Singing songs of hope: Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Ronnie Gilbert

The Daily Kos’s eloquent essay, In Praise of Poets: Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni, and news of Ronnie Gilbert’s death came together today, reminding me of the power and importance of poetry in my life, in our lives. 

I chose the University of Chicago after high school in part because of Sandburg’s description:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

Gwendolyn Brooks was younger than Carl Sandburg, but much older than me. She was an iconic figure, not a near-contemporary like Nikki Giovanni. I knew her less as a poet than as a bigger-than-life heroine. She won a Pulitzer Prize in the year I was born, was named Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968, and earned dozens of other awards and honors. Her name was up there in lights, along with Langston Hughes and Richard Wright.

Nikki Giovanni seemed more accessible, more part of my world. She was young and fierce and wonderful. Her first book, Black Feeling, Black Talk was published the year I left the farm for the big city streets of Chicago. Then came Black Judgement and Re:Creation. Her voice inspired me, and I used her poetry as inspiration and text for youth in summer camp classes in Chicago’s Cabrini Green.

Black Feeling, Black Talk was a slender volume, every poem packed with images and truths. In her words, I saw / heard / understood poetry as powerfully political. Her free verse spoke anger and love and passion and compassion all at once, as in “Park Avenue:”

ever, did you ever, sit down
and wonder about what freedom’s freedom
would bring
it’s so easy to be free
you start by loving yourself
then those who look like you
all else will come
naturally

Ronnie Gilbert played the soundtrack for my growing up years, though I never knew her name until long after the 1960s. She and The Weavers were part of the unabashedly political folk music movement, singing “If I had a hammer,” and so many other songs of justice, freedom and love between brothers and sisters in the movement. NPR quoted an earlier interview in an article about her death:

“‘We sang songs of hope in that strange time after World War II, when already the world was preparing for Cold War,’ Gilbert said in an interview in 1982 for the documentary The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time. ‘We still had the feeling that if we could sing loud enough and strong enough and hopefully enough, it would make a difference.'”

How they made a difference, these poet-revolutionaries. Their words and lives inspired me, uplifted me, gave me courage to claim my own voice and beliefs. (I know I was not alone.) They believed the world was changing and that we had to leap in and work to make sure that change moved in the direction of justice and freedom and love.

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