By Yussuf J. Simmonds
This is the final week of Women’s month and students are about to return from their Easter break. Those who have accepted the responsibility as poets/educators–past and present–have created legacies that have delivered literary survival skills. This ‘Legends’ column is pleased to honor them and on behalf of all poets and educators, who for the most part, have also been mothers and guides in the first line of life’s defenses.
PHILLIS WHEATLEY was born a free spirit in Gambia, West Africa around 1753, but was captured and brought to America as a slave when she was about seven years old. (At that time, written birth records were not kept in Gambia, and as a result, the timing of her birth is a close approximation). She was bought by the Wheatley family of Boston, Massachusetts, who taught her to read and write–a rare phenomenon for Blacks at that time. Having an education introduced her to the world of poetry and she became the first Black woman to have her work published as a poet in America. She learned to read at an early age and was considered a (Black) child prodigy, an even rarer phenomenon.
By 1768, her work was being gradually noticed when as she focused on themes from the viewpoint of those in the early colonies. Wheatley praised King George III for repealing the Stamp Act in “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty.” Many of her poems then focused on famous personalities, religious, classical and abstract themes, and they were receiving widespread acclaim.
After her doctor suggested that a sea voyage might improve her health, she visited London in 1771. While there, Wheatley experienced unexpected warm greetings in contrast to the racial atmosphere that she had been accustomed to in America. As an educated Black woman, she was a rare specimen because she was viewed first and foremost by her race, and her other qualities were subordinated. (Wheatley had to defend her literary ability in court since white Americans found it difficult to believe that an ex-slave woman could write poetry. Her detractors included the governor and the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. When she proved beyond doubt that she was the author of the literary works in question, the detractors signed a testimonial document which was attached to the preface of her next book of poems.
Two years later before she returned to America, 39 of her poems were published in London; they included themes dealing with religion, race and morality. The Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth assisted her with the publication. One that stood out was “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” Because of her work, her popularity soared and it brought her writing skills to the attention of those who were in power including General George Washington. Eventually she earned her freedom, however for safety and security, she chose to stay with the Wheatley family. In addition to poems, she also wrote plays that reflected her surroundings and was a strong supporter of the independence movement. As the movement gained momentum, her writings focused in that direction.
Being a free Black woman, she was allowed to marry and she married a free Black man, John Peters. They had two children who died shortly after birth and when she became pregnant again, her husband deserted her. As a single parent, Wheatley struggled to support herself and had extreme difficulty in getting her poems published. There was not a great demand for poetry and a lesser demand for the poetry of a Black poet. That she was free did not matter.
After her last baby died several hours after its birth, Wheatley’s life spiraled downward. Alone and with no support, she moved to a boarding house where she died at the age of 31 from lingering complications of her recent childbirth.
Though she seldom referred to herself or her circumstances in her poems, one of the exceptions is “ON BEING BROUGHT FROM AFRICA TO AMERICA”:
Wheatley’s work has helped today’s genre of African American literature; she is recognized as the first African American woman to publish a book and the first to make a living from her writing. The University of Massachusetts in Boston has named a building in her honor and in 2002, she was named in the list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
GWENDOLYN E. BROOKS was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, the city whose name is attached to the greatest landmark Supreme Court decision, “Brown v Topeka Board of Education,” and she became the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Her mother was a schoolteacher and her father, a janitor who gave up his dream of becoming a doctor due to the financial constraints of attending medical school. Early in Brooks’ life, the family moved to Chicago where she lived almost all of her natural life that she considered herself “a Chicagoan.” Her school experience charted the course of her life. In her formative years, she went from a predominantly White school to an all-Black school, ending up in an integrated school. In 1936, she graduated from Wilson Junior College. This racial intermingling of school taught young Brooks lifelong lessons that she weaved into her life and ultimately into her poetry and writings.
When she was 13 years, her first poem, “Eventide,” was published in “American Childhood Magazine and that started her on her life’s literary journey. By 17, she had already published nearly 100 poems in her poetry column in the “Chicago Defender,” and she became familiar with contemporary poetry including the works of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and E. E. Cummings.
Brooks came to know the Renaissance poets, James Weldon Johnson (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”–the Negro Spiritual/Black National Anthem) and Langston Hughes.
In the mid-forties, she published her first book of poems, “A Street in Bronzeville” and from then she continued putting out literary work of superb academic quality for the next five and a half decades. Brooks lived a very simple and unpretentious, almost Spartan, lifestyle. Her outward appearance did not exude brilliance or portray her extraordinary, literary skills. Even when she won the Pulitzer Prize for her second selection of poems, her life did not change in any remarkable way except that she became more immersed in her work. So enlivening were her works that some has said that her writings appear to jump out the books and “struck my hands like to a thunderbolt. These poems seem to possess muscle and sinew that weren’t afraid to take the language and revamp it, twist it and energize it, so that it shimmied and dashed and lingered.”
Brooks was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her work in 1950–the first Black woman to be so honored for her poetry–and became an acclaimed poet and one of the most prolific and gifted writers of the 20th century. Brooks has helped to inspire a generation of writers, artists and musicians with her gifted words and the influence of her poetry extends far beyond her written words. There is poetry in today’s Rap and Hip-hop; yesterday’s Rhythm & Blues, Soul and Rock ‘n Roll music; and it will be in whatever future artists produce in music.
President Kennedy invited her to read at a Library of Congress poetry festival in 1962 and after publishing “Selected Poems” in 1963, Brooks secured a teaching job, a poetry workshop, at Columbia College in Chicago.
The Second Writers’ Conference at Fisk University in 1967 was a turning point in her career. There she became involved in the Black Arts movement as one of the most visible articulators of the Black Aesthetic. At this juncture, some critics sensed an angry tone in her work, parallel to the Black wave of protest across the country. An awareness of social issues appeared to dominate her “new” style of writing and it became more noticeable and forceful as time progressed.
Though Brooks began to be described publicly as an angry poet, she was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968. Then she successfully ventured into prose with remembrances and reflections “Report from Part One” and “The World of Gwendolyn Brooks.” This versatility was continued with numerous recordings and interviews primarily about her life and creative work. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, she has received a number of awards, fellowships, and honorary degrees (Doctor of Humane Letters), besides grants and foundation awards from the likes of the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
She did not like the term ‘African American.’ In an interview in 1994, Brooks stated that she preferred the word/term B-L-A-C-K instead of African American when referring to Black people; and she also believed that ‘Black’ should be capitalized when referring to Black people. She said, “The Black spirit fought so painfully to get ‘colored’ and ‘negro’ capitalized and ‘Black’ capitalized. Newspapers and magazines, in referring to Black people as Blacks still refuse to honor the notion of respectable and respected identity, and insist on spelling Blacks with a little ‘b’.”
Finally, though Brooks had studied some of the great poets and writers, and was influenced by some of the best, she was not a mirror image of any one of her contemporary. She was in a class by herself; she set her own standard, and marched to a different and unique drumbeat.
Brooks married Henry Blakely in 1938 and they had two children: Henry Jr. (1940) and Nora (1951). She died on December 3, 2000, after a short bout with cancer. The city of Chicago and the State of Illinois have named several schools in her honor including Gwendolyn Brooks Elementary School, Aurora; Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, Chicago, Illinois; Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, Harvey; Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, Oak Park; Gwendolyn Brooks Illinois State Library, Springfield. In 2002, she was named one of the 100 Greatest African Americans.
MAYA ANGELOU ranks today as one of the great poets and since her work is still in process, she may yet be the greatest poet that ever lived. Her resume can only illustrate a peep at the magnitude of her being and her accomplishments; she is an author, poetess, historian, stage and screen producer/director/writer, playwright, songstress and songwriter, professor, performer, editor, civil rights advocate and Tony award nominee. This is a partial view of Angelou, and she is continuously working and accomplishing.
She was born “Marguerite Johnson” in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928.
(She was celebrating her 40th birthday on the day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. This historical event played a significant role in her life’s path thereafter especially since she had known Dr. King and had worked with him at Southern Christian Leadership Conference). Her parents were divorced when she was about three years old and along with brother Bailey, she was sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. After about four years there, she and her brother moved again to Chicago to live with their mother.
Traumatized by an assault at an early age and in 1936, she was sent back to her grandmother’s in Arkansas, along with Bailey. For years she remained in her own silent world speaking only to her brother. Then in 1940, she and her brother moved to San Francisco to live with their mother. It is important to note Johnson/Angelou’s numerous moves because it is from that backdrop, that she has risen–and continues to rise–to unprecedented heights in her accomplishments. Her social life and upbringing was tumultuous; her schooling seemed to have taken a back seat and she dropped out of school to work as a conductor on the San Francisco cable car.
Despite setbacks, she graduated from Mission High School in 1945.
Gradually, her life began to stabilize, as she matured into adulthood and its responsibilities. She gave birth to a son, Guy and a few years later, she married Tosh Angelou. Her career as a multi-dynamo of talent began in San Francisco as she did one of her memorable performances at the Purple Onion nightclub. It was around that time she took the name “Maya Angelou” which was a hybrid of “Maya” (the name her brother called her), and “Angelou” (her married name).
Her literary involvements and artistic creations have touched many masterpieces: she has toured with Everyman’s Opera of ‘Porgy and Bess’; she was a member of Harlem Writers Guild; she directed and performed in ‘Cabaret for Freedom; and appeared in the play ‘The Blacks.’ But she is best known for her academic and literary body of work; most famously for her autobiographical novel ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.’ It was nominated for the National Book Award.
She has walked with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. In 1960, she married South African freedom fighter Vusumi Make and the next year, she moved to Africa. When she returned to the U.S. in 1974, President Gerald Ford appointed her to the Bicentennial Commission and a few years later, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the Commission for International Woman of the Year. The highlight of her genius as a writer and poet came when she delivered a poem entitled, ‘On the Pulse of the Morning,’ at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration at his request.
Angelou appeared in ‘Roots’ and spoke at the ‘Million Man March,’ a testament to her longevity and her staying power. Her collection of books and other literary and academic achievements put her in that rarefied stratosphere with the likes of Baldwin (whom she knew), Ellison, Wright, Fanon and Rogers just to name a few. Her close acquaintances are and have been the “who’s who” of Black women in America: Oprah Winfrey, Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott King, Johnnetta Cole and Cicely Tyson.
She has the ability to take something that’s great and make it excellent.
She reportedly stated that the title of her masterpiece, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ was taken from another masterpiece by the 18th century Black poet, Lawrence Dunbar, entitled ‘Sympathy.’ It is therefore most appropriate to excerpt a part of her famous work:
…….It beats bars and would be free,
It’s not a carol of joy or glee.
But a prayer that it sends from its heart’s deep core;
But a plea that upward to heaven it flings
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
NIKKI GIOVANNI once stated that marriage was inhospitable to women and would never play a role in her life and she had reportedly rearranged her life priorities to be able to provide her only son with the kind of motherhood in which she believed, saying, “I have a child; my responsibilities have changed.”
Life began for Giovanni on June 7, 1943, in Knoxville, Tennessee to Yolande Cornelia, Sr. and Jones Giovanni. Though she grew up in Lincoln Heights, Ohio, Giovanni returned to Fisk University where she earned a Bachelor’s degree with honors in 1967. During her undergraduate years, Giovanni became involved in the Civil Rights Movement as well as the Black Arts Movement.
She was equally focused on issues surrounding race as well as art, and began to emerge as a revolutionary artist–poetry being her medium. She was influential in organizing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on campus and edited a student literary journal. Afterwards she then enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania and then Columbia University.
About the same time, she published her first book of poems, “Black Feeling Black Talk” and within a year, Giovanni published a second book, thus launching her career as a writer. Other books of poetry followed in rapid succession including “Black Judgment” (1968) and “Re:Creation” (1970). She became a “literary giant” early in her career gaining a world-renowned status as a poet and was dubbed the “Princess of Black Poetry.” Her motives were quite clear: it was important for her work to reflect the need to raise the awareness of the rights of Black people. Giovanni wrote that if the Black Revolution passes you bye, it’s damn sure the White reaction to it won’t. She began teaching at Rutgers University in 1969 the same year her son, Thomas, was born.
The themes of some of her most notable poems can take a reader through periods of Giovanni’s contentiousness and her peaceful inner-being as a person all in the same reading with titles such as “Ego Tripping,” “Poem for Aretha,” (most likely about the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin), and “Woman Poem.” Literary observers have noted that they tell a story of events and experiences revolving around her life. “Poetry,” Giovanni has written, “is but a reflection of the moment,” and she expresses the world that she sees around her by making single moments historic and personal inflections paramount to all.
In addition to being a poet and a writer, throughout her career, she has also been a literary commentator, a social activist and an educator always insisting on presenting the truth–through words and deeds as she sees it–and has consistently maintained a position of prominence as a strong voice of and for the Black community. Giovanni was equally versatile in style and substance; she had the ability to write about social injustice and racial prejudice, while at same time writing books of poetry for children.
Since 1987, Giovanni has been teaching Writing and Literature at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia and is a Distinguished Professor of English. She has had some serious health issues that seemed to be hereditary having also befallen her mother and her sister. She was forced to give up smoking after she was diagnosed with cancer and had a lung removed. Not taking a defeatist attitude about health in general and cancer in particular, Giovanni reportedly made an inner truce with her cancer stating that she would like to live with it–in remission, of course–for the next 30 years, and has written, “Breaking the Silence: Inspirational Stories of Black Cancer Survivors.”
Through the decades, Giovanni’s writing has continued to inspire entertainers, artists and activists. She has memorialized the late Tupac Shakur in her book “Love Poems” and has stated she would “rather be with the thugs than the people who are complaining about them.” Giovanni also continue to speak out against hate-filled violence such as the 1998 murders of James Byrd, Jr. (the dragging victim in Texas) and Matthew Shepard (the gay victim of a beating in Wyoming).
She ended the 20th century with “Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni” (1996) and “Blues for all the Changes” (1999). In 2004, her album “The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection” was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album and in 2008 her “Sounds that Shatter the Staleness in Lives” was developed as part of the Soundscapes Chamber Music Series.
Giovanni was present at the Virginia Tech campus when the shooting rampage occurred in 2007 and while speaking at a commemoration of the tragedy, she chanted a poem: “…We know we did nothing to deserve it. But neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS. Neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by a rogue army. Neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory. Neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water…We are Virginia Tech…We will prevail.”
Despite the trauma, she has decided to stay at Virginia Tech, but she has also divided her time with her alma mater in Tennessee as a visiting professor where she teaches a writers’ workshop, and is contemplating a series of outreach classes to the community on Writing and Poetry. She was commissioned by National Public Radio to create an inaugural poem for President Barack Obama.
SONIA SANCHEZ is one of the poets who is generally associated with the Black Arts Movement more so than any of her contemporaries. She was born Wilsonia Benita Driver on September 9, 1934 in Birmingham, Alabama, and has traveled not only through the world of poetry and children’s books but has also been on television, music and plays, having authored numerous books of poetry, books for children and plays during her professional career.
Sanchez grew up in Harlem and studied creative writing at Hunter College, New York where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science in 1955 and continued her post-graduate work at New York University. She formed a writers’ workshop in Greenwich Village which was attended by other notables including Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti and Larry Neal in addition to also forming the Broadside Quartet with some of those who had attended her workshop. She married a Puerto Rican named Albert Sanchez, hence her surname, but it did not last very long. They were divorced and she re-married. That too lasted for about two years.
In the early 60s as an activist, she supported the integrationist movement with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) but was soon frustrated by its lack of meaningful progress. She had heard Malcolm X speak and was influenced by his oratory which she thought was direct and truthful, and it moved her to write blunt, passionate and honest poetry about the Black experience in America. Sanchez latched on to the Nation of Islam’s belief that Blacks would never be truly accepted by Whites in America and it reflected in her writings. She began to focus on her heritage from a separatist point of view.
When she began to write plays, there was a distinct militant flavor in her writings. Her first, “the Bronx Is Next” (1968) and “Sista Son/ja” (1969) are peppered with militant themes. The first dramatized a plot to burn down a Harlem neighborhood and the second, highlighted “ghetto” despair. These were followed by plays focusing on Black male/female relationships, political representations and Malcolm X.
In 1965, Sanchez began teaching at what is now San Francisco State University where she was instrumental in developing its Black Studies program. She was the first to create and teach a course based on Black Women and Literature in the United States. Her travels outside of America in 1970s broadened her horizon and it fueled an anger, which was seething since the confrontations of the 1960s. She visited China, Australia, the Caribbean, including Cuba, and that along with her brief membership in the Nation of Islam crystallized her views on the world outside that she had gained from others.
Before moving to Philadelphia in 1977 where she became the first Presidential Fellow at Temple University, Sanchez had already held teaching positions at the University of Pittsburgh, Rutgers University, Manhattan Community College and Amherst College, and had lectured at several hundred others including Howard University, Morehouse University and Spelman College. She had always identified with the plight of her community and was deeply affected by the bombing of the MOVE headquarters in 1985 and eulogized them in “Elegy: For MOVE and Philadelphia.”
She remained at Temple University as the Laura Carnell chair, Professor of English until her retirement in 1999 and then became its poet-in-residence.
During the 1990s, Sanchez appeared on the Bill Cosby Show. She supports the National Black United Front and has edited two anthologies on Black literature, “We Be Word Sorcerers: 25 Stories by Black Americans” and “360° of Blackness Coming at You.” Known for her innovative melding of musical formats–like the blues–and traditional poetic formats like haiku and tanka, Sanchez also tends to use incorrect spelling to get her point across.
She has been awarded the Community Service Award from the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the Lucretia Mott Award, the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Humanities, and the Peace and Freedom Award from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
The body of her work includes:
We a Baddddd People (1970)
Love Poems (1973)
A Blues Book for a Blue Black Magic Woman (1974)
Continuous Fire: A Collection of Poetry
Shake Down Memory: A Collection of Political Essays and Speeches
It’s a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs (1971)
Homegirls and Handgrenades (1985)
Under a Soprano Sky (1987)
I’ve Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems (1995)
Wounded in the House of a Friend (1995)
Does Your House have Lions (1998)
Like the Singing Coming Off of Drums (1999)
Shake Loose My Skin (2000)
Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam (2001)
Black Cats and Uneasy Landings
I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t (1982)
Uh Huh, But How Do It Free Us? (1975)
Malcolm Man/Don’t Live Here No More (1979)
It’s a New Day