Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Whatever Happened to Carolyn M. Rodgers?

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Whatever Happened to Carolyn M. Rodgers?

Article excerpt

BAM themes of revolution, rebellion, and resistance, which had flooded her early work, were replaced by reconciliation and religious ecstasy. Living alternately in Oakland and Chicago, Rodgers faced down middle age. Her health suffered. She battled hypoglycemia and carbon monoxide poisoning. Overcoming them led to new themes as she continued writing, espousing Christianity and togetherness, and distressing her former cohorts. What emerged was the philosopher-poet exploring the human condition, nodding benevolently at contraries, no longer battling the status quo. Though Rodgers transcended her early public persona, her strident legacy resurfaces in the sass and sexuality of newer generations of black women artists and performers like Beyonce and Salt 'n Pepa.

Whatever Happened to Carolyn M. Rodgers?

There couldn't have been more than six people in the large auditorium of the Fruitvale Branch library in East Oakland, circa 1994. The poet, Carolyn M. Rodgers, read her work to the interested handful, her voice echoing in the empty auditorium. I was mortified at the turnout for this icon of the black poetry movement. Why weren't there more poetry lovers? They'd had ample notice. True, she wasn't a supernova like Sonia Sanchez or Angela Davis, though she had nine books of poetry. After a flurry of fame in the sixties, she had become the phantom of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), disappearing for decades at a clip before resurfacing in her beloved Oakland, California or her native Chicago. When we went out to dinner after the reading, she told me being a poet was "champagne or beer," i.e. whether speaking before a thousand or a few, each encounter was a precious yield. Our friendship, begun that day, led to a lifelong correspondence. (1)

Mar 3, 2005

Judy,

I don't guess I ever told you about the time I was asked to speak at
SIU (Southern Illinois University). It's a big campus here in Illinois,
and carries a lot of prestige here in the state. The black students had
just been given a new campus house for their functions and they had
named it after Gwendolyn Brooks. I was very excited about going there
to read my poetry. The letter stated that I would receive $450, plus
traveling and eating expenses. Not bad. So I went.
Not one single student showed up for the reading! Not one! The first
and last time it ever happened to me! They made some lame excuse and
said that students were probably busy studying for finals. I was given
my check (glory,glory) and I took my wounded pride home. Several days
later, I received a letter saying that they were sorry that I had not
been paid (!) and they sent me a second check. An obvious mistake! It
doesn't get much better than that. It doesn't get much worse than that
by this I mean no one showing up!
Things will get better, I'm sure. You learn from it all. Hopefully, one
day we will look back and laugh at it all!
Hang tough! Luv Ya!
Carolyn

Her emergence and dominant role in the Black Arts Movement would define her public life. In 1967, she partnered with fellow poets Don L. Lee/Haki Madhubuti and Jewel C. Latimore/Johari Amini to found Third World Press (TWP). Thus began one of the Black Arts Movement's most successful presses on a mimeo machine in a basement apartment on Chicago's South Side. Rodgers, a Chicago native born in 1940, earned her BA from Roosevelt University in 1965 and would complete her M.A. in English from the University of Chicago in 1980. A central padnuh in the OBAC (Organization of Black American Culture) coterie, she prospered as it flourished. TWP published her first book, Paper Soul. Hoyt Fuller, editor of Negro Digest/Black World, wrote the introduction. Her footpath in the poetry world followed the standard operating procedure for artists--initial emergence within a clique, break with the clique or clique dissolves, fade to black or transcend. Umbra, the Lower East Side collective put Ishmael Reed, David Henderson, Steve Cannon and Calvin C. …

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