uneteenth has been in the news lately. On June 19, 1865, slaves in Texas got word that Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation 2 years earlier—in short, that they were freed. Celebrations ensued, and one of the celebratory songs was the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Written by a black slave, this injunction to “swing low,” could have been addressed to the abolitionists to come south and bring the slaves north to freedom. Our current events, which focus right now on black men and women being hurt and killed, make celebration a stretch. But Gwendolyn Brook’s poem, “We Real Cool,” helps.
Now it so happens that her poem and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” helped me land a job teaching English at Paris Ouest: Sections Internationales de Sèvres. English and German sections are hosted right smack in a French public school. Students in each grade in the English section study English for six hours per week: four hours devoted to literature written in English and two hours to history and geography.
My interview fell on Good Friday, a dreary day all around. My task, to teach a class to ninth graders, meant I had I to think a lot about this poem to make it come alive. In its stunningly brief number of lines, Brooks (1917-2000) delivers a poem which accommodates the senseless aspects of black experience (slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, restrictive laws, mortgages refused, violence, racism) without naming any of them. It’s all in that last line. She shows us how to celebrate the black community ( spirituals, jazz, the blues, deep religious traditions, brilliant thinkers, athletes, mathematicians, writers, care-givers, politicians and so much more), again without naming any, in her phrase, “Jazz June.”
Here’s Gwendolyn Brooks reading, along with the text of the poem, which takes 27 seconds, so Morgan Freeman reads it again. Just hit pause when she’s finished.
Brooks has said that she witnessed seven members of her community, seven boys, skipping school in June. And instead of asking herself, “Why aren’t these boys in school?” she wondered what they were feeling. Perhaps enjoying thumbing their nose at the establishment, or wishing they could enjoy thumbing their noses in the lovely, fragrant, enjoyable month of June? She said it’s important to read the “We” in a soft, wispy way because the boys were unsure of themselves.
TEACHING A CLASS
I put the students in pairs and gave each pair the whole poem and then just one stanza per group, plus a dictionary. Can you explain these stanzas in your own words? I asked them. What does it mean, “We real cool?” “What does it mean to lurk? To strike straight? To thin gin? What’s Jazz?
When we came back together I put the fruits of their research on the board. The important question I saved for last. A prominent critic says that the attitude of the author is one of judgment towards the boys. Do you agree ?
The boys are out late, they play pool (well), they enjoy what they shouldn’t be doing. Is any of this a good idea? But what about “Jazz June?” And that’s where Swing Low, Sweet Chariot comes in. We learned the song. I took them through the spirituals, the call and response in the cotton rows, blues, improv, rhythm that’s off the beat. The way there’s a stanza break after the word “We” gives us a different rhythm than if the “We” started each line. The poet is using a little jazz? they asked. Voilà. “She admired them?” they asked me. “For that,” I answered.
I pose the awful question: Is there a risk? Sure is. The worst kind. But those boys did Jazz June.
It was really a wonderful class with a poem of 24 words plus a very long title. (Who would name their pool hall, the Golden Shovel? ) This poem not only opened up a hard world but it also showed the vitality of that very world, and the vitality of poetry and art as well, to open, to educate, console, and inspire. The students were not resistant to feeling their way into a different world when it’s in a poem like this. Their curiosity makes them interested in researching black lives. Emmett Till was about their age when he died in 1955, for example, and became one of the icons of the Civl Rights Movement.
And I got the job, that very day.
Now I ask us, Do we Jazz June? Can we honor today, Juneteenth, all those lives lost, all that trauma and trouble, and celebrate the end of slavery? I’m not sure we can answer that with an easy yes. I try to imagine what it would be like not to have had the country wedded to King Cotton, no slaves, only paid laborers. Very different beginning. Very different now.
Perhaps like the tramps waiting for Godot we are waiting for our joy to come to us. But let us try. Even though their freedom was delayed, according to reports, there was a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’ that night , celebrating 19 June, 1865.
Here’s Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, one of the songs chosen to mark the end of that awful period of American history.
Thanks for spending the time to think about Juneteenth.
Next Friday we’ll talk about driving in France. Oh dear.