I met Gwendolyn Brooks in the late '80s, at a reading at the University of Maryland. It was a Friday evening, I think. She read a poem I hadn't known, one I felt she'd written for me right there on the spot.
At the end of the reading, Len Bias walked out from the wings and presented the poet with a bouquet of yellow roses. Bias was a local basketball star whose on-the-court greatness at the University of Maryland had made him a recent top-draft pick in the NBA. I'll never forget how proud and boyish Lenny looked when he handed Gwendolyn Brooks the flowers. I think he was wearing white with yellow accents, including yellow socks, looking very '80s-stylish. A few weeks later, I would spend all of one morning and afternoon sobbing uncontrollably in my office, wracked with sadness after hearing Donnie Simpson announce to WKYS listeners that Len Bias had died of a drug overdose. But that evening on stage with Gwendolyn Brooks, he was so typically graceful.
When the the program ended, I approached Ms. Brooks in the lobby of the auditorium. No one was talking to her. Why not? Were they insane?
I found her to be earthy and kind and unassuming. A person who'd walked into the lobby just then would have thought she -- ambling without the slightest sense of self-importance and wearing a grandmotherly sweater -- was a member of the audience.
I mentioned the "hair poem" she had read, and she asked if I would like her to mail me a copy of it.
On a slip of note paper I wrote down my address. I handed the paper to her, and she put it inside her sweater pocket. I hid my disappointment. I knew that once back home in Chicago, she'd forget all about me and that piece of paper inside her pocket. Months later, she'd pull that sweater out of the closet, put it on, find my name and address in her pocket and wonder who in the world Avis Matthews in Maryland was!
I was sure of that until about four weeks later, when a brown envelope arrived in the mail. My name and address were on the front in big, broad handwriting. On the flap of the envelope was a plain, white return address label: Gwendolyn Brooks, 7428 S. Evans Ave., Chicago, IL 60619.
Opening the envelope, I pulled out a light blue booklet: "Primer for Blacks." That slip of paper had been placed inside the front cover. Under the name and address that I'd written down standing in the auditorium lobby was this note, written in the same handwriting that had addressed the envelope: "See page 12." There on page 12 was the poem: "To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals -- Never to look a hot comb in the teeth." I was blown away!
TO THOSE OF MY SISTERS WHO KEPT THEIR NATURALS Never to look a hot comb in the teeth. Gwendolyn Brooks Sisters! I love you. Because you love you. Because you are erect. Because you are also bent. In season, stern, kind. Crisp, soft -in season. And you withhold. And you extend. And you Step out. And you go back. And you extend again. Your eyes, loud-soft, with crying and with smiles, are older than a million years. And they are young. You reach, in season. You subside, in season. And ALL below the richrough righttime of your hair. You have not bought Blondine. You have not hailed the hot-comb recently. You never worshipped Marilyn Monroe. You say: Farrah's hair is hers. You have not wanted to be white. Nor have you testified to adoration of that state with the advertisement of imitation (never successful because the hot-comb is laughing too.)
But oh, the rough dark Other music! the Real, the Right. The natural Respect of Self and Seal! Sisters! Your hair is Celebration in the world!