Remembering Gwendolyn Brooks

I first met Miss Brooks in the late 80s when I was an editor at Third World Press. In those days she was still living around the corner from Third World Press’s office, at  75th and Cottage Grove on the Southside of Chicago. Recently, Haki Madhubuti had begun mentoring me as a young writer and as one of several folks he saw as “the future of Third World Press,” which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary.

 
Having just published his bestselling Black Men: Obsolete, Single Dangerous?, and still at the center of Black political and cultural life in Chicago and around the Black world, Madhubuti’s influence and relationships with leading Black thinkers remained extensive since the Black Arts Movement.  While I was working at Third World Press, he regularly introduced me to a who’s who of Black intellectual artists, activists, writers and scholars.
 
It was not uncommon in the various roles I played at the Press for me to be in the room with Gil Scott Heron, Sun-Ra, Randy Weston, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Louis Farrakhan, Paul Coates, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Sam Greenlee, Ishmael Reed, Beverly Guy Sheftall, Murray DePillars, Mari Evans, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Margaret Burroughs, Bobby Seale, Conrad Worrill, Betty Shabazz, Susan Taylor, Ivan Van Sertima, Lerone Bennett, John Henrik Clarke, Frances Cress Welsing, to name a few, and of course, Gwendolyn Brooks.
 
Periodically, when Haki Madhubuti couldn’t reach Miss Brooks on the phone or if he had a package or letter or book he wanted her to have immediately, he would send me over to knock on her door. She soon moved to the Hyde Park neighborhood into an apartment that was more convenient for her as she was getting up in age. That is where Haki sent me to pick her up and drive her to her class she taught once a week. It was the first semester she taught at Chicago State in 1990. It was also around the same time when Madhubuti was laying the groundwork for the Gwendolyn Brooks Center and the Annual Gwendolyn Brooks Black Writers Conference, which would continue for the next two decades.
 
I would sit in on the class, which was a three-hour seminar. From Miss Brooks, I learned the importance of what she called “the economy of words.”  She would talk to me about the art of writing during the 30-minute drive to and from the evening class. She told me once, “like a great jazz musician, to be a great writer, you should practice everyday.” She also told me that until I reached the point of getting published, I should keep a journal and write in it daily. It didn’t always need to be something profound. It could be anything that caught your eyes on the news, or an aspect the simple routine of your day. But do it anyway because in the process you’re getting your chops. It’s a practice that I have continued to the present. Anyone who knows me well has seen me with these journals. I sometimes write lecture or interview notes there, along with countless reflections from the spiritual to the mundane. It’s a habit that for me started with Miss Brooks’ advice.
 
From Miss Brooks I also learned the value and importance of having a deep sense of humility. She wasn’t a flashy dresser. She wasn’t a braggart. This was a woman who won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950 and who saw it as an honor to live and work and write among everyday, ordinary people throughout the remainder of her life. This quality is unmistakably reflected in her work, from “The Bean Eaters” and “A Street in Bronzeville” to “Annie Allen.”
 
She once described me as during our talks as “self-possessed.” I never knew if she meant it as a compliment or as advice to shore up on my humility. I remember tilting my head and looking at her momentarily for an indication that never came. Coming from Miss Brooks, I took it as both.
 
Of all of her poems, my favorite remains “Primer for Blacks.” It is why to this day, I insist on referring to Black folk as “Blacks” instead of African Americans. Hers was a global, Pan-African vision. She was clear that we are a majority people, not anyone’s minority, and that we should take it in stride as a matter of fact.
 
The word Black
has geographic power,
pulls everybody in:
Blacks here –
Blacks there-
Blacks wherever they may be.
 
Blacks, she insisted, united us all around the world – with continental Africans and those throughout the African Diaspora.
 
A second of my favorite Brooks poems, one she often loved to read publicly, is “To Those of My Sisters who Kept Their Naturals” :
 
Sisters!
I love you.
Because you love you.
 
As a writer who came of age before the Black Power Movement, Gwendolyn Brooks was inspired by and wrapped her love around a new generation of revolutionary Black poets. She never shied away from the fact that they too had influenced and inspired her. It was a foundational aspect of her and Madhubuti’s decades long friendship. Her vision of teaching, mentoring, and living was steeped in reciprocity.
 
As we celebrate the life and impact of Gwendolyn Brooks on the occasion of what would have been her 100th birthday, and as we approach this fall’s Third World Press 50th anniversary celebration, I realize that I never thanked Haki for making me drive Miss Brooks to class. (So thanks, Haki, and thanks, Miss Brooks!) This was mentoring beyond mentoring. At the time, I remember thinking, “I just finished graduate school and you want me to be a driver?” What I didn’t realize then is that this was just the beginning of my education and immersion into an understanding of what it means to engage an independent Black intellectual life.