Whatever Happened to Carolyn M. Rodgers?

Author:Juanita, Judy

BAM themes of revolution, rebellion, and resistance, which had flooded her early work, were replaced by reconciliation and religious ecstasy. Living alternately in Oakland and Chicago, Rodgers faced down middle age. Her health suffered. She battled hypoglycemia and carbon monoxide poisoning. Overcoming them led to new themes as she continued writing, espousing Christianity and togetherness, and distressing her former cohorts. What emerged was the philosopher-poet exploring the human condition, nodding benevolently at contraries, no longer battling the status quo. Though Rodgers transcended her early public persona, her strident legacy resurfaces in the sass and sexuality of newer generations of black women artists and performers like Beyonce and Salt 'n Pepa.

Whatever Happened to Carolyn M. Rodgers?

There couldn't have been more than six people in the large auditorium of the Fruitvale Branch library in East Oakland, circa 1994. The poet, Carolyn M. Rodgers, read her work to the interested handful, her voice echoing in the empty auditorium. I was mortified at the turnout for this icon of the black poetry movement. Why weren't there more poetry lovers? They'd had ample notice. True, she wasn't a supernova like Sonia Sanchez or Angela Davis, though she had nine books of poetry. After a flurry of fame in the sixties, she had become the phantom of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), disappearing for decades at a clip before resurfacing in her beloved Oakland, California or her native Chicago. When we went out to dinner after the reading, she told me being a poet was "champagne or beer," i.e. whether speaking before a thousand or a few, each encounter was a precious yield. Our friendship, begun that day, led to a lifelong correspondence. (1)

Mar 3, 2005


I don't guess I ever told you about the time I was asked to speak at SIU (Southern Illinois University). It's a big campus here in Illinois, and carries a lot of prestige here in the state. The black students had just been given a new campus house for their functions and they had named it after Gwendolyn Brooks. I was very excited about going there to read my poetry. The letter stated that I would receive $450, plus traveling and eating expenses. Not bad. So I went. Not one single student showed up for the reading! Not one! The first and last time it ever happened to me! They made some lame excuse and said that students were probably busy studying for finals. I was given my check (glory,glory) and I took my wounded pride home. Several days later, I received a letter saying that they were sorry that I had not been paid (!) and they sent me a second check. An obvious mistake! It doesn't get much better than that. It doesn't get much worse than that by this I mean no one showing up! Things will get better, I'm sure. You learn from it all. Hopefully, one day we will look back and laugh at it all! Hang tough! Luv Ya! Carolyn Her emergence and dominant role in the Black Arts Movement would define her public life. In 1967, she partnered with fellow poets Don L. Lee/Haki Madhubuti and Jewel C. Latimore/Johari Amini to found Third World Press (TWP). Thus began one of the Black Arts Movement's most successful presses on a mimeo machine in a basement apartment on Chicago's South Side. Rodgers, a Chicago native born in 1940, earned her BA from Roosevelt University in 1965 and would complete her M.A. in English from the University of Chicago in 1980. A central padnuh in the OBAC (Organization of Black American Culture) coterie, she prospered as it flourished. TWP published her first book, Paper Soul. Hoyt Fuller, editor of Negro Digest/Black World, wrote the introduction. Her footpath in the poetry world followed the standard operating procedure for artists--initial emergence within a clique, break with the clique or clique dissolves, fade to black or transcend. Umbra, the Lower East Side collective put Ishmael Reed, David Henderson, Steve Cannon and Calvin C. Hernton on the map. The beats gave LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka his lift-off; The Journal of Black Dialogue in San Francisco put Marvin X in orbit. The essential difference in Chicago was the presence of a woman mentor, Gwendolyn Brooks, a writer of stature. Rodgers wasn't Brooks' mistress, wife, maidservant, fuckbuddy or sycophant.

Feb 19, 2005

.... I found one of my old essays where I was using the f-word all over the place! Now I know what they liked about me. I had forgotten me. I was almost completely irreverent at times, and might I say with gusto and flair! I couldn't believe who I was. It was real food for thought. No wonder they look at me the way they do now! I still believe that half the battle though in getting published is who you know. I was very lucky to be in Chicago with Gwendolyn Brooks and many famous literary people came to sit at her table and I met them. I believe though that you have to keep on putting yourself out there. That's what I have to do, otherwise I am an interesting artifact. Or as I told some of my students, I'm history, literally. Keep the faith. I love the sunshine and laughter you keep sending. My days are getting brighter. Definitely! Hope yours are too. Standing in that East Oakland library in her ever-present head wrap of African cloth, Rodgers read old poems and recent ones. The newer work relied on biblical references, and on salt as a metaphor. "In the Shadow of Turning" begins with "Throwing Salt/Teshuva: To Balance the Scales."

Teshuva is Hebrew for turning back to God, as with one who has left God: "Since we use the/good in our past/to lead us to future good/to remind us of what man is capable/of, it seems/right then that we/should use the evil/in our past also/to remind us of what man/is capable of." (2)

That's her first stanza - proposition, theme, contention. The next line renders solution: "Salt is what/it all becomes..." and later in the 26-line poem, a rueful observation: "The main event in life is something/We think we can plan, but can't..."

The Background of "I'm History, Literally"

Rodgers' poetic foremothers were Pulitzer Prize-winners Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker. Each woman was married, a key figure in African-American literature in Chicago, their work and social activism having surfaced in the 1930s-40s. Gwendolyn Brooks, in 1968, said:

"There's something very special happening in poetry today and I see it happening chiefly among the young blacks. I think that later they will take out some of the unruly roughness, but right now, I'm just glad to see it coming out. I think after all of the activity there will be an intense interest in saying things more effectively, using language more effectively." Hopefully something will have been decided, and the poets will then have time to play more with their art" (3) The movement for civil rights, like the abolitionist movement 100+ years earlier, gained traction once the world took notice. Emancipation became foreseeable once Europeans, especially the British, understood the horror and treachery of slavery from abolitionists, slave narratives and exslaves travelling abroad. President John F. Kennedy had proffered a tepid response to the Emancipation Proclamation's 100th anniversary until pressured by civil rights activists to approve the March on Washington. (4) The...

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