OUR MISS BROOKS | OMB100

Gwendolyn Brooks' cemented her legacy through her efforts as a poet, feminist, and activist. In honor of her centennial this year, we're celebrating OMB100 by paying tribute to that influence. This month we have another essay by Quraysh Ali Lansana. For more information regarding OMB100, you can visit the website here.

The following essay, The Weight of the Word, was originally published in the anthology, Revise the Psalm: Work Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks, ed. with Sandra Jackson-Opoku, Curbside Splendor, January 2017.

The photos featured with the article are the OMB100 lightboxes displayed on the CTA trains this year. They were designed by Art On The Loose, Inc.


The Weight of the Word

Design/artist credit:  Art On The Loose, Inc.

Design/artist credit:  Art On The Loose, Inc.

One late spring afternoon in 1999, Ms. Brooks called me at 7923 South Evans Avenue. The three-apartment brownstone my wife Emily inherited from her Aunt Ruby Hooper was five blocks from where Ms. Brooks lived for most of her fifty-seven years of marriage to poet Henry Blakely. Henry had passed in 1996, just months prior to our wedding date. She was to read “A Black Wedding Song” during our ceremony, but did not feel up to the task after his death. However, she did attend the wedding, with her daughter Nora and family friend Cynthia Walls at her side on the red pew of Trinity United Church of Christ, where the soon to be controversial Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. pastored. Emily and I were thrilled and honored she chose to join us for our nuptials.

But, back to the phone call.

Clearly distraught, she told me she needed to discuss something that had just happened and sought my opinion on the matter. I heard an anger and disbelief in her voice I had not known previously, but would unfortunately experience again.    

Ms. Brooks was not only, as one of her publishers and first cultural son, Dr. Haki Madhubuti (aka Baba Haki) of Third World Press, put it, “the last of the great letter writers,” she also kept everything she touched or considered touching. Newspaper clippings, recipes, as well as correspondence, books and hundreds of photographs. Her lesson plans and writing exercises were harbored on individual pages of notebook paper stacked one-foot high, held together by a web of rubber bands. The aforementioned newspaper clippings possessed her handwritten commentary on every single article. Even her dictionary, now at Emory University, contains marginalia in her hand.  

In an effort to help Ms. Brooks move to a Hyde Park apartment, Baba Haki hired a group of men and sent them over to the house at 74th and Evans. The new owner settled in to the single family home while Ms. Brooks reveled in her new view of Lake Michigan.

Though unclear if it was the movers or the new owner who discovered the boxes in the basement, what is clear is that someone found a goldmine and made some money.

The boxes were delivered to an undisclosed rare books dealer for appraisal and potential sale. This book dealer didn’t engage in the business of asking questions. A value was placed on the items and shortly thereafter a portion of Ms. Brooks’ life was put on the market without her knowledge or consent.

“I just received a call from a book dealer representing the Bancroft Library at Berkeley. He offered me $10,000 for my own things. Things I never intended for them, or anyone to have. Not yet.”

The Bancroft Library is the primary special collections library of the University of California, Berkeley, a historic landmark of Twentieth Century civil disobedience and academic home of Ms. Brooks’ longtime friend, poet and activist June Jordan. The Bancroft website boasts it is “one of the largest and most heavily used libraries of manuscripts, rare books, and unique materials in the United States…” Most writers and artists I know, myself included, would welcome an invitation to be archived at the Bancroft. No question it is an outstanding institution with a remarkably diverse collection of holdings, and an informed, courteous staff.

“Quraysh, they will buy the boxes regardless of whether or not I take the money.”

I think damn. I don’t say damn, but I think it hard.

Ms. Brooks found out about this purchase accidentally. A friend (identity withheld) employed at UC Berkeley called Ms. Brooks to share her excitement about the archival items soon to be on their way west.  Ms. Brooks expressed she had no knowledge of the transaction. The friend then contacted the archivists at the Bancroft, who in turn informed the book dealer the purchase would not occur unless Ms. Brooks was happy. The dealer contacted Ms. Brooks and offered her a portion of the proceeds for the deal to be finalized.

Design/artist credit:  Art On The Loose, Inc.

Design/artist credit:  Art On The Loose, Inc.

But Ms. Brooks, to her last breath, was never happy about this transaction.

The Bancroft discovered the materials available for acquisition via routine, legitimate channels. They did nothing wrong or illegal, to be clear. They reviewed, they investigated and they purchased, for five figures. Certainly, some might speculate the Bancroft archivists possibly saw the blur of a rat in the kitchen. But this is merely speculation, as the Bancroft did nothing wrong or illegal, since book dealers are not required to disclose acquisitions.

“If I take the money I am offering consent and legitimizing the purchase. If I don’t take the money they still acquire my things through legitimate means.” She sounded almost in tears. “What do you think I should do?” Her voice was dark, heavy with anguish.

“Ma’am, if the library is going to buy your items either way, and there’s no way to get them back, you should take the money.” The words hurt like chewing glass.

“You think so?”

“This is an awful situation, and I wish we could find the men who did this to you. But if the Bancroft is making the purchase regardless you should probably take the money.”

“I am inclined to agree, but I am going to speak with Haki and Nora again. Thank you, Quraysh.”

“You’re welcome, Ma’am. I’m so so sorry.”

When that conversation occurred Ms. Brooks was only peripherally aware of the volume and scope of the items in those boxes. She was told they contained personal photographs, correspondence and copies of poems. But, in truth, according to a January 11, 2001 UC Berkeley official press release, they contained much more:

Retrieved from a former Brooks home on the South Side of Chicago, the collection now at UC Berkeley contains manuscripts of her poems and speeches, family photos, awards, weekly journals, clippings that reflect source material for poems, 50 years of correspondence with her publishers, and letters. Library officials said the yet-to-be-catalogued 22 boxes of materials constitute a representative sample of her papers from the 1930s to 1980.

The letters mentioned above, again from the press release, “includes letters between Brooks and poet/art critic Ted Berrigan; author/anthologist Arna Bontemps, who helped lead the Harlem Renaissance; and Robert Creeley of the Black Mountain Poets group; as well as the late writer and Black Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver.”

The press release later quotes Daphne Muse, then advisor to The Bancroft Library's African American writers collection and research coordinator for the UC Berkeley McNair Scholars Program, as well as a longtime friend of Ms. Brooks’ as stating, “She (Brooks) was most grateful we had these documents. She said, 'You have my blessings to buy it.”

The Bancroft holdings were available for public consumption in early 2001, shortly after Ms. Brooks’ death.


Quraysh Ali Lansana is author of eight poetry books, three textbooks, three children's books, editor of eight anthologies, and coauthor of a book of pedagogy. He is a faculty member of the Writing Program of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a former faculty member of the Drama Division of The Juilliard School. Lansana served as Director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago State University from 2002-2011, where he was also Associate Professor of English/Creative Writing until 2014. Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy & Social Justice in Classroom & Community (with Georgia A. Popoff) was published in March 2011 by Teachers & Writers Collaborative and was a 2012 NAACP Image Award nominee. His most recent books include Revise the Psalm: Work Celebrating the Writings of Gwendolyn Brooks w/Sandra Jackson-Opoku (Curbside Splendor, 2017); A Gift from Greensboro (Penny Candy Books, 2016); A Gift from Greensboro (Penny Candy Books, 2016); The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop w/Kevin Coval and Nate Marshall (Haymarket Books, 2015) and The Walmart Republic w/ Christopher Stewart (Mongrel Empire Press, 2014). Forthcoming titles include: The Whiskey of Our Discontent: Gwendolyn Brooks as Conscience & Change Agent, w/Georgia A. Popoff (Haymarket Books, 2017), and; Clara Luper: The Woman Who Rallied the Children w/Julie Dill (Oklahoma Hall of Fame Press, 2018).