Imagine an urban Chicago pool hall in the 1950s. It is daytime, and a group of African American boys is smoking and playing pool in their white t-shirts and newsboy hats. They are young and walk with a practiced arrogant swagger that demands attention. Gwendolyn Brookss 1949 poem We Real Cool is told from the perspective of such a group of young men. Her four short stanzas chronicle the false bravado of young men dancing their way to a certain disastrous future. The boys are skipping school, staying out late, drinking, and bucking the establishment while knowing the path they are traveling will lead to an early death.
Gwendolyn Brooks masterfully manipulates every detail of We Real Cool to reflect the defiant, nonconforming nature of the boys. One can imagine a group of seven young men snapping their fingers and reciting the words in unison. Brooks made no secret that her chosen audience was the black community and this poem is reflective of the troubled times in which they lived. In a 1980 radio interview with Henry Lyman, Brooks said the poets she associated with had a motto Black poetry is poetry written by blacks about blacks to blacks. ("Gwendolyn Brooks Captures Chicago 'Cool'") Careful word choice, structure and literary devices combine to mirror the pool players fatalistic resolve. We Real Cool is superficially a cautionary tale for those who choose ignorance and momentary pleasure over education. Upon deeper reflection, the poem serves as an artistic articulation of the palpable frustrations felt among a young generation without hope (Gates and Nellie 1630).
The mid-twentieth century was a tumultuous time in Chicago. The African American population had doubled during the 1940s. Racism, segregation, systematic unemployment, poverty and crime lead to frustrations overflowing onto the streets of Chicago and into black artistic culture. Gwendolyn Brooks was active in Chicagos NAACP and drew inspiration from what she observed near her small, urban Chicago kitchenette. Her tiny living conditions were the result of landlords divided existing apartments, making them smaller and smaller to meet the housing needs of her community. She said If you wanted a poem you had only to look out the window. There was material always walking, running, screaming or singing. (Gates and McKay) Brooks was committed to sharing her artistic gift with the African Americans and had a way of using words to shed light on the lives and issues relating to the black community. In a 1983 radio interview, Brooks shared her inspiration for writing We Real Cool. She was walking down the street near her home in Chicago when she observed a group of boys shooting pool. She said Instead of asking me, why arent they in school? I asked myself I wonder how they feel about themselves? ("Gwendolyn Brooks Captures Chicago 'Cool'"). In this way, Brooks answers the question through the narrator identified as the collective We in the poem.
Through calculated word choice Brooks reflects the boy's insecurities, feelings about authority and their lack of hope for a future. Each of the eight lines ends with a We after a period. There are a multitude of recordings available that enables a listener to hear Gwendolyn Brooks recitation in which she consistently pauses and says each We as if it were a quick exhale that invites the reader to take note. Brooks says this pause is to help the reader stop and reflect on the boys validity because she wanted to represent their basic insecurity, which they dont bother to question every day, of course (Stavros 1). These boys could represent any number of frustrated urban Chicago youth. They are choosing to live an unconventional life of their choice, instead of the repressed life chosen for them in a segregated society.
The importance and selectivity of word choices set the tone from the beginning. Much can be drawn from the subtitle, The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel.. James D. Sullivan compares the subtitles deliberate separation from the body of the poem and italicized print to chalkboard or graffiti. (Sullivan 1) It is as if this separation further defines the separation of the pool players from society. The word Golden could reflect luxury, beauty or prosperity, but when paired with shovel it takes on a more ominous meaning as one would use a shovel to dig a grave. This golden life the boys are living is full of fun and self-gratification, but will ultimately lead to an early grave. They Left School and the recurrent short lines written with single syllable words reflect the uneducated nature of the pool playing narrators. The use of simplistic words and irregular line breaks further separates the cultured reader from the unsophisticated pool players. Brooks says that the boys wanted to thumb their noses at the establishment ("Gwendolyn Brooks Captures Chicago 'Cool'") and she represented this establishment with the month of June. We Jazz June is best interpreted as the boys making light of proper society and the jazz music that, although an African American art, had made its way into popular society. This Golden Shovel and the inevitable fate it represents is finally acknowledged in the poem's closing line, We Die Soon. The destiny of those living a rogue life is voiced in a no-nonsense way, which is further reflective of the pool players feelings of self-doubt and self-depreciation.
Brooks draws inspiration from what she sees happening on the street in urban Chicago. What could she have seen that would make her think these boys are resigned to living a short, sinful life? We Real Cool reflects not only the hearts of young men but the environment that systematically crushed their spirit. The early part of the twentieth century marked a time of the mass exodus of African Americans out of the oppressive, Jim Crow laden South toward hope for security and prosperity in the North. World War I had reduced immigration and southern blacks were recruited to fill a desperate need for manufacturing workers in Chicago. Chicago segregation was less conspicuous than severe forced segregation of southern Jim Crow laws. Instead, there were residential codes in place that restricted renting to African Americans to an area of Chicago known as Bronzeville. (Layson and Warren 1) Bronzeville did not expand its boundaries to meet the growing influx of African Americans but became more dilapidated and crowded. The people of Bronzeville saw jobs disappear during the Great Depression and when the economy began to rebound white men were given the better jobs, thus reducing the black population to more menial service industries. These crowded, impoverished conditions in urban Chicago lead to a dramatic increase in juvenile delinquency among African American youth that would have been readily observed by Gwendolyn Brooks throughout the 1950s. We Real Cool speaks for those who feel they have no voice on the streets of Chicago (Layson and Warren1).
The pool players had stopped fighting to belong in a system that would not accept them. Clifford R. Shaw was a sociologist who studied delinquent youth in Chicago during the 1940s and 1950s. Shaw saw that these African American youth set their standard for success at the level achievable in white society. Because they were mostly excluded from politics and systemically restricted economically to boundaries controlled by the same white society lead to an inability to achieve life success. Shaw says In the face of such limitations it is obvious that the requirements levied upon the negro by the values of American society create psychological strains and burdens which a member of no other segment of the national community is called upon to bear. (Shaw 6-9) Reflecting on the circumstances of young men who have surrendered to the inevitability of their position in society gives a deeper meaning to the thoughts of the pool players in We Real Cool. They are cool because that is what belief is the best they will get out of life. Being cool, independent is a more desirable than adhering to their designated, confined place in humanity. Surely, they have grown up watching their fathers shine shoes and open doors in fine hotels day after day, all the while, knowing the languishing life of their fathers would be their fate as well.
Human nature demands that humans consistently strive to better their circumstances. Since the pool players are not welcome to participate fully in society they choose a challenge and subvert the restrictions placed upon them. The pool players have resolved to live a life of crime while they lurk late and carry on questionable activities at night. They strike straight which carries a double meaning of striking a ball on the pool table and striking deliberately at proper society. They sing sin meaning they do not just live their sinful life but revel happily in their defiance. They Thin Gin meaning they are drinking, but need to dilute the drink to have enough for the group. Thinning gin speaks to the solidarity of the group and their collective willingness to sacrifice for one another. They Jazz June and openly challenge accepted societal conventions. The last line the narrator simply says We Die Soon and openly accepts what the future holds. The poem has twenty-four words, and eight of those are We. The repetition of We is a powerful statement about drawing strength from their peer group. These pool players feel weak as individuals, but as a unit, their strength is a source of power. The collective We can live and die outside of societal norms.
The context in which We Real Cool is written and delivered is imperative to understanding its message. It is most important to have an understanding of which We represents and attempt, like Gwendolyn Brooks, to understand why they felt this way. Had We Real Cool been a song performed by Elvis Presley it would have been viewed as sad and prophetic. Elvis and his partying lifestyle lead to the death of a young superstar and the broken hearts of millions of adoring fans. James Dean could have leaned against his sports car and recited the words, smoke circling his head as he dreamily droned on about his rebellious ways. Instead, Gwendolyn Brooks wrote to her black community and for her community. This stormy history of Bronzeville in 1950s urban Chicago has been properly documented and preserved for future generations. However, it is art and literature like We Real Cool that gives color and heart to the nameless delinquents that would have been remembered only as a sad statistic about the number of unemployed youth in Chicago.
Gwendolyn Brooks achieved much acclaim in life as one of the most influential poets of her time. She won the Pulitzer Prize, was the first black woman to become poetry consultant for the Library of Congress and poet laureate for the State of Illinois. One of her dearest friends and fiercest champions was famed Harlem Renaissance author, Langston Hughes. In 2000, her obituary in the New York Times read Gwendolyn Brooks, who illuminated the black experience in America in poems that spanned most of the 20th century... (Watkins 1). Gwendolyn Brooks said in her 1972 autobiography, I wish to reach black people in pulpits, black people in mines, on farms, on thrones, not always to teach-I shall often wish to entertain, to illumine. (Gates and McKay) She not only reached the black community but reached across racial divides. Her voice will reach into the future where generations will hear the timeless words of We Real Cool that resonate with defeated hearts and illuminate the souls of young men in a place called Bronzeville.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. Poetry's Place in the History of Ban...
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