On June 14, the African American Book Center will host a publication party for Brooks's Blacks, along with the Third World Press publication Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks edited by Haki Madhubuti. It begins at 2 PM at 7524 S. Cottage Grove; phone 651-0700 for info.
And on June 7 I'll be thinking of her blowing out the candles on some special birthday cake. And my wish will be that she reaches even more of us with her wonderful, heroic voice, echoing these times we live in so courageously.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.