I’ve been slowly reading Gwendolyn Brooks’ Report from Part Two (Third World Press, 1966) because Ms. Brooks’ prose is slow. She is always the teacher and much like the formidable women, I knew growing up—mothers, wives, teachers, choir directors, workers, and maids, shopkeepers— who took their time with the niceties and made rules for us to use and to break. My first “tea” party was in kindergarten and we had to bring dolls and my doll was broken, lost, so I brought my tattered teddy bear. We stood out of course. This was my first taste of being just a tad unconventional. Mrs. Stewart our teacher was really lovely. She welcomed me and my bear as if there was not one problem in the world. She defined HOSTESS for me. And now whenever I get the chance to open my doors to friends and occasional strangers, I think of Mrs. Stewart.
Indeed, I have hosted an annual tea which has been going on more or less since the early 90s for my women friends. They come in all sizes, shapes, races, but all are poets, writers, and artists. They bring good food, cheer and sometimes serious conversation to the party. In 2001, when I lived in Prospect Heights, we were all shaking from 911. I remember people talking about what had happened that year that was good. The party helped us reclaim some of our pre-911 lives. Another time, Helen Oji, a wonderful artist who works for Eileen Fisher and Sandra Payne, the artist and ex-Young Adult Librarian for the NYPL had both been in The New York Times. We were thrilled. Sandra has taken poems by me and Julie Patton, who is a regular guest and made them into “movies” on her website, www.sandrapayne.com.
Near the end of each fete, I ask my guests to talk about what they’ve done as artists and what they look forward to and to sign my book. It now serves as a record of these events and that means that I now know that some friends will not return. Akilah Oliver, the brilliant poet and author of A Toast in the House of Friends (Coffee House) left us unexpectedly this past February and now I have her kind note in my guest book, but she will never taste whatever treats are brought to the festivities.
Okay back to Mrs. Brooks. She writes carefully, lovingly about growing up in this modest, yet happy home. But, I wonder. No sibling rivalry? No major tensions? It could not have all been Paul Laurence Dunbar read after supper, ice cream as a special treat and do your homework or was it? She says “My mother “brought up” my late brother Raymond and myself in the sunshine of certain rules” And then she list rules about cleanliness, dutifulness, self-respect, the honor of the family, work, and politeness to all. Those are the rules that grew out of the Protestant ethic—with a strong helping of Black Self-Determination. My mother and neighbors had similar spoken and unspoken rules. They are not so easy to faithfully follow as Mrs. Brooks points out when she talks about trying to always be polite even when such behavior unnerved people. You can’t be polite to people who don’t know or don’t care about these rules.
Oh, but those rules to live by kept her sane while going through the amazing changes that took place in America during her lifetime. Many Chicago poets talk about how Mrs. Brooks would go to open mic or community readings and sign up just like everyone else and they were surprised. But how else would she act? She was raised to respect others and “WORK for what we use and enjoy. To steal-the merest match or marble or licorice switch—unthinkable.” She was not going to thieve anyone else’s light or time. And then again, when I met her, Grace Paley has a similar MO. There are writers and artists who are gracious; who have bearing. Who walk this earth to show each of us how to act. It is not easy to care that much. To wait your turn when you know you’re the celebrated one. But she did and others do. That to me is wisdom. It takes a life time to learn when and how to be generous. I envy the Chicago poets who had her in their good graces for so many years.
I write this on the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis. There’s been little about King in the media. We have “moved on” to Libya; the faux “Tea Party”; the noise of bad changes in the making—cut the little things that keep people healthy, help them gain employment; stay in their home; keep a business open—so that we can go on to the big things: break down and destroy Social Security; Medicare and Medicaid. It is as if we need to be a Third World country so people can start fighting for stuff that’s already here.
In Dr. King’s speech in Memphis, he urged the crowd to practice a “kind of dangerous unselfishness.” In an era where the competition for the glittering prizes; the spotlight; the mic is so fierce, I cannot imagine anything more radical than King’s admonishment. Like Gwendolyn Brooks’ respect for herself and her colleagues whether at university, church or poetry slam, that capacity to share is all but lost. But not always, not by me and not by so many who walk amongst us whispering “stand up straight.”. If you come to my party whether with grand items in hand or nothing but your own good name, you are welcome. Be my guest.