This morning I spent nearly $20 on two books of stamps, just to get four (two on each book) of the individual stamps I really wanted: the new Gwendolyn Brooks stamp from the Twentieth-Century Poets collection. I knew I had to run out and get them after I saw a friend share a picture of Ms. Brooks' new stamp on Facebook. A black and white photo with her quirky smile, marked “FOREVER.” Timeless, just like her work.
I remember the first and only time I met Gwendolyn Brooks. Each year, she’d give the keynote address to the graduating class of the junior high school named in her honor in Harvey, IL. I graduated third in my class. The top four students each had special roles during the ceremony, plus we received autographed books and $500 from Ms. Brooks. To a 14-year-old, $500 was MAJOR BANK! I was pretty excited about the money, but more than that, I was excited about my role as #3 in the class. I got to give the introduction speech before Gwendolyn Brooks came on stage. The valedictorian , of course, gave her valedictory speech; the salutatorian marched in with a flag or something; and #4 in the class I don’t even have the foggiest memory of what she got to do. But in my mind, I had the highest honor.
Nowadays, it seems people just give you their ready-made bios, or you grab it from online, but I was instructed to write the introduction on my own. I’d never written any type of speech before, let alone gave one in front of so many people. I searched books from the library to find out who on earth is this woman that has a school named after her, but is still alive. The concept of a living legend was so lost on me at that age. I just knew she must be great and very important. I learned:
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas.
Her family moved to Chicago when she was only six weeks old.
Brooks loved reading and writing as a little girl. Her first piece was published at 13.
Gwendolyn Brooks was the first black author awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (Annie Allen).
She was the first black women to serve as the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.
Gwendolyn Brooks was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968.
She was amazing. It was like opening a history book and reading about all the great leaders from black history, but Gwendolyn Brooks was really real and coming to talk to us. Oh crap! I did not want to mess up my big moment. I wrote and re-wrote and finally came up with an introduction that my teacher thought was really good. Could I deliver it, though? If I listened to this big-head boy named Reuben, maybe not. My closing line to the intro was something like, “It’s with great pleasure I present Poet Laureate, Gwendolyn Brooks,” and every day in graduation rehearsal Reuben would make spitting noises when I got to that line and said the words that start with ‘p’. Lame. So, so lame, but he really started to get me frazzled. I didn’t want my big lips amplifying my p’s throughout the gymnasium and people would laugh like Reuben laughed. At some point, I stopped worrying about spitting in the microphone because I found a more horrifying potential fate to worry about: tripping up the stairs BEFORE I ever made it to the podium!
Graduation night, I didn’t trip, I didn’t get any stains on my all-white JCPenney skirt set and my p-words flowed with no snickers from the audience. Ms. Brooks closed out her address to us with the poem “I’ll Stay”* and I remember she spoke slowly, with a bit of a quiver in her voice. It seemed very dramatic to me. Afterwards, me and my best friend even joked about it a little. All I can do is shake my head at our immaturity (and the fact I have NO pictures or video from that night). Gwendolyn Brooks’ accomplishments weren’t totally lost on me and my appreciation definitely deepened as I grew older.
It’s because of Gwendolyn Brooks that I wrote “Live on a street in Bronzeville” on a sticky note back in 2002 and taped it to my refrigerator. The best way that I’ve been able to describe and define her unmatched writing style is that it’s “so Chicago” and I wanted to live in that world…that energy of Chicago she wrote about and from. Nine years later I finally unpacked my bags in an apartment on a street in Bronzeville. I read Maud Martha, "a story of a woman with doubts about herself and where and how she fits into the world," on the roof. I marvel at the gigantic greystones that line the long blocks of my neighborhood and try to dodge random dudes harassing me while I walk the long blocks and marvel.
I may not ever experience Bronzeville as Gwendolyn Brooks experienced it with the literary elite, but this stamp reminds me that words are simple, yet powerful and writing still matters. I’m inspired to write letters and mail cards now. Hey, I have two books of stamps that I cannot afford to waste! I started by writing an encouraging note inside a beautiful card from artist Kelly Rae Roberts I bought last year. I mailed it to myself.
Judging from all the 'Likes' and comments on Facebook, it looks like a lot of my friends will be writing and mailing more letters, too. I loved seeing so many people as excited as me about a Gwendolyn Brooks stamp. I was a little surprised when I went to the post office and they weren't sold out. To me, repping Gwendolyn Brooks as Chicago’s own is on par with the pride Chicagoans feel when we claim President Obama, or the Bulls in their championship-winning glory days. We really ARE the city of “Big Shoulders.” Thanks to creative artists like Gwendolyn Brooks, artists and dreamers like me can stand on the shoulders of greatness and contribute to past and present legacies in our own ways.
The Gwendolyn Brooks stamp is such a well-deserved recognition. I think the next letter I mail will be to the U.S. Postal Service. It’s only right that Gwendolyn Brooks gets her own ‘book’ of stamps.