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January 26, 2012

We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks- Analysis

We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks- Analysis

Gwendolyn Brooks' poem "We Real Cool" sums up the reality that many youths faced if they chose to leave school. This poem was written in 1959, which was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. In the case of Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to segregate schools; however, desegregation was slow and many African Americans became frustrated. Segregation caused more than just separation, it caused many youths to question their roles in society; if you are told enough times that you don't belong, that you are different (in a bad way), or that you are less than others, then you will eventually start to believe it. Many youths gave up on the idea of having a future, because they were told that they had no future; so why try. The boys in the poem seem to be struggling with identity.

The poem opens with the scene of seven boys at a pool hall named the Golden Shovel. Seven is a number that is typically associated with being lucky. The seven pool players can also be seen to represent a small gang, and they need luck on their side, in order to survive their various financial and risky endeavors. The name of the pool hall, the Golden Shovel, signifies the short life expectancy of those who choose a life of crime over education. The golden part of the title implies that these pool players are young; they should be in school instead of in a pool hall. The shovel is an image that is commonly associated with graves. Therefore, the significance of the name of the pool hall is that the pool players who hang out there are digging their own graves by conducting illegal business. The pool players have an air of mystery around them that makes them seem cool. They seem exciting, because they aren't doing what they are supposed to be doing; they aren't playing it safe.

In the second stanza, the narrator, who appears to be one of the pool players, says that they are cool because they left school. They are sabotaging themselves by not going to school and living up to their potential. These boys are in fact not cool. The monosyllabic diction of the poem promotes the idea that these boys are uneducated. Brooks has said that "the WEs in "We Real Cool" are tiny, wispy, weakly argumentative "Kilroy-is-here" announcements. The boys have no accented sense of themselves, yet they are aware of a semi-defined personal importance. Say the "We" softly" (Report From Part One).

Brooks continues the poem by listing the illegal activities that these boys partake in. The narrator states that they "lurk late," and typically illegal activity is conducted in the dark. The darkness allows people to become whatever they want; the dark distorts images, making someone who appears harmless in the daylight appear menacing in the dark. The boy says that they "strike straight," which can be interpreted to mean that they commit crimes such as robbery, rape, and murder correctly, so that they will never be prosecuted for them. They "sing sin" implying that they boast of their misdeeds, as if their misdeeds are a part of some sort of right-of-passage into manhood. The final activity listed by the narrator is that they "thin gin," which means to water down the alcohol so that they can make more money, and they probably do this at the pool hall. Not having an education severely limits ones opportunities to make a better life for themselves so they turn to illegal occupations to support their families and to pass the time. By participating in these kinds of illegal behavior they are giving up on themselves.

The last stanza of the poem sums up the life of the uneducated man, who chooses to leave school. The narrator states that they "Jazz June;" Jazz is a very rebellious kind of music, because it is exotic and its roots come from the days of slavery when slaves would sing songs as a way of communicating without their owners knowing. June is the beginning of summer; it connotes a feeling of freedom from the everyday drudgeries of life. It is a chance for exploration and discovery. June is also a prime tourist season, so they could be saying that they have a whole new crop of people to swindle in June, thanks to vacationers who do not know any better. In the last line of the poem, the narrator admits that their life style leads to an early death, but he does not seem to care. They have existential freedom, which is characterized by not knowing or caring what is right or wrong; they will have to ultimately assume the responsibility of their actions and in this case the end result is death. The life of these boys may be clouded with excitement and danger, but the lives they are leading are not sustainable; they are extremely likely to die as a result of the path they chose and they know it.

This poem is reminiscent of the poetry of Langston Hughes, in the way that it is written to be read like a song or a testimony. She uses short phrases that are more likely to stick in the reader's head. By starting a line with the words "lurk," "strike," and "die" instead of "we" she is putting emphasis on the actions of the boys and the consequence of those actions. Each of the couplets in the poem rhyme: "cool" and "school," "late" and "straight," "sin" and "gin," and "June" and "soon," which creates a melodic tone. It sounds very catchy when one reads it; when someone reads a poem that rhymes they are more likely to remember that poem. The "we" at the end of every line provokes a sense of togetherness until the end when they die. Their way of life will certainly end in death. All they will ever be known as are the pool players at the Golden Shovel. The initial simplicity of the poem serves to invite the reader to analyze the text, searching for the deeper meaning.


Brooks, Gwendolyn. "We Real Cool." The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Ed. Margaret Ferguson. New York: Norton, 2005. 999-1000.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Report from Part One. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.

Cummings, Allison. "Public Subjects: Race and the Critical Reception of Gwendolyn Brooks, Erica Hunt, and Harryette Mullen." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 26.2 (2005): 3- 36.

Dickson, L. L. "'Keep It in the Head': Jazz Elements in Modern Black American Poetry." Melus 10.1 (Spring 1983) 29-37.

Smith, Gary. "Brooks's We Real Cool." Explicator 43.2 (1985) 49-50.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Implementation Decree; May 31, 1955; Records of the Supreme Court of the United States; Record Group 267; National Archives.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Opinion; May 17, 1954; Records of the Supreme Court of the United States; Record Group 267; National Archives.