The American Civil Rights Movement
Gwendolyn Brooks wrote “We Real Cool” in 1959, just as the Civil Rights Movement was gathering momentum. By the early 1960s, this movement would grow into the most influential social and political tide in the American twentieth century, leading to the abolition of racial segregation and the enfranchisement of all Black US citizens. As a politically active Black writer, Brooks was deeply engaged in the fight for equal rights, and her sharpest weapon was her poetry. Already a decade earlier, in her Pulitzer Prize–winning work Annie Allen (1949), Brooks had explored issues related to gender and race. And a decade later, in her 1968 collection In the Mecca, she continued to focus on similar, socially relevant themes. In “We Real Cool,” the speakers never explicitly remark on their racial identity, but context clues imply that they’re Black. The opening line, “We real cool,” subtly evokes the cadences of African American speech. The allusions to jazz also suggest their belonging to a Black community. Although the poem may be interpreted as being concerned with the fate of youth in general, it must also be understood more specifically as commentary on the fate of young Black males in US society.
Rebels have had an enduring place in the Western cultural imagination, and the teenage rebels of “We Real Cool” must be understood in relation to a popular tendency to treat rebels as heroes. Perhaps the most iconic rebel in the Western tradition comes from Christianity. After rebelling against God, the archangel Lucifer was cast down to Hell and became Satan. Satan is unambiguously evil in Christian tradition. However, when the English poet John Milton wrote his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), he featured Satan in a sympathetic way that many readers felt made him the poem’s real hero. Many other significant rebels have appeared in the literary tradition since then. However, it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that the rebel-as-hero became a pop-cultural phenomenon. The 1950s witnessed the production of numerous Hollywood films featuring rebel heroes. For example, Marlon Brando played the iconic outlaw biker Johnny Strabler in the 1953 film The Wild One. Even more legendary is James Dean, who starred in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause. The prominence of these and other rebels in 1950s popular culture helps explain why the speakers of “We Real Cool” idealize dying young.