Gwendolyn Brooks, poet, author and teacher, received nearly twenty different awards and recognitions and was awarded more than 75 honorary degrees from colleges and universities all over the world and yet she never earned a college degree. I was most surprised to learn that Brooks, the first African American to earn the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, was not a college graduate. Maybe I was more surprised that she was Black and able to earn such an prestigious honor, considering we usually have to have four times “the qualifications” to even be recognized.
Nevertheless, when Brooks was asked about her education, she explained that she did not feel she needed a degree to be a writer. Brooks did not see herself as a scholar and most likely did not want to be limited or confined to the mores and routines of the “ivory tower” to do her work as a writer. Her poetry reflects the stories, struggles and triumphs of everyday people. Poems like, “The Bean Eaters”, “The Mother”, and “The Kitchenette Building” bring both delicate matters and the harsh realities of racism and poverty to light. Although a native of Topeka, Kansas, Brooks was a Chicagoan all her life and drew much inspiration from the lives of the Black women and men of that metropolis.
The poem that most of us may be familiar with is “We Real Cool” because it is often featured in a school’s literature anthology. However this poem I believe is not given its due application and analysis. Although it is a very short text , consisting of only eight lines, it is worthy of our examination as educators. This poem, Brooks explains, was inspired by seeing a group a young boys at a local pool hall during the school day. The poem dates back to 1960 but the characters it describes and gives voice to are very much like the young Black and Brown youth we teach every day. They maybe disengaged with school, they maybe rebelling against all authority, they maybe taking risks with their lives and ultimately falling victim to a system of racism, corporate greed and apathy.
I encourage you to explore the works of Gwendolyn Brooks that I have mentioned here and in her many anthologies and collections more deeply. There you will find gold. I have used her works in teaching classics like A Raisin in the Sun, If Beale Street Could Talk and numerous others. I believe Brooks’ works are an overlooked literary treasure to introduce to our students. Her work and voice are worth centering and celebrating in our classrooms.
Peace and love good people.
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