The coinciding of the anniversary (the golden one, though it feels strange to call it that) of the March in Selma, Alabama with yet another news report beginning, “A white police officer shot an unarmed African American male” prompted considerable comment over the past week, and a renewal of the protests that “Black Lives Matter.” It’s an important rallying cry, but not a new one—at least not ideologically. Black poets have been making Black lives matter for a long time. And they’ve been writing poems for children to show that Black lives matter precisely because those lives have influenced poets to find and celebrate their own voices.
Gwendolyn Brooks, for example, is a poet who spent her career writing about the ways that Black lives matter. And in her early career especially, the lives she wrote about were the ordinary lives, the tired and worn-down lives that were also starred here and there with joy. One of her first books of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945) contained word portraits of African American life in post-war Chicago. The poems in this collection contain a good deal of death and loss, as well as faint hope and plenty of everyday living. A Street in Bronzeville does not praise famous men (or women); in fact, the closest it comes to mentioning famous people is through namesakes that do not live up to their original promise. The cemetery in Bronzeville where African Americans are buried is named after Lincoln, and Mrs. Martin’s son, named after Booker T. Washington, gets a girl pregnant and refuses to marry her. The poems value the struggle of African American urban life, but several characters in her poems seem to question whether or not their lives make a difference (even if Brooks herself never questions that they do).
Brooks’s children’s book about the same place, Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956), offers a much more hopeful point of view. There is still death—“John, Who is Poor” has a father who is “dead and done”—but there is much more beauty, seen through the children’s eyes in the snow, in a puppy, in the games of their imaginations, and in each other. A Street in Bronzeville contains many anonymous residents, but the Bronzeville Boys and Girls all have names, and their names are the titles of the poems. They all matter, whether poor or rich, imaginative or dull. Additionally, uncles, aunts, and parents (even the weary ones) are people to look up to for these child characters. And the one time that a famous person is mentioned, it is not as dead-end or a fallen namesake, but as inspiration. In the poem “Gertrude” the title character is so moved by the singing of Marian Anderson that her “Heart is like the flying air.” The great singer’s voice matters precisely because it matters to a little girl.
Another little girl who was inspired enough by Black lives that she went on to write about them is the poet Jacqueline Woodson. Woodson’s autobiography-in-poems, Brown Girl Dreaming (Penguin, 2014), begins with a very self-conscious roll call of the Black lives that mattered to everyone at the time that Woodson was born in 1963: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, James Baldwin. But after using these names to frame and set the scene for her childhood, Woodson (like Brooks) largely leaves the famous behind. The book is officially the story of her childhood, but it is more broadly the story of African American families in the generation after Gwendolyn Brooks. Several members of Woodson’s family are described and depicted through their tragedies (divorce, poverty, lead poisoning, illness) but they are never, in Woodson’s eyes, tragic figures. In fact, she celebrates their resilience and the wisdom these “ordinary” people are able to share with her. These ordinary Black lives make Woodson the extraordinary poet she becomes.
Woodson does mention famous people who influenced her—beyond the litany of civil rights heroes listed in the book’s opening. It is significant that she names Black musicians, such as Sam Cooke and Sly and the Family Stone, but other voices are anonymous: “On the radio, a man with a soft deep voice is singing/telling us to have ourselves a merry little . . .” (128). Similarly, the books that Woodson reads or is read early on in her life are identified mostly by title, Winnie the Pooh, Hans Brinker, Swiss Family Robinson. This dynamic changes when she begins to think about herself as an author. She writes, and tells stories, throughout her childhood, but it is not until she sees John Steptoe’s Stevie (1969) that she realizes “someone who looked like me/ could be in the pages of a book” (228). In the very next poem, Woodson tells her family she wants to be a writer. Stevie, Steptoe’s first book (written when he was sixteen, and published before he turned nineteen), had originally been published in Life magazine. It was acclaimed (and occasionally criticized) for showing urban African Americans speaking in everyday language; because of this it seems at times dated now, and is not currently in print. But Woodson’s mention of Steptoe’s book as a turning point in her career as a writer demonstrates how critical it is for young people to be able to see themselves in books. After Stevie, Woodson said in an interview on adlit.org (http://www.adlit.org/transcript_display/3515/), “I could begin to find parts of myself in books that seemingly had nothing to do with me,” such as the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde, or the problem novels of Judy Blume. But seeing an African American child on the cover of a book let her know that her own story mattered.
The poetry of Brooks and Woodson highlight the ways that ordinary and famous Black lives mattered to them as poets and human beings. Their poems ground us in the reality of a racially divided America at the same time that they lift up our hearts like the flying air.