Poet Gwendolyn Brooks lived in Chicago, Illinois from the age of 5 weeks in 1917 to her death at age 83 in 2000.
Growing up, she attended both segregated and integrated schools and that gave her an understanding of the prejudice and bias in many American institutions. Brooks began writing early on and published her first poem at age 13. She continued writing poetry in many styles, with the support and encouragement of established writers like James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes.
At the age of 33, Brooks became the first Black person to win a Pulitzer Prize with her second book of poetry, Annie Allen, about the life and experiences of a young Black woman growing up in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s famous South Side.
Nine years later, Brooks was inspired to write “We Real Cool” after walking through her neighborhood and passing a pool hall full of kids. She said, “instead of asking myself ‘Why aren’t they in school?’ I asked myself 'I wonder how they feel about themselves?'”
Over the course of her long career, Brooks taught and mentored young poets, often taking the prize money from her awards and offering it as scholarships and financial support for younger writers.
The playwright Dominique Morisseau tells this story, “When I was in eighth grade the boys had to perform “We Real Cool” at our Black History Pageant. The way those boys performed that poem has stayed with me for the rest of my life. They were so good. At age 13 or 14 they understood the flip that happens in the poem. And that used to haunt me. I’ve taught that poem to teenagers. There’s some kind of ancestral power in it when I see it written. I used to write it on the board when I walked into a classroom and just let it live there. It’s magic to me.”
Source: Library of Congress
Click below for a lesson plan that was developed by Tokumbo Bodunde, an English teacher in a NYC public school, that connects Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool” to a parallel work by the poet and artist Eve Ewing. The lesson plan asks how we can use these poems to help students understand issues of race, segregation, and education.