Category: Books

At 100, Gwendolyn Brooks Still Inspires

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The late poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize. | Photo by Nora Brooks Blakely

Golden Shovel book .jpgTuesday, March 14, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews

The poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who died in 2000 at the age of 83, would have been 100 years old this year. In Illinois, particularly in the Chicago area, Brooks has become something of an institution. There are no fewer than five schools across the state named after the late poet.

Last month, the Art Institute of Chicago’s Rubloff Auditorium hosted all five living African-American winners of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the Chicago Tribune reported. The night climaxed with the tony crowd chanting Brook’s famous 1959 poem, “We Real Cool.” And that was just the start of a spate of Brooks centenary celebrations happening all over the state this year.

Beyond Illinois, however, the legacy of Brooks — the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first black woman to be appointed a Poet Laureate, a position she held in Illinois from 1969 until her death — can still sometimes seem unjustly underappreciated, says Peter Kahn, Oak Park and River Forest High School English teacher and Spoken Word Club sponsor.

That’s partly why Kahn set out to compile hundreds of poems, written by poets both famous and up-and-coming (including around 20 OPRF alums), based on lines from several Brooks poems, including “We Real Cool.”

The result is The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, which was published this year by the University of Arkansas Press.

“Golden Shovel” was inspired by a poem written less than a decade ago by National Book Award-winning poet Terrance Hayes called “The Golden Shovel.” The last words of each line in Hayes’ work are words from at least one line pulled from Brooks’ “We Real Cool.”

According to a description that appears on the jacket of the anthology, “The poems are, in a way, secretly encoded to enable both a horizontal reading of the new poem and vertical reading down the right-hand margin of Brooks’ original.”

Hayes writes the forward for the book and his “Golden Shovel” is the first poem in a collection of at least 200 other Golden Shovel poems by some of the greatest living poets in the country, including Brooks admirers like Nikki Giovanni and Rita Dove — herself a Pulitzer Prize winner and the first African American U.S. Poet Laureate.

Kahn said it took approximately three years of frequent emails and follow-ups to compile the book, which he co-edited along with poets Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith. The fact that he’s a teacher, he added, may have helped ease his pitch.

“In some instances, people would send me a poem on the day I requested it,” Kahn said last week. “In other instances, I emailed three or four times over the course of 2-3 years. I think mentioning that students were involved was helpful.”

The Golden Shovel poems by Kahn — whose poem, “Gray,” is based on a line from Brooks’ “Kitchenette Building” — and two dozen of his former students are also featured in the book.

For Chicago poet Asia Calcagno, who said Kahn introduced her to poetry while she was a student at OPRF roughly a decade ago, the anthology was as much an ode to Brooks’ life work as it is to her poetry.

“I think Peter cared a lot about getting different generations involved in the book, similar to how Gwendolyn cared about youth and the arts,” said Calcagno. “Peter didn’t just want popular poets but also young poets who are starting to come into their own voice.”

Calcagno’s poem, “Gravestones,” is based on a line from Brooks’ poem, “Riot,” about a linen and wool-clad, Jaguar-owning white man named John Cabot, “out of Wilma, once a Wycliffe,” who stumbles upon a group of “black and loud” blacks during a domestic disturbance.

One of the poem’s last lines, “You are a desperate man, and the desperate die expensively today,” runs down the left margins of Calcagno’s poem about a deep, philosophical conversation she once had with a friend during a smoke break.

“I don’t think I realized how profound [Brooks] was until I was starting college,” Calcagno, a former school teacher, said. “Her being a woman of color from Chicago who had a deep appreciation for youth and education and the arts — everything in my life has revolved around those things.”

Adam Levin, another of Kahn’s former students and his current Spoken Word teaching assistant at OPRF, said the opportunity to be published beside poets like Billy Collins, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, was “incredibly humbling.”

“I think it’s a testament to Peter, that he’d be willing to do that for his former students,” Levin said. “People like me almost never submit poems to anything for publication. He asked me to do it and stayed on me, having me re-write drafts until I had something worth being in the book.”

Kahn said he was simply taking his cues from Brooks, whom he met three times when the poet was still alive. Each time, he said, the poet exhibited the kind of humility and openness that endeared her to so many poets and non-poets alike.

“I was always blown away at her combination of being so humble, yet so fierce and so accessible and so genius,” said Kahn. “Those are words you wouldn’t normally associate with one another. She was extremely generous with her time and her own money. I think that’s partly why we were able to get so many people like Nikki Giovanni, who looked up to Brooks, I imagine, not just as a writer but also a mentor.”

Those qualities in the late poet may be what makes Levin’s Golden Shovel poem, “We were gonna go through with it, and then we lost it,” so profound. He borrows part of the last line from Brooks’ “The Mother.”

“Believe me, I loved you all,” writes Brooks. “Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you all.” VFP

P A I D  A D V E R T I S E M EN T 

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Maywood-born Author Publishes Guide to Black-owned Businesses, To Present During Dec. 30 Kwanzaa Event

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The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, published from 1936 to the early 1960s, was responsible for helping black travelers navigate the country’s roadways safely. | PBS || Below left, Tequila Sahaya Shabazz has authored what might be called a Green Book for the 21st generation, The Neo-Green Book. || R. Amon Photography/Facebook

tequila-shabazz-photoThursday, December 22, 2016 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews

In its heyday, The Negro Travelers’ Green Book was considered the “Bible of black travel during Jim Crow.” First published in 1936 by Victor Hugo Green, a black postal employee from Harlem, the Green Book was designed “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable,” according to Kathleen Franz’s and Susan Smuylans’ Major Problems in American Popular Culture.

Circulation of the book may have been discontinued shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but one Maywood-born author says that the book’s disappearance doesn’t mean that something like it is no longer needed.

TeQuila Sahaya Shabazz, the author of The Neo-Green Book, said in a recent phone interview that her book is a successor of sorts to the Green Book.

“This is the next generation to that book,” Shabazz said, adding that her work, which was published this year and is now available for purchase online and at select book stores (including Afriware Books in Maywood), provides information for consumers who want to shop at businesses that are black-owned, local and socially responsible.

“The Green Book published places where people could safely stop during their travels,” Shabazz said. “Today, we have to expose and highlight places that are safe to shop at. This is an economic war. There are companies we give our money to that fund the prison industrial complex [among other social problems that ensnare poor and minority consumers].”

Shabazz, 39, worked for 15 years in sales at various media companies, including the Chicago Tribune and PBS, before retiring in order to dedicate herself full-time to guiding people on ways they can “buy, give, love and live black.”

In addition to publishing the Neo-Green Book, which she plans on releasing quarterly, she also heads up the BRIJ Embassy for Black America, which Shabazz describes as a “cooperative of people who want to eradicate poverty and build wealth in black America.”

Shabazz said that she and her colleagues log how much money they’ve spent at black-owned and socially responsible businesses. They also conduct secret shopper visits to stores and analyze a businesses investment patterns, cleanliness and customer service, among other baseline indicators that businesses must satisfy if they’re to be included in The Neo-Green Book.

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Shabazz said she’s been gathering data herself for four years and has worked intensively at data-gathering with her colleagues at BRIJ for roughly a year. So far this year, she said, they’ve invested over $700,000 into businesses within black communities in metro areas across the country, including Chicago, Gary and Cleveland.

Shabazz will present a keynote address on Dec. 30 during the annual Kwanzaa celebration hosted by Afriware Books, 1701 S. 1st Ave. in Maywood. The event will be from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m.

The timing is particularly ripe, considering the village’s recent woes. Shabazz, who grew up in Maywood and the West Side of Chicago, said she was shocked to learn that Aldi was Maywood’s only full-service grocery store and dismayed when she discover that it would be closing on Christmas Eve.

How, she was asked, might she translate her philosophy of economic self-sufficiency to some of the residents of her hometown?

“First, you have to analyze your capital base,” she said. “It’s going to be hard work. It’s not easy and won’t happen overnight. But you have to know what human capital — what knowledge, skills, resources and tools — you have access to immediately.”

Shabazz said that Maywood residents should look to places in Chicago, such as sustainable farms and cooperative grocery stores, for examples of what economic independence looks like and for potential investment opportunities.

“How do we open grocery stores owned by the community and in which the community invests and receives the profits?” she said, adding that the key isn’t to protest or to pressure large private and public institutions.

“In the city, there are many areas without grocery stores, but people have created mobile grocery stores and opened up stores of their own,” she said. VFP

For more info, or to purchase Shabazz’s book, click here

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Maywood’s Fred Hampton Gets Shout-out in Searing Netflix Doc ’13th’ | Get the Authors Featured in the Doc at AfriWare Books

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fred_hamptonSunday, October 30, 2016 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews

The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, passed by Congress on Jan. 31, 1865 and ratified by the states on Dec. 6, 1865, states:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

A critically acclaimed new documentary, “13th,” which is currently streaming on Netflix, builds a powerfully drawn, engrossing argument for interpreting that pivotal amendment less as a decisive end to the immoral system of human bondage and more as a transitional point from one period of black indignity to the next.

The film was directed and produced by Ava DuVernay, the Golden Globe Award-nominated director of “Selma,” among other works.

When slavery ended, DuVernay argues, the systematic imprisonment of blacks began. And just as the mythology of black inferiority justified slavery, the mythology of black criminality has justified the mass incarceration of black people that, as of yet, has no historical end point.

The specter of black criminality has been ruthlessly deployed for numerous ends within American society: to secure free labor in order to rebuild the South after the Civil War; to keep blacks, who migrated to the North in waves largely to escape daily acts of terror, contained within pockets of great urban cities like Chicago; and to suppress acts of large-scale, organized dissent against oppression.

DuVernay’s “13th” is a devastating play-by-play of this history of criminality, played out over a soundtrack that is both haunting and transgressive.

There’s a clear line, DuVernay shows, from the 13th Amendment to the criminalization and subsequent murder of black leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fred Hampton — both of whom were depicted as public enemies by top law enforcement officials and politicians.

“We know the history of folks who have done this kind of standing up to these systems,” notes one talking head. “And we know how the system has murdered them, assassinated them, exiled them, excluded them or found ways to discredit them.”

Harvard historian Henry “Skip” Gates was succinct about the fate of the Black Panthers.

“The whole movement was criminalized and destroyed systematically by the government,” Gates said.

“I think people haven’t thought about what it means to lose a Fred Hampton, who somehow was able to pull together blacks and whites and Puerto Ricans and Native Americans to fight for justice at 21,” said Van Jones, roughly 45-minutes into the 1 hour and forty-minute film. “He had to go.”

“They literally went and shot his whole house up with his pregnant wife sitting next to him in the bed,” Jones said. “So afraid of a leader that can unite people.”

DuVernay’s argument isn’t new or particularly surprising. She deploys talking heads from across the ideological spectrum, including Newt Gingrich and Angela Davis, to make her case. Many of them are authors of books that DuVernay likely read in preparation for the film.

Here’s a short list of some of those authors included in the film and the books that flesh out and substantiate DuVernay’s narrative. You can pickup their work at Maywood’s only independently owned bookstore, AfriWare Books, 1701 S. 1st Ave., Suite 503, or order the books at AfriWare’s online home here.

You can also check out a copy of some of the books at the Maywood Public Library.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander (2010)

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From a 2012 New York Times book review:

The book marshals pages of statistics and legal citations to argue that the get-tough approach to crime that began in the Nixon administration and intensified with Ronald Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs has devastated black America. Today, Professor Alexander writes, nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point, only to find themselves falling into permanent second-class citizenship after they get out. That is a familiar argument made by many critics of the criminal justice system, but Professor Alexander’s book goes further, asserting that the crackdown was less a response to the actual explosion of violent crime than a deliberate effort to push back the gains of the civil rights movement.

The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, by Khalil Gibran Muhammad (2010)

condemnationFrom a summary of Muhammad’s book by Harvard University Press:

“Following the 1890 census, the first to measure the generation of African Americans born after slavery, crime statistics, new migration and immigration trends, and symbolic references to America as the promised land of opportunity were woven into a cautionary tale about the exceptional threat black people posed to modern urban society.

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“Excessive arrest rates and overrepresentation in northern prisons were seen by many whites—liberals and conservatives, northerners and southerners—as indisputable proof of blacks’ inferiority. In the heyday of “separate but equal,” what else but pathology could explain black failure in the “land of opportunity”?

“The idea of black criminality was crucial to the making of modern urban America, as were African Americans’ own ideas about race and crime. Chronicling the emergence of deeply embedded notions of black people as a dangerous race of criminals by explicit contrast to working-class whites and European immigrants, Khalil Gibran Muhammad reveals the influence such ideas have had on urban development and social policies.”

The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress, by William Jelani Cobb (2010)

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From a summary of the book by Kirkus Review:

“While time alone will reveal the meaning and impact of Barack Obama’s election, the author strives to make early sense of an event of such magnitude that it warranted a New York Times headline (‘Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory’) in the same 96-point type used for the Apollo moon landing, Richard Nixon’s resignation and 9/11.

“Both an observer and participant in the 2008 election—he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention—Cobb describes the forces and subtle changes in American society that led to Obama’s victory. He notes the election marked the passing of the Jim Crow era; many young African-Americans now first encountered the words ‘For Colored Only” in museums. Generational hues were apparent in the fact that young people—black and white—were convinced Obama could win. They knew an Obama presidency would not end racism, but would at least “represent a fundamental change in the way this society understands race.’

“Obama waged a campaign against cynicism and challenged people to believe a black man could be president, and voters responded. Obama won more than 95 percent of the black vote, without the support of traditional civil-rights leaders, who were threatened by racial progress and acted like an old-style ethnic political machine in endorsing Hillary Clinton.

“Cobb is especially good on the contrast between Obama and Jesse Jackson, whose celebrated work had opened many doors for Obama, but who now failed to inspire most young African-Americans. Obama embodies the face—multiracial and cosmopolitan—of the next generation, and his ‘ultimate significance may be less as a president than as a harbinger of what comes after his presidency.'”

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis (2003)

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are-prisons-obsoleteFrom a review in Political Affairs:

“While the US prison population has surpassed 2 million people, this figure is more than 20 percent of the entire global imprisoned population combined. Angela Y. Davis shows, in her most recent book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, that this alarming situation isn’t as old as one might think.

“Just a little over 30 years ago the entire prison population stood at 200,000 in the US; that is a tenfold jump in just one generation. In California alone, 3 prisons were built between 1852 and 1952; from 1984 to the present, over 80 facilities were constructed that now house almost 160,000 people. While being jailed or imprisoned has become “an ordinary dimension of community life,” according to Davis, for men in working-class Black, Latino, Native American and some Asian American communities, it is also increasingly an issue women of these communities have come to face.

“Davis points to the increased involvement of corporations in prison construction, security, health care delivery, food programs and commodity production using prison labor as the main source of the growth of the prison-industrial complex. As prisons became a new source of profits, it became clear to prison corporations that more facilities and prisoners were needed to increase income. It is evident that increased crime is not the cause of the prison boom. Davis writes ‘that many corporations with global markets now rely on prisons as an important source of profits helps us to understand the rapidity with which prisons began to proliferate precisely at a time when official studies indicated that the crime rate was falling.’

“Corporations such as Westinghouse, Minnesota Mining and Manufacture, General Dynamics and Alliant Techsystems push their ‘crime fighting’ equipment for consumption by state and local governments. Board members at Hospital Corporation of America helped to found Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), now the largest private prison corporation in the country. By 2000 there were 26 for-profit prison corporations that operated 150 prisons across the country. Additionally, billions in profits come from using prisons as exclusive markets for selling such products as Dial soap, AT&T calling cards and many other items. Some corporations have come to rely on contracted prison labor, a modern version of slave labor.” VFP

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