Amid the flurry of long-overdue changes triggered by last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests—initiatives to bring more people of color into writers rooms, awards eligibilities, fellowships, and mastheads—one moment stands out.
It’s National Book Award winner Elizabeth Acevedo, on video during last year’s ceremony, saying, “I am reminded of why this matters, and it’s not gonna be an award and it’s not gonna be an accolade. But it’s gonna be looking someone in the face and saying ‘I see you’ and in return being told that I am seen.”
That moment of mutual recognition is the brass ring for any writer. And I could go on at length about the many ways we might achieve it.
But instead, let’s just look at “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks:
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Brooks—Pulitzer Prize winner and civil rights activist—once said the best thing for her writing process was observing “life in the raw all around me.” But she did more than just take notes.
She speculated without judgment. Brooks said she wrote “We Real Cool” after “passing by a pool hall in my community one afternoon during school time, and I saw a little bunch of boys…and they were shooting pool. Instead of asking myself, ‘Why aren’t they in school?’ I asked myself, ‘I wonder how they feel about themselves?’”
And she also looked for the “public clamor” in the “private suffusion”—the ways our actions reveal our hearts. See how effectively, and more critically, she does this in “Riot:”
John Cabot, out of Wilma, once a Wycliffe,
all whitebluerose below his golden hair,
wrapped richly in right linen and right wool,
almost forgot his Jaguar and Lake Bluff;
almost forgot Grandtully (which is The
Best Thing That Ever Happened To Scotch); almost
forgot the sculpture at the Richard Gray
and Distelheim; the kidney pie at Maxim’s,
the Grenadine de Boeuf at Maison Henri.
Because the Negroes were coming down the street.
To celebrate Brooks’ 104th birthday this month, treat yourself to watching this fabulous animated video of “We Real Cool,” which re-creates the moment that inspired the poem, as Brooks herself reads it.
The ending is the perfect tribute to Brooks. As the pool players leave the Golden Shovel, they walk right by her, but don’t notice her. Except for the last boy, the smallest. He stops, turns, and gazes at her. Brooks lifts her glasses, and meets his eyes, and they stand there together for a moment, each one seeing the other.
Dean of Faculty