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Elizabeth Meaders admits she’s a bit “eccentric.”
It takes seeing the world a bit differently to live with some 50,000 pieces of historic African American items and memorabilia — literally in every room — of her modest five-bedroom house in New York City. Walking the halls, browsing each room, the basement, garage, and closets is a journey through history, and an extraordinary learning experience.
Starting with her dining room table, Meaders highlights a medal honoring Crispus Attucks, the first American to die in the American Revolution, then letters written by Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and several American presidents. There are heavyweight boxing championship belts from Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton, Mike Tyson and more. Shackles and restraints worn by slaves, battle gear worn by civil war soldiers, even a hood and burned cross representing the KKK.
“It shows what the challenge was for those who were trying to catapult all the hate,” the retired school teacher explained. “These are unique treasures from the African American history trust. Each one of them a talking point and a documentation of important African American history.”
Perhaps the most obvious question that comes to mind is, “why?” Why are these treasures in your home, and not on display in a museum?
“I come from a family where African American history is very important,” she explains noting that her family can trace its genealogy to the 1700s, and that her great-great grandfather was the last slave freed on Staten Island.
“I know the significance of this neglected history,” she went on to say, criticizing the nation’s schools for not teaching enough African American history. “This has been a chore and a challenge I gave to myself and it has been a labor of love.”
As the tour continues Meaders points out flyers rallying passengers for the Montgomery bus boycott, Cab Calloway’s baton, a crutch carried by a wounded civil war soldier etched with war cries: “We’re fighting for liberty…” There are slave branding irons, a picture of an African American family at the St. Louis fair in 1902, Jackie Robinson’s American Legion hat, and much more.
Meaders claims she has been collecting items every day for the past 50 years, at memorabilia shows, from dealers, sitting in her rocking chair browsing catalogs, you name it. An appraiser who took a look estimated the value at $10 million.
“I’ve spent every penny I have, every penny I hope to have, every penny I ought to have,” Meaders proclaimed, adding that she’s refinanced her house a few times, and run up quite a bit of debt.
Her most prized possession is a civil war medal named for General Benjamin Butler, a white general who led a force of black soldiers into battle at a time when just about all of his colleagues refused to. Butler was said to have been so impressed with the soldiers, that he used his own money to buy extremely rare medals at Tiffany’s — only about 200 exist.
Why is it so precious to Meaders? “Because it’s the essence of who we are as a people,” she explains, reflecting on the troops bravery and valor. “Somebody has recognized it.”
But now, as the years have gone by, Meaders has come to realize it’s time to let go. She’s had offers to purchase parts of her collection. She has loaned items to museums. But she has refused to break-up what may be the most comprehensive collection of African American history assembled by a single person.
“It’s a journey through the African American experience. That’s how it was developed and that is the purpose,” she said. “The impact is the word comprehensive.”
Finally, Meaders took a comfortable seat at her kitchen table. Arranged before her were very personal contents of a time capsule that had been inserted into a Boston building in 1890 by members of an African American arts group that owned the building.
“When the building was torn down these things went into an auction. I jumped at it,” she explained.
Inside the capsule were business cards identifying the owners, various documents and writings about their lives, and a small centuries-old black Bible.
Meaders put on her glasses, took a deep breath and began to read a message scrawled on the first page: “May the truth it contains last when this structure shall have crumbled to dust,” Meaders read, her voice cracking with emotion, her eyes filling with tears.
For her, that’s what her collection, her life’s work is all about, the truth about the African American experience.
“May this collection exist when Elizabeth Meaders has crumbled to dust,” she whispered, hoping someone would hear.
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A half century ago, L.A.-based artist and Black Arts Movement icon Betye Saar created assemblages that challenged racist and sexist African American stereotypes. To paraphrase a popular sign from this year’s many women’s marches: It’s hard to believe she still has to protest this stuff.
At 90, Saar has made a career of empowering the denigrated and vulnerable, most notably black women. Her pieces often depict mammy dolls in acts of defiance: Aunt Jemima, in Saar’s representation, is a warrior and revolutionary freed from her status as the face of a pancake mix. (In 1972’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, one of Saar’s most acclaimed works, the mammy stands in front of syrup labels, carrying a rifle in one hand and a broom in the other.) Washboards, too, are prevalent in Saar’s art. Since the ’90s and as recently as this year, she has turned the ribbed panels into emblems of struggle, each festooned with Jim Crow-era imagery. Nearly two dozen of them are on display in Betye Saar: Keep-in’ It Clean, which opens May 28 at the Craft & Folk Art Museum.
Born in Los Angeles in 1926, Saar grew up in Pasadena but spent the summers with her grandmother in Watts. There she watched as Simon Rodia sorted through scrap materials and debris, carefully choosing pieces to construct his Watts Towers. Rodia’s methods, along with those of other assemblage artists like L.A.’s John Outterbridge and Noah Purifoy as well as New York’s Joseph Cornell, influenced the aesthetic that Saar is known for today. Her sculptures are in the collections of many major American museums, from LACMA and MOCA to the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This month’s CAFAM exhibition is the first West Coast survey of her washboard collages. As curator Holly Jerger explains, the assemblages are as much about poorly paid labor as they are about the determination to support oneself despite the income inequality that exists “historically and today.” Saar mines a collection of found objects and loaded imagery—photographic pieces, say, portraying black women at work or black men playing banjos—piled high in her Laurel Canyon studio and adds them to the vintage metal tools.
“Betye Saar is a griot,” says Karon Davis, cofounder of the Underground Museum art space in Arlington Heights. (She’s likening Saar to the traveling West African bards who were keepers of collective memory.) “Her assemblages are as rich as gumbo and will always be as sacred as our Southern hymns.” Saar might agree; she’s described her work as a way of “delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously.” In the sculptures lining the walls of CAFAM, relics of an unjust system are turned into a kind of incantation, the active and insistent variety that we might call dissent.
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Education—the answer to many of the problems ailing our country—is getting the least amount of attention from the candidates on the presidential campaign trail.
According to a November 2015 Gallup poll, only 4 percent of Americans consider education or education policy to be the most important problem facing our nation. Respondents instead cited the economy, poorly run government, immigration, gun control and health care of most concern. While I agree that these are important issues, we at 100 Black Men of America, Inc. (The 100) believe that without a quality education, many young people, particularly African Americans, will be condemned to lives of poverty, incarceration and despair.
As a nonprofit mentoring organization, the education of our youth is one of our top concerns. In our advocacy work, The 100 has sought to raise public awareness about the need to reform our nation’s education system, especially in predominately African-American and low-income communities where far too many of the schools are failing our children. We are working to ensure that every child, no matter their zip code, has access to high-performing schools. Schools with caring and nurturing environments, high-performing teachers, rigorous curriculum, and the proper materials and technology are some of the key ingredients to preparing our kids to successfully graduate high school, handle college-level coursework without requiring remediation, compete in a global marketplace and become productive members of society.
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May 27, 2017 Updated: May 29, 2017 3:28pm
Frankly, I’d like to start this column with a few choice words that wouldn’t be allowed in a family newspaper. But I’ll start with something positive.
At the end-of-school party for one of my daughters, I read a poem to her first-grade teacher, one of those rare educators – a child whisperer, really – who mixes discipline with love, respect and an uncanny ability to reach each child where he or she is, academically and emotionally.
The poem, called “Scaffolding,” by Seamus Heaney, is about the framework that goes into a structure that lasts. It ends this way:
So if, my dear, there sometimes seems to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me,
Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall,
Confident that we have built our wall.
To me, great teachers are the scaffolding, whose support, while temporary, builds a strong foundation that stays with a child forever.
The building metaphor also is an apt description for brain development in the first years of life, from birth to 5, when the mind’s architecture is formed. Connections are made, vocabulary grows, character traits emerge, and any kind of trauma – from hunger to neglect – can affect the sturdiness of that structure.
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It’s basic science. Ask any teacher, any pediatrician. It’s not a controversial concept, nor a partisan one. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott seems to understand how important this period is for children, so pivotal that he has demanded the Legislature fully fund his high-quality pre-kindergarten initiative. Again this session, lawmakers refused.
Of course, this was a session where legislators approved a budget with almost no new money for public schools of any kind but gave crisis pregnancy centers an extra $20 million to talk women out of abortion.
To be sure, there’s a genuine debate to be had about the definition of quality and which methods deliver lasting results. But science clearly shows that the best early education can ward off poverty’s effects: high dropout rates, drug abuse, welfare dependence and violent crime that can weaken society as a whole.
And it can save taxpayers billions, by reducing the costs of remedial and special education, crime, prison and health care. The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University has calculated that high-quality early education provides a minimum of a 350 percent return on investment.
Apparently, not everyone got the memo.
Debating the need
I’ve watched many hours of debate on my laptop this legislative session. But an interview Friday of several senators with the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith is the first that made me hit pause and scream from the top of my lungs.
As state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, lamented the under-funding of Abbott’s pre-K plan, explaining how such programs can help keep poor, African-American young men from the fate that often befalls those without access to quality education, fellow Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, could barely contain her laughter.
Smith asked her opinion.
“What a horrible world view,” she said. “To say that these kids who don’t go to pre-K are instantaneously gonna fail. This rhetoric that we have right now about this is unbelievable.”
She said there were statistics that refuted any that West might offer. Then she shared her own anecdote:
“I mean, I didn’t even go to kindergarten. And I’m a state senator right now. You know?”
Needing a ‘jump start’
West is an intelligent man, and a veteran senator. He’s also 6-foot-4 and played college football, but I digress. His restraint was something to behold.
“I respect your right to have an opinion,” he said. “… There are certain kids that need that jump start, so to speak.”
“At 3 and 4 years old? That’s what pre-K is,” she said, fully snickering now at the ridiculousness of it. “Three and 4 years old! I mean does everybody realize that?”
Yes, actually. Yes, we do.
“What are they going to jump start to?” she continued. “What are they going to do at 3 and 4 years old?”
Well, for one, hear words, many words. Research suggests that children in poverty hear tens of billions of fewer terms in the first few years than children with educated parents. That “word gap” is something from which many never recover. And an early positive association with books can last a lifetime. Academics aside, any pre-K parent can attest to the non-cognitive stuff: social skills, problem-solving, emotional control and character-building that goes on in early-childhood classrooms.
Many parents choose to teach these lessons at home – nobody’s forcing pre-K on anybody. In Texas, we don’t even require kindergarten. For those who need help, though, it should be there. Again, we all benefit.
Opening one’s mind
As for Burton, her ears seemed to perk up when West explained that sometimes, in poverty, we have parents who don’t know how to be parents, some who have assumed the role before even graduating high school.
“I agree with you,” Burton said. “So, pre-K is the answer?”
“It’s part of the answer,” West said. He didn’t have time to explain all the reasons why.
Carol Shattuck offered to help. The CEO of Collaborative for Children,a nonprofit that supports early education, invited Burton and others who doubt the value of pre-Kto visit classes in the fall.
“I’ll be happy to organize the tour!” she said.
That value is also covered in Paul Tough’s excellent book, “How Children Succeed.” But a book like that, which uses facts, data and science to help us contemplate solutions for children who desperately need them, isn’t for everyone.
It requires a certain level of open-mindedness and curiosity – a few things some of us picked up in kindergarten.
Seven months after the birth of her first child with Will Swenson, Audra McDonald is going full-speed in many directions.
Friday night, she brought her trio to the Music Center at Strathmore in suburban Washington, D.C., for an evening of American musical standards.
Last year she headlined “Shuffle Along,” George C. Wolfe’s ambitious adaptation of a forgotten 1921 show that pioneered black artists on Broadway, until she stepped away, unexpectedly pregnant with her second daughter at 45. She played Madame de Garderobe in Disney’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast” and has another project in the can, a movie of Michael John LaChiusa’s 1994 off-Broadway “Hello Again.” This treatment of the 1897 sexual circle “La Ronde” debuts June 4 during the Toronto LGBT Film Festival; McDonald’s romantic partners are played by Cheyenne Jackson and Martha Plimpton.
Next month McDonald – who grew up in Fresno –will be in London’s West End reprising her performance as the late-career Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” – another haunted, addicted figure after McDonald starred in the controversially revised “Porgy and Bess.” She won Tony Awards for both roles, making her the most decorated Broadway performer ever.
Recently she found a few minutes to chat by phone with The Washington Post’s Nelson Pressley from another dot on the concert route (Los Angeles) about all this performing, and about her well-known activism – find her on Twitter: @AudraEqualityMc.
Q: Who has been harder for you to live with: Bess, or Billie?
A: Actually, James Baldwin wrote that Billie Holiday should have played Bess in the film. I try to leave them at the theater as much as I can. They’re both heavy. Billie is harder; it’s just me and the band, so in some ways it’s heavier lifting. “Porgy and Bess” has a huge cast, lots of characters.
Q: The movie “Hello Again”: How musical is it, how racy is it?
A: It’s very musical, and I haven’t seen everything, but it’s one of raciest things I’ve ever done. I had a great time doing it. It seemed like all my scenes were shot very late at night, so there was a like dream-like quality to my time on the set. It was shot all over New York City.
Q: “Shuffle Along” is still on your website. Will we ever see another full-blown production of that?
A: I’m sorry it didn’t run longer. It was an incredible piece of theater, and I was proud to be part of it. George Wolfe is forever not only the artist and the leader and the mentor, but the educator, too, making all of us aware of this incredible group of people that history had forgotten. I would hope it would have a life down the road.
Q: What’s your favorite music to sing now?
A: Right now, I have about six more concerts singing this repertoire I’ve been doing a couple years. Then I’m going to move on, and in another year or so I’m starting a new concert.
Q: What’s motherhood like at 46? Does Sally travel?
A: Yes. She’s 6 months old. She’s sleeping in the hotel room now. I just stepped out onto balcony to talk to you.
Q: Was there a specific turning point for you about being public in your stances? You’ve long advocated for Marriage Equality, and you’re active with Covenant House (a shelter for homeless youth in New York City).
A: Basically when I joined Twitter, because of that terrible Proposition 8 in California (banning same-sex marriage). The fact that so many of my friends and family were affected, I was devastated. I felt I had to speak up.
Q: Can you translate that into performance?
A: I certainly find a way to talk about what I believe in during my concerts. I understand I have fans who might disagree, but … they’re coming to see me. I’m not there to lecture, but I make it known. Sometimes I have to find more universal ways to talk about what I believe in. Because most people believe in human dignity and love, maybe in some of my concerts I can change some people’s minds, or open their minds little.
That is always in back of my mind, what legacy I’ll leave my children and grandchildren. Will they see that great-grandmom was loud about what people needed to be loud about? There are different ways of doing that – whether in concerts, or the work I do on the national board for Covenant House, or marching or donating, whatever, whenever. Trying to be a good citizen of the human race.
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(Black PR Wire) Freeform, Disney’s young adult television and streaming network, continues to grow its roster of original series by ordering scripted comedy “college-ish” (working title), a spin-off of ABC’s award-winning hit serie
Motivational speaker Mubita Nawa spent nine years in the United States of America. His attempts to become a close associate of influential pastor TD Jakes did not yield much success. He returned to Zambia on some visit, but because he had overstayed his initial visa, he was denied a second visa by the US Embassy in Lusaka.
Fortunate for him, he re-discovered his form through motivation speaking and earned some capital to invest in some businesses, which have so far flourished. He took some time to advise Zambians he cleverly tells are suffering in the United States of America and should therefore come back.
10 Reasons Why You Must NOT GO to America
This is not an anti – America campaign. This is a pro – Africa inspiration. Some will accuse me of being unfair because I lived in the USA for nearly nine years. I believe with all my heart I am the right person to advise you because I have seen both worlds.
1. MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT AMERICA
Many people think America is cheap and easy. On the contrary American lifestyle is so stressful. If you are broke in America you are doomed. If you are broke in Africa you can get help from friends and family.
2. LEGAL BOTTLENECKS
Since September 11th 2001 the legal environment in the USA is hostile to foreigners. The luckiest people in America are those who went there before 2001.
3. IT’S EXPENSIVE
It costs $100 to apply for a visitors visa. I know a person who applies every six months. He has spent over $3,000 in visa applications money which he could use to start a business. The air tickets to America are high for a reason; they don’t want poor people there. In Africa you are celebrated. In America you are tolerated.
4. IT’S BETTER HERE
There are some successful Africans in America. Nigerians in particular are doing well. But many Africans in the USA are not doing too well. Mexicans are earning more now than even the African Americans.
In the nine years I lived in the USA I never had a maid. I couldn’t afford one. In the nine years I have lived in a Zambia even my maids have maids. My garderners have gardens. My drivers will soon own cars. In America we seek empowerment. In Zambia we empower others. What we seek in America can be found in great books. What we have in Africa waits for no one.
5. A FAILURE IN AFRICA MAY STILL FAIL IN THE USA
Indeed expectations can change results. Some people are going to America because they think it’s easier there. It’s not. If you are unemployed in Africa you will be unemployed in the USA.
I would like to invite all Americans to come and live in Africa in particular in Zambia. Health care is cheap here. You don’t have to see a doctor just to get medication for a headache. Here you live on a big yard with a stream demarcating your plot from your neighbours. Your two years salary can buy you a beautiful house here. You don’t need 30 years to buy a house that will fall apart after you pay off your mortgage.
6. TIME IS MONEY
It used to hurt me everytime I visited Zambia. My friends had built houses (fully paid for), were now managers and more settled than me who was still in an apartment. It was so discouraging. In fact there was never a flight back to America that I was not depressed. I was famous in Zambia but a ‘no body’ in the USA. When I returned to Zambia nine years ago I didn’t even have a car nor a house. All I had was an American accent.
7. IT’S FASTER HERE TO GET RICH
If you start a business here in Africa with $1,000 your money will double and quadruple quicker than the person in the USA who will invest the same money at the same time as you.
8. GO TO AMERICA ON HOLIDAY
America is better when you are a tourist. Go visit Florida, New York or any other place as a visitor. You will enjoy America most. Bishop Joe Imakando visited me in Dallas in 2006. He slept at one of the best hotels in Dallas. A hotel I had never even eaten lunch from. It hit me then. I was in the wrong country; a country I could brag about but couldn’t afford to live in.
9. FOLLOW YOUR BLESSING
Your blessing is in Africa. Africa needs you. Joseph went to Egypt as a slave, then a prime minister and still went back to Israel.
10. FIND A WAY TO WIN HERE
This is not an easy place. It’s dusty at times, corruption can be discouraging and so on. Politics here sucks. But it is the best place to be in the world. Ask Dangote. Ask MTN. Ask Supersport. These are African companies doing well in Africa. Africa is like a tortoise; slow at times but always sure.
If you want to go to the USA please do. When you get there and discover I was wrong then pray for me. If you discover I was right then pray for me still. It is your life and it is my opinion. But it is our wisdom together.
If you love American life and you are currently in America but want to come home and don’t know where to start from please come. Home is home. Come home where you are free to move around, to travel and to be at family events. Nine years ago I had nothing. I started with on $130 and I have built some amazing enterprises with my wife. I was ashamed at first but I am ok now. Come home where you belong.
Come home we eat Ziwaya together. Come home we drive on our narrow roads with full tanks in cars paid for by cash. Come home we attend family weddings we sing “namonga” together. You are welcome here now. Come home we live in our Chalala homes without aircondition and without a mortgage. Come home where we only have debit cards and no credit cards. Come home where we can all rebuild our lives, communities and economies.
God bless and thank you.
Feel free to share this with a friend or two.
In 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African-American to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Hers was a Pulitzer in poetry, specifically for a volume titled Annie Allen that chronicled the life of an ordinary black girl who grows up in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s famous South Side.
Brooks was in her living room when she learned she’d won, she recalled in a Library of Congress interview, and it was growing dark. She didn’t turn on the lights, because she knew what would happen. Money was tight, and the bill hadn’t been paid.
She also knew that her Pulitzer made her something of a unicorn, and began to worry about what was going to happen when word got out.
“The next day, reporters came, photographers came,” she recalled. “And I was absolutely petrified. I wasn’t going to say anything about the electricity. But I knew when they went to plug in their cameras and all, nothing was going to happen.”
The photographers came. They plugged in their lights. The living room was sufficiently illuminated. Someone — “I never did find out who” — had quietly paid the bill. The universe had made sure that Gwendolyn Brooks, so generous to others, was taken care of. In a way, it was life imitating art imitating life: she mostly wrote about everyday people with everyday problems, in language that varied from the classic to the colloquial.
Brown girl in Bronzeville
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kan., but she moved to Chicago with her parents, Keziah and David, when she was 5 weeks old. The Brooks family joined thousands of black families that were streaming into the city’s South Side, part of the Great Migration that would transform many large American cities north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Segregation confined the new arrivals to the South Side, where they created parallel institutions to the white ones that excluded them. Young Gwen came from a family of readers and book lovers, and announced early on that she intended to become a poet.
Her mother encouraged her, and helped Gwen send her poems to magazines and to the Chicago Defender, the legendary black newspaper whose anti-lynching editorials were known in black communities throughout the country.
In the 1930s, she received encouragement from the great James Weldon Johnson, and from Harlem Renaissance icons Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Poet and biographer Angela Jackson says Brooks was published regularly in the Defender for several years, but the Pulitzer gave her a whole new kind of fame.
“The fact that she was the first African-American to be awarded the Pulitzer made her notoriety go through the roof,” Jackson said.
“Kindness was her religion”
The award, and the financial reward that accompanies it, came at a time when Brooks and her husband, Henry Blakely, had a young son, Hank. Soon after, baby sister Nora arrived. Mothering took up a fair amount of time, but when the children were a bit older, Brooks continued giving readings, and she also began to teach. Nora Brooks Blakely remembers when her mother taught at three colleges concurrently: “That Christmas, suddenly the Christmas presents changed … she just had a happy little fit, where she only got presents from Marshall Field’s and C.D. Peacock.”
Brooks loved being able to do nice things for other people, even though she did not live a lavish lifestyle herself. “It was more important to help a writer than to have the latest Nike or pair of shoes or Gucci bag or whatever, so that’s what she spent her money on,” Blakely says. The prize money funded poetry prizes Brooks created to encourage aspiring poets — especially children. It also took the pressure off people who were trying to write. “There were people she gave rent to, gave car payments to,” Blakely remembers. “She gave chunks of money and just said ‘I think this will help.’ “
“Kindness was her religion,” says Haki Madhubuti, director of Third World Press, in Chicago.
Madhubuti met Brooks in the early ’60s, when he was a young veteran writing poetry in Chicago. He’d read her in anthologies while he was in the service. “Like so many young poets at the time, I was in awe of her, her craft and her commitment to the black community.” In his early career, Madhubuti was published under his birth name, Don L. Lee. But as a key member of the Black Arts movement — a contingent of artists, playwrights, poets and writers whose work reflected the cultural side of the growing Black Power movement, he chose a name that reflected his African heritage. He and Brooks grew as close as family — she often referred to him as her “other son.” She would later say he drew her into this new cultural circle and she felt reborn. Her poetry became more urgent, more pointed.
She, in turn, was celebrated by what she fondly called “the riotous young people” who gathered at her home for long, often passionate discussions about black life, politics and culture. Black cultural celebrities of all sorts came by to visit the Blakelys: They held a party for Langston Hughes that was standing room only. It was less throw-down, more salon: ideas were exchanged and vigorously debated over food and drink. “I remember James Baldwin coming through the front door,” Nora Blakely says. She remembers Baldwin’s large, piercing eyes, “I panicked! I was just a little kid, and his eyes looked so big and commanding to me.”
When she taught, Brooks took the summers off, and would retreat into her home to enjoy reading and watching soap operas, rarely venturing out until summer’s end. Nora Blakely remembers that after she received her driver’s license, her mother sent her off to the grocery store. “Some of her grocery lists were poetry in themselves,” she laughs. “She would describe things like ‘bright, pearlescent, ruby tomatoes’ and so forth, to be very clear about what we were supposed to find.” (Those grocery lists are included in Brooks’ archives, at the University of Illinois.)
A global consciousness
Brooks also began to travel during those summers off from teaching. She visited Kenya and Tanzania, and enjoyed making contacts on the African continent. Later, she and Henry would journey to Ghana. “She was making global connections between what was happening beside her and what was going on across the world,” says biographer Angela Jackson.
This enhanced consciousness was reflected not only in Brooks’ poetry, but in her person. “One day we walked in,” Madhubuti remembers, “and she had a scarf on her hair … then she took the scarf off her head and she had a natural. She had a natural hairdo.” Brooks was no longer interested in the tyranny of the straightening comb. She even wrote a poem about it. “To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals” celebrates “the rich rouch right time of your hair,” despite a country whose aesthetic seeks to coerce kinks.
By the time Gwendolyn Brooks died in 2000, she’d been showered with prizes and prestigious appointments. She’d been appointed Poet Laureate of the State of Illinois, a position she held for several years. In that role, she became a circuit rider for poetry, crisscrossing the state, visiting schools, prisons and hospitals, reading her poems and listening to others recite them. (“We Real Cool” was a perennial favorite.)
She was the recipient of more than 70 honorary degrees from colleges around the country. And she served as a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress — the position that would eventually be renamed Poet Laureate of the United States. A writer’s conference was established in her name at Chicago State University. One year, Toni Morrison was the speaker, and the author told the audience she probably couldn’t have done what she did without Gwendolyn Brooks’ example and work to show her it was possible.
Despite all the accolades and literary fame, “she was very unassuming, very humble,” says fellow poet and friend Haki Madhubuti.
“Her truth-telling was relentless,” says Angela Jackson. But she didn’t sacrifice her craft to tell those truths. “She insisted upon an elegance of speech, an elegance of writing — a heightened language that pierced through to people to engage the souls of readers.”
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