AN EPITAPH by Perry Mann


Gwendolyn Brooks, a black poet with an appropriately poetic name, who died recently at age 83, once observed some black males at the “Golden Shovel,” a pool hall with an ironically poetic name, shooting pool, talking big, drinking much, lurking late. She etched the tableau in her mind and later wrote a poem that, the distillation of a slice of life and the inference of truth therefrom, can hardly be equaled much less surpassed. The poem goes:
We real cool.
We left school.
We lurk late.
We strike straight.
We sing sin.
We thin gin.
We Jazz June.
We die soon.

“We real cool.” This is the message we often see on pickup trucks: “No Fear.” It is that characteristic cultivated by Hollywood heroes who exhibit super-self possession and supernatural calmness when confronted with deadly danger. Coolness is specious insouciance, proud perversity. The coolness of the pool players is partially verified by their scorn of school, an institution attended by wimps, nerds and sheep. It is coolness that diminishes when one awakes at night to find himself alone with space and time and unarmed against a sea of troubles and pressing consequences.

“We left school.” Super coolness cannot tolerate the collar of education. It is degrading to toe the line of punctuality, attentiveness, and obedience. Only slaves bend their wills to books. But the freelance has no hire and the frontier is gone. And the cool learn sooner or later, if they live so long, that one must bend his will to some extent to consensus, sacrifice his pride, or suffer for his contempt and willfulness.

“We lurk late.” Youth is plagued with the feeling that wherever they are is not where the action is, the action that would convert the hell of their boredom into a heaven of exhilaration. Thus, they lurk late lest they miss expectant moments of bliss. Such a platitude as “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” for all the validity of it is laughable nonsense to youth, who would rather be dumb than bed down before ten and chance missing the opportunity of their lives. They have never known the weariness of limb from a day’s labor that draws one to bed with the sun’s setting. Also aloneness is a curse to those who would rather not look at themselves.

“We strike straight.” I ponder this. I can explicate it only by speculation and imagination. I take it to mean that when they decide to avenge an imagined, alleged or real wrong, they don’t pussyfoot around with compromise and negotiation: they strike period. They are above subterfuge, double talk, treachery or trickery. When they come one knows what they come to do. And history attests that they come with guns, the ubiquitous heat in such a milieu.

“We sing sin.” There is no hypocrisy here. Their desire and pleasure, the urgings of their libidos, are sung to beats and words that excite mummies. But their earthiness is somewhat repellent to those whose passions have burnt to embers. Singing sin is nothing new, however; for songs and arias from centuries ago have a beat and rhythm and words less blunt and more subtle than rap but just as focused on the concupiscent aspect of man and woman.

“We thin gin.” Thinning gin or cutting it with a mixer doesn’t square exactly with the personalities so far delineated. So I am not sure what thinning gin really means. Perhaps, it means reducing the bottle to empty thin. That would make sense. A bottle of gin passed around among seven would thin suddenly. But that alcohol would be an ingredient of the composition of this picture and poem is so certain that a reader would infer its presence without reference to it.

“We Jazz June.” As well, this poem without sex would be a three-legged chair. Jazzing June means nothing similar to the activity of dancing around a maypole in May. Jazzing June is sexually making June. And sexual conquest among men is second only to physical conquest of rivals. The genes that rule men in matters of sex and machismo are the same that rule the bulls in the pasture.

“We die soon.” So true. But the wages of sin is death. And the seven have sinned. Pride is the ace of sin. The leaving school, lurking late, striking straight, singing sin, thinning gin and jazzing June constitute such an aggregate of impudicity, impiety, and cupidity that neither nature nor God can suspend consequences, even thought nature and God know that the seven know not what they do and what they do is a piece and parcel of fate of the history that impinges and determines their every act and attitude. No thought or act or attitude is without its history, without its preceding thought or act or attitude, ad infinitum. Every thought is birthed by one.

The poem is not only an epitaph for blacks who have encountered such a wall of discrimination that they have tuned out, turned off and dropped out and have retreated into an attitude of “we are an island unto ourselves,” but it is a gravestone inscription for youth of whatever color and race who, for whatever reason, camp on an island of contempt, indolence, and self-gratification and tell the rest of the world to go to hell.

Many of these pool players, if they survive their willfulness and estrangement from society, will, once maturity begins to seep into their consciousness—if it ever does—recognize the price of pride and make amends, look to the heavens for some salve to ameliorate the anguish of alienation. The road from pride to humility is well worn. But the tragedy is that so many die soon, long before they began the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (, and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation ( I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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