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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The speakers of “We Real Cool” consist of a group of teenagers whose hunger for freedom drives their desire to rebel. Having renounced all sense of responsibility, the speakers enthusiastically list the various activities they can now freely engage in. Knowing that these activities mark them as social deviants only adds to the excitement. Indeed, their delinquency gives credence to their self-styled coolness. If the speakers of the poem associate coolness with social deviance, it’s only partly because of the sense of freedom rebellion brings. They’re also responding to a popular cultural image of teenage rebellion that gained prominence in the 1950s. Perhaps the most quintessential teen rebel was James Dean, the actor who starred in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, then died in a car wreck at the tragically young age of twenty-four. The wreck occurred before the film had even premiered, which further cemented his iconic status as a rebel. The speakers’ desire to rebel places them in direct relation to Dean and to other rebellious figures from the 1950s who made juvenile delinquency seem attractive.
Although the speakers of “We Real Cool” take pride in their rebellion, the poem’s tone of tragic irony draws attention to the fact that their deviant behavior has both personal and social costs. The speakers are young and naïve enough that they don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions. Drawn to the street cred that comes with delinquency, they’re arguably more concerned with their social image than they are with their own well-being. And yet, paradoxically, even as they project an early death for themselves, it’s almost as though they believe in their own immortality. Their lives really are on the line, but they don’t fully comprehend that fact. Additionally, there is more to consider than just the speakers’ lives. Indeed, the well-being of the speakers’ broader community is at stake. Each of the pool players speaking in the poem has family and friends, all of whose lives will be affected in the event of their premature death. In this light, the poem invites the reader to reflect on the trauma and grief that would afflict the broader community following the untimely departure of several of its members.
The speakers deliver their catalog of delinquency with a sense of pride. However, beneath the breezy surface of their words, the reader can detect that something must be wrong in the lives of these teenagers. Social research about juvenile delinquency suggests that the kinds of deviant behavior described in this poem frequently arise in response to challenges in other parts of life. In that case, it’s possible that the speakers are not rebelling simply because they think it makes them look cool. On the contrary, they may be acting out as a way of rebelling against challenges they’re facing in their family lives or in society at large. With this interpretation in mind, it’s important to consider that the speakers of the poem are likely Black. Brooks herself said she wrote “We Real Cool” after seeing a group of Black boys playing pool in a Chicago pool hall. Though the poem doesn’t specify the speakers’ racial identity, it does include subtle suggestions that they are Black. For instance, the phrase “We real cool” may mimic the cadences of African American speech. In this light, “We Real Cool” emphasizes the challenges facing young Black males in a racist society.