Carolyn Rodgers

Carolyn Marie Rodgers (December 14, 1940,[1] Chicago, Illinois – April 2, 2010, Chicago, Illinois) was a Chicago-based American poet [2] and a founder of one of America’s oldest and largest black presses, Third World Press. She got her start in the literary circuit as a young woman studying under Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks in the South Side of Chicago.

Later, Rodgers began writing her own works, which grappled with black identity and culture in the late 1960s. Rodgers was a leading voice of the Black Arts Movement and authored nine books, including How I got Ovah (1975). She was also an essayist and critic, and her work has been described as delivered in a language rooted in a black female perspective[3] that wove strands of feminism, black power, spirituality, and writerly self-consciousness into a sometimes raging, sometimes ruminative search for identity.

Life and work

Rodgers first attended college at the University of Illinois in 1960, but transferred to Chicago’s Roosevelt University in 1961 where she earned her BA degree in 1965. She later earned a MA in English from the University of Chicago in 1980. Rodgers is most well known for her writing contributions to the Black Arts Movement (BAM). Rodgers first became involved in writing during that period while attending Writers Workshops by the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) and Gwendolyn Brooks.

She became distinctive as a new black woman poet in the 1960s with the publication of her first two books, Paper Soul and Songs of a Blackbird (Chicago: Third World Press, 1969). Following the national success of Paper Soul, Rodgers was awarded the first Conrad Kent Rivers Memorial Fund Award. Rodgers also won the Poet Laureate Award from the Society of Midland Authors in 1970. She then went on to receive an award from the National Endowment of the Arts, following the publication of Songs of a Blackbird. In 1980, Rodgers won the Carnegie Writer's Grant. She won the Television Gospel Tribute in 1982 and the PEN Grant in 1987. In 2009, Rodgers was inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent at the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing.

Poetry and poetics

Early work

Rodgers' poetry is recognizable for its themes which included identity, religion, and revolution, and her own use of free verse street slang and concern with feminine issues. In her early days, black revolutionary themes and cuss words wove through some poems.

She used slang and heartfelt language to write about love, lust, body image, family, religion, and the grace of human kindness. In her earliest writings such as Paper Soul (1968) and Songs of a Blackbird (1969), Rodgers revolutionary ideas about women’s roles conflicted with the more traditional ideas of the African-American culture. She was criticized for her use of profanity, which male leaders of BAM found inappropriate for a woman.

Haki R. Madhubuti, chair, publisher and fellow founder of Third World Press, told the Chicago Sun Times that: "She would take no quarter from insults, or downgrading her writing as a woman.... Her writing could stand by itself."[4]

So while Rodgers' Songs of a Blackbird includes themes about survival, mother-daughter conflicts, and street life it also criticizes those who dishonor her use of profanity. In her poem “The Last M.F.” she fights back:

they say,
that I should not use the word
mothafucka anymo
in my poetry or in any speech I give.
they say,
that I must and can only say it to myself
as the new Black Womanhood suggests
a softer self

In “The Last M.F.” Rodgers says she will stop using profanity but continues using the “menacing word” at least eleven times throughout the poem, blatantly making jabbs at men and their ideas of how a woman should speak and behave. Here too, Rodgers mocks the new Black Womanhood which she believes, paradoxically, promotes women to be silent.

Later work

Other volumes of work such as The Heart as Ever Green (1978) and How I Got Ovah (1975) also reflect on feminine issues such as female identity, women’s roles in society, and the relationships between mothers and daughters. However, How I Got Ovah exhibits a more crafted tendency than previous books, along with being more autobiographical and transformative. By now Rodgers was distilling her language and militant persona into poetry that was deeply concerned with religion, God, and the quest for inner beauty.

The change from militant views to more religious views can be seen in her 1975 poem "and when the revolution came." The repetition in the first four verses show a constancy in the black church communities:

and they just kept on going to church
gittin on they knees and praying
and tithing and building and buying

The implied criticism here is that while the militants were busy telling other black people how they should live to improve their lives, the black church communities were busy making black communities better. In stanzas 1 -5, Rodgers notes that the militants try to change the hair styles, the dress, any association with whites, the food eaten by blacks, and what the militants termed "white man's religion." According to Friedrike Kaufel, these changes "are petty ones."[5] These changes were quietly and passively resisted by the church members, who continued "going to church" and "tithing and building and praying." Stanzas 6-8 show the militants wanting to build new institutions for black children, and realizing that while the militants were only using words, in the form of orders, to make changes, the churches were actually making needed changes in black neighborhoods. Rodgers shows transformation from militant views to religious views in Stanza 8:

and the church folks said, yeah.
we been waiting fo you militants
to realize that the church is an eternal rock
now why don't you militants jest come on in
we been waitin for you
we can show you how to build
anything that needs building
and while we're on our knees, at that.

In these actions, the church members have long before reached the state of solidarity among themselves that the militants finally call for in Stanza 6.[5]

If this cannot be characterized as transformative, nonetheless her work seems to have shifted from a collective black perspective in her early work to an individual one[2] in her later writings. Consequently, by the time she publishes The Heart as Ever Green in 1978, Rodgers is incorporating earlier themes of feminism and human dignity in her poems, along with newer or more pronounced themes of love and Christianity. Some readers and cultural observers do not recognize a break or rupture from Rodgers' past in her later work. For them, Rodgers' spiritual progress in her poetry still brings a radical infusion. Even in her later poetry, we can still break open into a vision uniquely situated in a poetics that remains strident, militant and experimental.

Fiction and literary criticism

Rodgers' earned an appreciative and crucial audience through her fiction and literary criticism. Marsha C. Vick points out some of the reasons why:

The same insight and searching analysis that distinguish her poetry are integral to Rodgers's short fiction and her literary criticism. She portrays in her short fiction the ordinary and overlooked people in everyday African American life and emphasizes the theme of survival. Many consider her critical essay “Black Poetry—Where It's At” (1969) to be the best essay on the work of the “new black poets.” In it, she aesthetically evaluates contemporary African American poetry and sets up preliminary criteria of appraisal.[6]

According to poet Lorenzo Thomas, Carolyn Rodgers proposed new prosodic categories specific to black poetry. Thomas points out that this kind of essay (or manifesto) outlining a vision statement to spur militant and creative inquiry (but most particularly “Black Poetry—Where It's At”) was widely disseminated and discussed among poets of that time.[7] Thomas then goes on to point out that: "Her [Rodgers] ideas were based on what Jerry W. Ward, Jr., has called "culturally anchored SPEECH ACTS and Reader/Hearer Response".


  • In addition to writing poetry, Rodgers has written numerous short stories. Her play Love was produced Off-Broadway by Woodie King Jr., a father of the Black Theatre movement.
  • Rodgers was a member the Organization of Black American Culture, which promotes cultural activity of the arts.
  • Rodgers also owned her own publishing firm, Eden Press.
  • In December 1967, Carolyn Rodgers met with Haki R. Madhubuti and Johari Amini in the basement of a South Side apartment to found Third World Press, an outlet for African-American literature. By 2007, the company continues to thrive in a multi-million-dollar facility. Over the years, Rodgers would publish works for friend and Pulitzer-prize winning author Gwendolyn Brooks, as well as Sonia Sanchez, Sterling Plumpp and Pearl Cleage. Rodgers' work has been quoted by Oprah Winfrey and performed by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.[8]

Selected publications

  • Morning Glory: Poems (1989)
  • Finite Forms (1985)
  • Eden and Other Poems (1983)
  • The Heart as Ever Green (1978)
  • How I Got Ovah: New and Selected Poems (1975)
  • 2 Love Raps (1969)
  • Songs of a Blackbird (1969)
  • A Statistic, Trying to Make it Home (1969)
  • Paper Soul (1968)
  • Blackbird in a Cage (1967)

Further reading

  • Bettye J. Parker-Smith, “Running Wild in Her Soul: The Poetry of Carolyn Rodgers,” in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, ed. Mari Evans, 1984, pp. 393–410.
  • Jean Davis, “Carolyn M. Rodgers,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 41, Afro-American Poets since 1955, eds. Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis, 1985, pp. 287–95.


Additional references
  • Nelson, Carrie. Anthology of Modern American Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 1095-1097.
  • Thomas, Lorenzo. Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 2000.

External links

Sites, exhibits, and artist pages
  • Carolyn M. Rodgers: Voices from the Gaps
  • Modern American Poetry Site: Carolyn M. Rodgers
Tributes & obituaries
  • Huffington Post.
  • Ron Silliman includes comments, tributes, and links. Appears to have listed the birth year incorrectly at 1941
  • RIP+Poem this tribute piece includes Rodgers' poem "Poem for Some Black Women".
  • Why the Words and Works of Carolyn M. Rodgers Matter
  • Black Arts Movement Star Carolyn M. Rodgers Dead at 69
  • byline: "Her work 'affirmed the voice of black women -- of everyday black women'."
  • Little Known Black History Fact: Carolyn Rodgers
Poems and other writings
  • "Some Me of Beauty" Rodgers' poem from her collection How I Got Ovah.

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