Honors English 110L


by Jair Torres


After reading the poem "We Real Cool," by Gwendolyn Brooks, most people think that Brooks is making an ironic statement. Most will read the poem and think that Brooks is being sarcastic by using simple language and in the end asserting that the seven pool players will die soon, or more broadly that all who speak in this manner will die soon. No doubt some people will see Brooks’ statement "We/Left school" as the beginning of her disapproval of a lack of an education, and that the lines of the poem represent the thoughts or statements of the pool players. I disagree. There are too many other factors in and around the poem for Brooks to merely be writing a sarcastic poem about… whom? What Brooks is saying through the speaker of the poem is that Blacks in America are at the fledgling stage of finding their own voice, and they are willing to do anything, even die, in order to be heard and noticed.

First of all, Brooks is an African-American individual. She was born in 1917 and would have been discriminated against in Topeka where she was born, and even in Chicago where she grew up and went to school. She lived to see the effects of the ever-increasing freedom of the African-American people, and experienced it firsthand. After Brown vs. The Board Of Education of Topeka Kansas and the end of World War Two, Blacks were embarking on a new journey. They had come from slavery to separate-but-equal, but now the new problem for blacks was identity. What is an ideal black man? What does an African American stand for--or against for that matter? We are, but who are we? These are only a sample of the questions expressed through the action of the poem, and its exposition in the first two lines.

In the first two lines, Brooks expresses the recognition of a group, but expresses very little about the characteristics of that group. "THE" in "THE POOL PLAYERS" is a definite article reflecting the specific nature of the pool players, which sets them apart from all pool players. It also singles them out as unique, as opposed to being referred to as "some pool players." But, the phrase "the pool players" reflects the understanding that a familiar game is being played. So Brooks demonstrates to us a little about their nature; we know that they exist and that they are unique.

The picture Brooks is trying to paint becomes a little more clear when we examine the second line of the poem. "SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL" tells us quite a bit more about them, and helps us understand the nature of the author’s intent. First of all, they are seven. The number for us means that they are only part of the crowd at the place where they are. If the intent of the author were to mean that they were all the people in the establishment, she would not have counted them. Instead, she would have said just "AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL," or "EVERYONE AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL." Seven is a lucky number, seven is the number of God, seven is a prime number and seven is a symbol conveying the author’s affection toward the group of pool players in the poem. She gives them that number, but they are playing a game. In a game of pool, the objective is to get all of your seven balls in before the opponent. Only then do you get a chance to win the game by sinking the eight ball. And the other balls are colored, either a solid color or striped. Also, in craps, a game in which a pool of money is won by the roller of two dice, the number seven can signify a win or a loss. If rolled at the beginning, seven is a winner; however after the dice have been rolled and a different number has been revealed first, seven becomes a number to be avoided. So, Brooks by these two lines points out the feeling invoked by seven is a certain degree of uncertainty.

Then there are the implications of the "GOLDEN SHOVEL." The shovel can indicate digging and literally means to throw or move out of the way. The fact that the shovel is made of gold leads us to the understanding that they are breaking important ground. Gold also is an appreciated and valuable metal. The work implied by the seven being "AT THE" golden shovel is being made more significant. Their toil is more noble, because it involves expensive implements. And so, in the first two lines Brooks prepares us to hear the collective voice of these unique but unsure individuals.

The first assertion that the group makes about themselves is that they are proud of who they are. By saying "We real cool" the group begins to define itself. "Cool" is a vernacular statement of the time that implies being admirable, en vogue, and even respected. "We" is also important. It signifies that the group see themselves, that is, their being as cool, and not their actions. I say not their actions, because they made the statement about themselves before they describe what they did.

What they did was leave school, which at first seems negative. School is a place for learning. But learning in school also means learning what society or some other ruling authority has determined is what is most important. They, the "We," break away from the hegemony. They leave the school -- school also representing the white way of thinking, acting and doing -- to find out what they think is best to do, think, and feel. "We" is a way to take claim of what is happening. "We" takes claim of the liberation of themselves. See? Already they are starting to take upon themselves the responsibility of defining their ideal.

"Lurk late" is a challenge to the trend at that time, which Brooks is using to show blacks how they are different. White people in that time began to stay in more and watch T.V. So, the logic goes to say "White people do X, so we, in trying to find our own voice, will not do X." White people go in and have dinner and stay in to watch T.V., so the "We" stay outside late. What underlies each of the actions of We is the motivation to find a voice. In this case, the voice is that of a desire to go against the accepted norm, not just as a mere convention of rebellion, but with a purposeful intention to find a unique voice, and to not just fall in line with what everyone else is doing.

"We/ Strike straight" is telling us that the "We" consciousness incorporates a willingness to deal head-on with whatever is in front of them. The striking action here is referring back to the Billiards analogy that was discussed in the second line. It invokes two important sentiments: willingness to act, and a willingness to start an action. The willingness to start the action is drawn for us by the art of the pool game, in which the only strike occurs when the cue ball is hit full force into the rack. Also, a strike is an intentional action, perhaps referring to the willingness to protest for what they believe in, or even to fight. But, the willingness to fight is held in by the word "straight." Of course, there is a willingness to fight, but the implication is that the fight will be just. Also the fight will not be of an immoral, but moral nature. And so, the meaning conveyed in this line is a statement of certitude.

Next, Brooks uses confusing language, but with close reading, all will be clarified. "Sing" is somewhat obvious, but has an underlying meaning. It refers to the joy that the "We" find in their state of being. And "sin" is that state of being. The American Heritage Dictionary defines sin as "estrangement from God." So, who is god in their society? Who makes, enforces and rewards/punishes in the society the "We" live in? The white hegemony. They are celebrating their differences from the white. They are shouting, singing, clapping, dancing, literally resounding in who they are becoming, in their voice. There is no doubt this is their statement of encouragement, rejoicing in the freedom to think and act and feel contrary to the powers that are.

"WE/Thin gin" is the statement of motivation for the We finding a voice. To thin something can mean to water it down, or dilute it, but Brooks is probably using "thin" to mean "to lessen or diminish." And what the "We" are diminishing is gin. Brooks is drawing on the ability of the "We" to drink a lot of alcohol. She is pointing out that the "We" are a very strong and able bodied people, able to drink copious amounts of liquor and drinking is part of who they are. The fact that Gwendolyn Brooks chooses "gin" could be because she is trying to convey how the "We" can withstand the harshest of times. Also, as the white hegemony aspire to drink cocktails, such as Martinis and Amaretto Sours, or to not drink at all, then drinking straight gin serves as another example of how the "We" is counter-culture.

The statement of hope comes next. "June" refers to the coming summer, for their state now is the beginning, or spring. Now may be the time when the "We" are setting things up, stepping out of the influence, getting a voice together. And it is an uncertain time for the individuals, but a time is soon coming that each voice will improvise on the agreed upon theme in order to create a new and moving consciousness, the "Jazz." That consciousness will be fluctuating, but will remain stable, intrinsically, to the main beginning line of thought. "Jazz" also is one of the few things that was created in America, by Americans; created and not simply an innovation of a recent or extended vogue in music. By even referring to Jazz, Brooks is pointing out that African-Americans can be inventive and change the society they are in. With "Jazz June" Brooks gives hope for the future and backs up the hope with an existing example of what is possible if African Americans collaborate.

However, the "We" cannot revel in their spring, and in their summer, lest their fall passes too swiftly to their winter. "We/Die soon" is a statement of reality, the reality that if they don’t take the opportunity to band together now, the dream may die too soon. The statement also incites the people to include family, to pass down to the children the idea of being their own voice. This is not an ironic statement. It is a statement of willingness to die in the process of finding this voice, a willingness to stand until the bitter end, which to some would be soon. It is a statement of the reality that some of us will die trying to express the "We," because control, social superiority, and especially money are not given up easily.

In conclusion, the author uses other devices to help point the way to understanding. For one thing, she uses repetition in the word "We" to emphasize the separate nature of the group. But, repetition also emphasizes rhythm in the poem’s reading. When one reads the poem, the "We" should be emphasized as its own separate syllable, when it is at the end of a line. And speaking of rhythm, the poem also exhibits a unique rhythm that goes against the convention of stressed and unstressed syllables. In the poem, the words are stressed syllables and the unstressed syllables come with the periods and at the end of the lines. And so the poem itself is a statement by Brooks that the African American voice is coming into being. It is counter-culture, counter-convention, and it is steadfast to the death of all who hearken to it.