Black Writing lost one of its stellar figures when Carolyn Marie Rodgers died on April 2, 2010. A founding member and major writer of one of the most important Black Arts organizations in American history–Chicago’s Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC)–she authored nine books, including how i got ovah, and was nominated for the National Book Award.
I was deeply honored to be invited to speak at her memorial on May 4, 2010. The first half of my remarks follow. The whole address is now posted as “Activism and Inwardness,” the first Sample Essay listed on the Essays page.
Thank you for inviting me to take part in this memorial.
My name is Richard Guzman. I’m a writer, and performer, and I teach at North Central College. In a way, I realize that my view of Carolyn may be way off from the view many of you, who have known her much longer, may have; but I hope my view is valuable nonetheless. I first met Carolyn Rodgers a dozen years ago when I was working on an anthology of Chicago writing called Smokestacks & Skyscrapers. It was the first really comprehensive collection of Chicago writing, and I knew immediately that she belonged among the greats like Carl Sandburg, and Saul Bellow, and Nelson Algren, and Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lorraine Hansberry, and Haki Madhubuti. That’s the company I thought she deserved to keep. Then four years ago I worked on another Chicago anthology, Black Writing from Chicago, this time devoted solely to black writing, and Carolyn not only consented to be in this collection, she also favored me with a wonderful, gracious introduction, an introduction in which she said: “This is an extraordinary book…a scholarly book of great importance, and a sheer delight to read as well.” For this alone, how could I not be in her debt forever?
She always called me only by my last name, and some of my most vivid memories of her are when we would meet at an event or just randomly on the street. She always saw me first and called out, “Guzman! Guzman! It’s me! How you doing?”
Yet despite her bold, outward-going greetings to me, what I always treasured about Carolyn, what always seemed to radiate to me from her, was a profound inwardness. Yes, we can all appreciate that she helped found Third World Press, that she played a vital role in OBAC, celebrated black community, explored social crises and feminist themes. I also love lines like these she wrote in her poem “Sheep,” where she celebrated people who, “join with others to tear down the walls / with bare berlin hands, and east and west, / someone raises a tightly clenched fist / and cries, amande. amande. / and we can all breathe again. / and we can get air.” Yet I always felt this activism and outwardness was never her real métier. This made me admire what she had done even more. In my own way, I have also spent a lifetime in activist concerns, yet I felt in Carolyn what I have always felt in myself: the urge to get out of the action, to draw away to some quieter, more inward place.
Carolyn’s inwardness gave her a profound sense of her own limits. In her poem “Jazz: Mood Indigo,” she wrote: “i wish that i could have been a steel / grey boulder shoulder holding you up, / and you, a slick fine highway going / anywhere special…but you yourself are broken, you tell me, / … / and my fingers and my soul are blue, blue, / blue like berry stained.” This sense of limits is invaluable for anyone trying to change the world, or even just trying to help one person along.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Elbow Room, James Alan McPherson, who owes a lot of his literary success to the South Side, describes the face of one of his characters whose soul is definitely “blue like berry stained.” His words always remind me of Carolyn Rodgers’ face. McPherson says, “It is a free face, a fresh face. In it I can see no servitude to the expressions of faces I have seen before. Hers is a smile completely unaware of any predecessor. It derives entirely from within itself. Her mystery, I think, is an awareness of this liberation from the familiar.” McPherson calls that inward place a person’s “secret self” and is obsessed with the importance of nourishing and protecting and deflecting attention away from it in order not to be co-opted by “normal” reality. Carolyn Rodgers’ smile radiated from her “secret self,” from a place completely within, an inward space we need to understand as desperately today as ever.