First, let me say that my time with Gwendolyn Brooks was very brief. Only 20 minutes or so after her poetry reading at Southwest Missouri State University in the mid ’80’s. But it stuck with me. She had that kind of power and she was the kind of poet that you can’t really read. You have to hear her read it to really get the rhythm and power in it. Especially if you’re a white boy from the deep Ozarks. A great example is her poem “We Real Cool” which I heard her read at that event and was forever changed. But it was not her most powerful, and certainly not her most prescient work. The piece that I feel holds that honor is at the end of this piece.
My time in various universities has always been, I am finally realizing at the beginning of my final chapters, about deepening myself. Discovering the whys, poking at the scary dark places and challenging ingrained beliefs. Sometimes I found myself entirely incapable of doing that successfully. Other times I thrived. In my brief interlude with Ms. Brooks, I was changed. First, I knew, I felt, deep in my bones….I was in the presence of greatness. Second, I could feel a deep compassion and spirituality. You could hear her love of the boys in the pool hall in the work “We Real Cool”. You could hear her love of the human experience in nearly everything she read that night.
But what affected me most deeply, was her honest willingness to reject pomp and ego and just be in the moment with me during that conversation. She was, I suppose, somewhat fascinated by Halley’s Comet and it’s appearance that year and I had taken a picture that had been published as an astronomy student at the university. Someone introduced me to her and thus began a conversation about her poetry and my study of the comet. The head of the English Department had planned a VIP get together that evening for Gwendolyn, faculty and a few shining star students and she was, evidently, late as the Department head kept trying to rush her out of the conversation. Finally, Ms. Brooks turned to her and said very sternly “I am talking to this young man about the comet, they won’t run out of wine before I get there”. Honestly, I was embarrassed. I was not that important and here she was valuing our conversation in a way I didn’t feel worthy of.
But that is what impressed me most about her. Her honest fascination by people and their stories. This recent movement towards civility and the recognition of humanity and what it means led by Black Lives Matter has deepened much of my understanding. It has challenged me to look at my own upbringing as a white, educated, hillbilly. Growing up in the Ozarks I knew racism, or thought I did. What I knew was what it meant to feel on the outside when everyone assumed you would find their racist jokes funny because you had white skin. How it put you on the outside to call out the racism instead of just going along. But only in the recent months has my rage and anger over that racism that black America deals with truly deepened.
With some embarrassment I say I am only now discovering James Baldwin’s work and he is a force to be reckoned with. Part of this deepening pushed me to go back to that memory of Gwendolyn Brooks and re-read much of her poetry. This time, reading in the light of the newly discovered work of Mr. Baldwin, I reread her work “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed”. This time, it hit me like a brick in the face. The topic of racism did enter our conversation that night in the brief time we chatted. But it took more than 30 years for me to really understand what she could not share with me. Not because I would not have listened, but because I was white and young and could not possibly have felt her words.
She was patient, and kind, and beautiful and that is how I will remember her. But today, I see her as prescient and powerful as I reread this work:The Ballad of Rudolph Reed
Rudolph Reed was oaken.
His wife was oaken too.
And his two good girls and his good little man
Oakened as they grew.
“I am not hungry for berries.
I am not hungry for bread.
But hungry hungry for a house
Where at night a man in bed
”May never hear the plaster
Stir as if in pain.
May never hear the roaches
Falling like fat rain.
“Where never wife and children need
Go blinking through the gloom.
Where every room of many rooms
Will be full of room.
”Oh my home may have its east or west
Or north or south behind it.
All I know is I shall know it,
And fight for it when I find it.“
It was in a street of bitter white
That he made his application.
For Rudolph Reed was oakener
Than others in the nation.
The agent’s steep and steady stare
Corroded to a grin.
Why, you black old, tough old hell of a man,
Move your family in!
Nary a grin grinned Rudolph Reed,
Nary a curse cursed he,
But moved in his House. With his dark little wife,
And his dark little children three.
A neighbor would look, with a yawning eye
That squeezed into a slit.
But the Rudolph Reeds and the children three
Were too joyous to notice it.
For were they not firm in a home of their own
With windows everywhere
And a beautiful banistered stair
And a front yard for flowers and a back yard for grass?
The first night, a rock, big as two fists.
The second, a rock big as three.
But nary a curse cursed Rudolph Reed.
(Though oaken as man could be.)
The third night, a silvery ring of glass.
Patience ached to endure.
But he looked, and lo! small Mabel’s blood
Was staining her gaze so pure.
Then up did rise our Rudolph Reed
And pressed the hand of his wife,
And went to the door with a thirty-four
And a beastly butcher knife.
He ran like a mad thing into the night.
And the words in his mouth were stinking.
By the time he had hurt his first white man
He was no longer thinking.
By the time he had hurt his fourth white man
Rudolph Reed was dead.
His neighbors gathered and kicked his corpse.
”Nigger—“ his neighbors said.
Small Mabel whimpered all night long,
For calling herself the cause.
Her oak-eyed mother did nothing
But change the bloody gauze.
God love you Gwendolyn. I sure do.