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Brooks deserves poetic justice in Chicagoland

Poet’s stamp should be sought after, not barely noticed due to the Bulls

Published: Thursday, May 3, 2012 4:59 a.m. CST

(MCT) — I pushed through the mob at the post office on North Sheffield Avenue on Tuesday, hoping that the new Gwendolyn Brooks stamps wouldn’t be sold out by the time I made it to the counter.

These stamps were hot. Hotter than an iPad4. Hotter than a Paul McCartney-Justin Bieber duets tour. Stamp junkies had camped out all night hoping to score one.

And if you believe any of the above, I have a 45-cent stamp I’ll sell you for just 10 grand.

It is true that I went to the post office Tuesday.

“Can I get a sheet of stamps?” I asked a clerk. There was no wait. “The one with Gwendolyn Brooks?”

She slid some flowery images in my direction.

“No,” I said. “I want the new poets sheet? The one with Gwendolyn Brooks?”

“We don’t have any,” she said.

“We have these.”

I asked if I was alone in my quest. She shrugged.

“You’re the second one that’s asked.”

Clearly, the new stamp honoring one of Chicago’s most famous poets has sneaked into the city on little cat feet, its official dedication, on Saturday at the Harold Washington Library, barely noticed.

“We had a few folks,” said Mark Reynolds, the local U.S. Postal Service spokesman, when I called Tuesday to ask about the event.

“Unless it’s a no-brainer stamp, someone everybody’s heard of, getting people to come to a stamp event for local issues is a hard sell. Especially on a Saturday, when the Bulls are in the playoffs and the Bears are having a draft.”

Sports aside, the Gwendolyn Brooks stamp faces another public relations obstacle. Stamps just aren’t the thrill they used to be back when they were necessary for paying bills and conveying love long-distance.

And yet, commemorative stamps remain a way to resurrect the departed, a reason to think about the person on the front of the adhesive.

So let’s take a moment to think about Gwendolyn Brooks.

Born in 1917, she was the daughter of a janitor and a teacher. She went on to be the state’s first black poet laureate, the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize, the nation’s first black poetry consultant.

I say black because that’s what she preferred:

“According to my Teachers,

I am now an African American.

They call me out of my name.

BLACK is an open umbrella.

I am Black and A Black forever.”

She began writing poems long before hip-hop, but her writing often shared its rhythms and subjects. When she was 75, I went to hear her in a packed auditorium at Roosevelt University.

In her throaty, elastic voice, she scoffed at the popular term “inner-city children.”

“It sounds so demoting,” she told the audience. “So re-e-e-e-ducing.”

Then she read a poem about a boy molested by his drunken Uncle Seagram, and one about a girl headed home from school after a day of “learning nothing necessary.”

Another time I interviewed her at the Library of Congress, and there, surrounded by gold and marble, she exhorted me to show my neck while I was young enough that I could.

It doesn’t take a postage stamp to prove that Gwendolyn Brooks was a one-of-a-kind Chicagoan, but her stamp is a good reason to recall that she was.

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