A Chicago Upbringing

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Carolyn M. Rodgers was born in Chicago in 1945, the youngest child of Clarence Rodgers and Bazella Rodgers, natives of Little Rock, Arkansas. Rodgers was reared near Forty-seventh Street in Chicago, an area that was home to many popular blues singers. As a child she was active in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Her poem “Portrait” speaks personally: “mama . . . / saved pennies/ fuh four babies/ college educashuns.” In “I Have Been Hungry,” she confides, “my father never wanted three girls/ and only one son.” An avid reader, young Carolyn took dramatic elocution lessons, memorizing and reciting works by such black poets as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes. At nine, Rodgers started keeping a journal, and in her teens she began writing poems. After high school, Rodgers sang and played the guitar in coffeehouses and even contemplated a singing career. “But,” she says, “the night life scared me away from singing professionally.”

After she graduated from Hyde Park High School, Rodgers attended the University of Illinois at Urbana, where her first published poems appeared in a literary magazine, and then finished all but one course in the bachelor’s degree program at Roosevelt University. (In the 1980’s, she completed her bachelor’s degree and also earned a master’s degree in English at the University of Chicago.) During her Roosevelt University years, Rodgers met Gwendolyn Brooks, who proved to be a supportive...

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The Black Arts Movement

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Despite Rodgers’s evolution toward poems that are calmer in tone, her early subject matter, stance, and association with other African American activists in the late 1960’s allied her initially with the Black Arts group in Chicago, a school of militant liberationist poets, of whom Don L. Lee (who later took the name Haki R. Madhubuti) is best known. Critics also identify Rodgers as an “OBAC poet” because of her active membership after 1967 in the Writers Workshop of the Organization of Black American Culture. A participant in the Gwendolyn Brooks poetry workshop in the late 1960’s, Rodgers acknowledged her affection and indebtedness in “To Gwen with Love” in 1971.

Rodgers’s career has included lectureships or writer-in-residence appointments at Columbia College and City College, Chicago; the University of Washington; Albany College, Georgia; Malcolm X College, Chicago; and Indiana University at Bloomington. Her many publications include poems and articles in such magazines as The Nation, Ebony, The Black Scholar, and Black Arts Anthology. Since the early 1970’s, her work has been regularly anthologized in collections of modern black poets, and Rodgers has made frequent appearances as lecturer or as reader of her poems.

Displaying open form—a free-verse medium that is not rhymed or metrical—Rodgers’s best-known poems employ street language, eccentric lower-case letters, texts erratically placed on the page or spaced within the line, oddly placed capitals, capital-letter strings, italics, dialectal spellings (such as “sistuhs”), clippings (“sd” for “said,” “u” for “you”), nonsyntactic phrases, elliptical dots, unpunctuated lines that suggest associative (or dissociated) thought or speech, and lines linked by initial parallel structure, as in “Poems for Malcolm”:

I want uh love poemI want uh trust poemI want uh unity poemI want uh Liberation poem.

Rodgers’s verse after 1970 uses fewer typographic effects and is quieter on the page, but it remains loosely and informally structured.

In subject matter and theme, Rodgers shared in the beginning the didactic program of the Black Arts and OBAC poets, who wanted African American writers to stop trying to please whites and instead to...

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Seeking a Broader Audience

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In Dynamite Voices (1971), an anthology of black poetry, editor Don L. Lee featured Carolyn Rodgers but noted her “ineffective, unconscious writing” and use of “too many words.” (Given Lee’s own verbose early style, the comment has its ironies.) Lee preached against “writing Black and publishing white,” favoring instead a separatist publishing network for African American writers. In this light, Rodgers’s decision to bring out her 1975 collection How I Got Ovah with Anchor Press/Doubleday in Garden City, New York—with an establishment rather than a black press—appears modestly defiant, a self-assertive act altogether consistent with the independent spirit that her poems show. Rodgers’s selection of previously published poems for How I Got Ovah seems to pay Lee’s dogmatic evaluations little heed; her author’s note implies that she has partly changed her “style” and “mind,” distancing herself somewhat from the movement that Lee dominated: “I want my work to interest as many people as possible,” she says simply. Revised details in several previously published poems confirm her independent drift. The poem “Love—The Beginning and the End,” for example, as it originally appeared in Songs of a Black Bird ended with the intersecting acrostic of the words “WOMAN and BLACKMAN” (sharing an “M” where they crossed), capped by the line “the last aspect is Love is Revolution.” By contrast,...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Black American Women Poets and Dramatists. New York: Chelsea House, 1996. Provides biography, bibliography, and critical analysis of Rodgers and her work.

Colby, Vineta, ed. World Authors, 1980-1985. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1991. Features Rodgers’s own autobiographical report on her life and career and includes chronologically arranged criticism that quotes liberally from her poems.

Collines, Lisa Gail, and Margo Natalie Crawford, eds. New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2006. Collections of scholarly reinterpretations of the Black Arts movement’s place in literary and African American history. Situates Rodgers as a one-time member of the movement.

Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Includes discussions of Rodgers’s work by various critics, along with editor Evans’s interview with Rodgers.

Gayle, Addison, Jr., comp. The Black Aesthetic. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. A well-indexed book that discusses Rodgers in various contexts relevant to the literary movements of the 1960’s. Calls her essay “Black Poetry—Where It’s At” (published in Negro Digest in 1969) “the best essay on the work of the new black poets.”

Lee, Don L. Dynamite Voices Volume 1: Black Poets of the 1960’s. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1971. Poet/critic Lee (Haki R. Madhubuti) evaluates Rodgers’s “strengths” and “weaknesses”—which, he says, include occasional “misuse of language.” Lee quotes liberally from Rodgers’s poems to illustrate his points.

Turner, Roland, ed. The Writers Directory, 1988-1990. 8th ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1988. Contains a factual outline of Rodgers’s literary achievements through the mid-1980’s.