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Gwendolyn Brooks wrote the poem “We Real Cool” in 1959 and was published in1960, right in the middle of the civil rights movement and only a couple years after the Brown v. Board of Education trial, which challenged racial segregation in schools. In the poem, a group of kid’s drops out of school allowing them to have a lot of free time on their hands which often leads to criminal activities. Many have interpreted this poem in different ways. One possible interpretation is how African American’s struggled with segregation, making it almost impossible for them to receive a decent education resulting in future filled with struggles to make ends meet, ultimately leading them to give up and drop out of school. It may be further interpreted that African Americans can’t have the best of both worlds. They can’t be cool and live a prosperous life because those who drop out of school often live a short term life filled with crimes.
Gwendolyn Brooks is a famous African American poet, she was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize. Her poems often deal with political consciousness and civil rights activism after the 1960s. “We Real Cool” is a fairly short simple poem. It’s only four stanzas in couplet form. The rhyme scheme is supposed to be AA, BB, CC, and DD. However to add a sense of illiteracy the author makes the rhyme scheme AA, AA, AA and AA. The last word of each line is the start of the next sentence. Each sentence only contains three words and each of those words are monosyllabic. By using this sentence structure Brooks conveys the level of education the pool players were able to achieve.
The first two lines prior to the actual poem describe a group of seven pool players. During the 1950s pool halls were a popular hangout, mostly for delinquents who would use the hall as a cover for partaking in illegal activities. The world “golden” is often used to represent innocence and being young. The word “shovel” is a used to represent a digging of some sort. The combination of “golden” and “shovel” represents the kids burying their innocence and youth away for a life of crime. So already in the first two lines prior to the actual poem we can already tell that there’s seven young kids wasting their youth and innocence away at a pool hall while they should be at school learning. Throughout the poem you can see how not being in school has affected their grammar and made them illiterate, therefor making them seem the opposite of what they believe, uncool. Once the poem actually begins, one of the pool players is narrating he starts of by saying, “We real cool.” This incorrect grammar structure which shows how uneducated they are since they aren’t in school. Each line ends with the word “we” which is the start of the next sentence, however by having the first word on a different line, there is an unintended pause that doesn’t belong there. This makes the poem sound choppy between lines, the “we” at the end sounds unnecessary, for example the poem could read “We real cool./ Left school,” and still have the same meaning as with “we.” Every word in the poem is only one syllable giving the impression that they don’t know how to talk because they have a limited education. Their poor grammar shows how they are only hurting themselves, limiting the type of jobs they can have which leads them to a life of crime.
Throughout the poem the narrator lists the criminal activities they partake in. The boys lurk late at night. The dark makes it easier for them to commit crimes since they can’t be seen, seventy percent of crimes occur at night because the dark makes it hard to make someone out there for making them unknown. They “strike straight” means they know how to commit the perfect crime so they don’t get caught. They can commit rape, burglary, mugging and murder and get away with it and never be caught. They “sing sin” means they brag about their crimes in a sense that makes it seem like it’s the cool thing to be doing. They “thin gin” which is the watering down of alcohol to get more product. They probably sell this alcohol to minors or people just looking for cheap alcohol. Since they don’t have an education their employment opportunities are very limited and instead of being homeless they turn to crime to give them a sense of belonging and identity however, their true selves are lost in the process. They have “sacrificed his or her individual identity,” (Sarnowski, 1999) to just make ends meet.
The last stanza in the poem describes the life they will live without an education. Jazz music was often played and sung by slaves since the late 1800s. This type of music has been known to come from “unschooled” techniques, meaning that the musicians didn’t need formal training to do and didn’t follow the rules of other genres of music from that time. Once again leading back to how the pool players are uneducated. June is the beginning of summer when kids are out of school and are free to do whatever they want. During summer is when most crimes happen so this could be when the pool players commit most of their crimes. Summer is when people go on vacation and are unaware of the dangers in other cities. The pool players probably prey on the innocent tourists that visit their city. “We/ Die Soon” shows how an uneducated person lives a short term life in society whether it’s physically, emotionally and spiritually. The pool players’ early death “could have been averted if only they would have stayed in school and stayed out of trouble,” (Sarnowski 1999).
School drop outs have a limited education and that causes them to not know the difference between right and wrong. Many uneducated people during this era were oppressed of a good education and left them with no choice but to become criminals and make money illegally. They couldn’t live a good life without education. They were often forced out of school by white supremacists who would beat and talk down to them because of their race. Gwendolyn Brook’s “We Real Cool” shows the underlying problem African American youths faced during the civil rights movement.
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