'Great poet' born of '60s
CAROLYN M. RODGERS | Her work 'affirmed the voice of black women -- of
everyday black women'
April 13, 2010
BY MAUREEN O'DONNELL modo...@suntimes.com
The explosion that was the 1960s spewed out a crazy, colorful confetti,
and bits of it were the poetry, writing, music and theater that made up
the Black Arts movement.
One of its brightest lights was writer Carolyn M. Rodgers. Her poetry,
as real as a Chicago street corner on a Saturday night, has been quoted
by Oprah Winfrey and performed by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. She has been
praised by figures as diverse as author Wally Lamb and Pam Grier, whose
film persona as an astonishingly strong black woman echoes the themes of
some of Ms. Rodgers' work.
Ms. Rodgers wrote fiction and poetry collections, including "How I Got
Ovah," a reference to old spirituals. Her play "Love" was produced
Off-Broadway by Woodie King Jr., a father of the Black Theatre movement.
She owned her own publishing firm, Eden Press, and was a founding member
of Chicago's Third World Press.
Ms. Rodgers, 69, died April 2 at Mercy Hospital. A memorial service is
planned in Chicago next month.
Ms. Rodgers, along with Nikki Giovanni, Jayne Cortez and Sonia Sanchez,
"were the cutting-edge poets for that time in the nation," said Haki
Madhubuti, chair, publisher and fellow founder of Third World Press.
"She was one of the poets who helped change the conversation, and in
changing it, we ceased being Negroes," Madhubuti said. "We became men
and women poets; artists who are black -- and people of African
Sonia Sanchez said, "Carolyn was one of the great poets that came out of
the 1960s, a very lyrical poet; a woman who spoke a great deal about
women; black women in particular -- the kinds of experiences they had;
and she did it in a very poetic and beautiful way, using rhythmic black
speech and imagery."
Chicago was a hub of the Black Arts movement, which had its heyday from
1965-1975. It was an exciting time, Madhubuti said, when
African-American artists "took back their culture, their language."
Ms. Rodgers graduated from Roosevelt University and received a master's
degree in English from the University of Chicago.
Some of her early works were titled "Songs of a Blackbird" and "Paper
She used slang and heartfelt language to write about love, lust, body
image, family, religion, and the grace of human kindness. In her early
days, black revolutionary themes and cuss words wove through some poems.
"She would take no quarter from insults, or downgrading her writing as a
woman," Madhubuti said. "Her writing could stand by itself."
In one poem, she wrote:
"I think sometimes
when i write
God has his hand on me
i am his little black slim ink pen."
Beyond blackness, Sanchez said, Ms. Rodgers' poetry asked: "What does it
mean to be human?"
Ms. Rodgers was a founding member of the writers' workshop of the
Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC). Her work is studied in
the fine arts program at Chicago State University, Madhubuti said.
She taught at Emory, Fisk, Indiana and Roosevelt universities and at
Harold Washington College, said her friend, author Useni Eugene Perkins.
In 1970, she received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts,
and she won the Poet Laureate award of the Society of Midland Authors.
She also won a Carnegie Award in 1979, Perkins said.
She was a radiant woman with luminous eyes, said her sister, Gloria.
"She walked in a room, and the room would gravitate toward her,"
"Carolyn's work affirmed the voice of black women -- of everyday black
women, and she did that before this generation of Spoken Word poets came
along," said her friend and fellow writer, Angela Jackson. "Without
Carolyn Rodgers, a whole generation would not have been able to be. She
gave young poets permission to be themselves. Her work opened that door
to writing in the present-day colloquial."
Ms. Rodgers did a recent reading at the DuSable Museum, and she wrote
the forword to "Black Writing from Chicago."
She is also survived by her sister Nina Gordon, and her mother, Bazella