Gwendolyn Brooks, Vulnerability, and JNCOs: A Conversation with Brian Broome

I’ve never been to Warren, Ohio where Brian Broome grew up, or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he has lived for roughly the past 30 years. To my knowledge, I’ve never met his mom, siblings, friends, one-night stands, or Tuan, the boy on the bus who we hear about several times in Punch Me Up to the Gods, Broome’s debut memoir. But if you gave me an array of photos, I guarantee I could identify any of them. Plunk me down in the heart of Pittsburgh and I’d find his old haunts. Broome invites the reader into his reality, his Warren, Ohio, his Pittsburgh.

Broome offered that same warmth when I sat down with him for our conversation. His radiant personality made it feel like we had transcended Zoom and were gently laid onto massage tables in a candle lit room with the scent of lavender in the air. The tranquil atmosphere let us easily drift from topics such as poetry and personal growth, to sexism and horrible 90’s era fashion.

Aaron Tyler Hand: As a poet, I’d love to start off by discussing Gwendolyn Brooks with you, since your book is structured around her “We Real Cool” poem. The poem seems to show-up in every poetry class that I’ve ever taken. It’s amazing how decades after its first publication it still has such staying power. I’d love to hear your insight into why you think this poem has so much power.

Brian Broome: I’ve done some research on Gwendolyn Brooks, and by a certain point in her career she seemed like she was so tired of people bringing up this poem. I watched this interview with her where she basically said, “Look, I’ve written other poems.” I think it captured a poetic imagination in its unique structure. And for Black Americans, it was unique in its pattern. For me anyway, what it did well was mimic the way Black people talked. It was almost like a precursor to rap. There are a ton of different things about that poem that I think are unique and special.

The reason that it appealed to me for this book was because when I read it, I thought this is what I’m writing about. It’s a little treatise on Black masculinity and what Black masculinity is seen as. No one else may see the poem that way, but when I read it, I felt like it was showing what it means in Black culture—to some degree—to be a man. It was in the rebellious nature of the poem. Doing more research, I found that bell hooks wrote a book that discussed the poem and she, too, saw it as a little treatise on Black masculinity.

Going back to your question, I think [Brooks’ poem] keeps people coming back because there was nothing else like it at the time, and it gave people of all backgrounds an insight into what being young, and Black, and male in this culture meant for these young men that she saw at this pool hall. Brooks says that she wanted to know what they thought about themselves, and that lead me to think about what I thought about myself at that age. That was also an impetus for writing the book.

I actually, came to this Gwendolyn Brooks poem late in life. But when I found it, I realized that this poem was exactly what I wanted to say with these stories. And I thought to myself, I’m going to try to hang these stories off of this poem. And it worked! The stories that I was writing fit like puzzle pieces into specific lines of the poem. It felt great. It was a real joy to use that poem as a framework.

Hand: The lines of “We Real Cool” make up the section headings of your book, with the exception of the final section, “Tabula Rasa.” What led you to add this blank slate or fresh start to the end of her poem?

Broome: I would never be presumptuous and say that I’m adding to Gwendolyn Brooks poem. It’s already a masterpiece. The “Tabula Rasa” section of the book is just me talking to myself or to a character that becomes symbolic. I’m talking about myself and my own story, but I’m also talking about what a lot of Black men and boys go through. You have racism telling you you’re one thing, telling you you’re worth less than white people. You also, sometimes, have this homophobic masculinity in the Black culture that tells you that you should be this thing. The attempt for “Tabula Rasa” is to say that you don’t have to be any of that. This is your life; you can do and say and be exactly who you are. You don’t have to conform to these standards. Definitely do not believe you are worth less, which is what white supremacy tells you, and don’t feel like you have to conform. A lot of masculinity is shutting down, packing away hurt feelings. It’s about suppressing. My goal at the end was to tell myself, you don’t need to suppress; it comes out sooner or later and holding it in might lead to you hurting yourself or other people. That’s more of what it’s about.

Hand:At the very end, I’ll be careful not to give too much away, we see you go through a metaphorical baptism. What does this baptism or washing clean at the end signify for you as Brian Broome, the person?

Broome: You know, I think I want to try to be a little bit gentler with myself. I want to be better to other people. In my life, I have seen other people as a means to an end and I don’t want to be that person anymore. Like I say in the book, there was a person I was, and I don’t want to be that person anymore. I want to change. That’s what that means, I want to be a little braver and a little less accommodating. I want to feel comfortable taking up space in the world. A lot of my addiction issues were about killing bad feelings and not processing them. I want to try processing those bad feelings instead of taking them out on myself or others. That’s what that means, or I hope that’s what that means. I’m not going to be perfect going forward. I certainly have problems and am troubled in many ways, but I’m working through it and now I know that these are things that need to be worked through as opposed to being silenced.

Hand: That makes me think of the chapter entitled “Bee,” and how you talk about spending much of your life not trying to do anything at all, just blending into the background. It would seem that by releasing this book, you break away from that quite a bit because you’re putting so much on the plate. Do you think there was a turning point when you grew out of that trying to hide, or is it something you’re still trying to work on and this book was just a step in that process?

Broome: I was trying to blend into the background way before I found drugs and alcohol. As a kid, I was just trying to make sure people didn’t see me, or if they saw me, they saw me in a positive light. I wanted them to see me as the good Black boy, the articulate Black boy. This whole respectability thing I was going for made me think I had to be the best Black boy ever. In that way, I was trying to blend in, but when I got older and I found drinking and drugs, that whole blending into the background thing just stopped. I wanted to be the front and center of attention. None of which was genuine, it was all drug fueled. Now that the book is coming out, I’m nervous about people reading the inner most details of my life. But at the same time, it’s kind of freeing too. I think for a lot of my friends, it’s going to explain a lot of fucked up behavior on my part. My friends will read it and go, “Oh okay, I get it now, you’re crazy.”  I spent a long time in my life lying in one way or another, sometimes just outright lies and sometimes just lies by omission. So here it all is, well most of it anyway, I didn’t dump everything into the book, but there is a lot of it in there.

Hand: Releasing a memoir definitely exposes so many of an author’s vulnerabilities, and there are a couple spots in the book when it seems like you’re hesitant to let the reader get too close. Why is it important for you not to drain everything you have into this piece? Are these moments more personal that you want to hold onto them as your own?

Broome: There are two things: one, some of the stuff I wanted to put in I thought was too embarrassing. There are a few things I held back just because I’m willing to expose myself to a certain degree, but I don’t want to completely embarrass myself. I’ve done some awful things as an addict. I’ve lied, I’ve stolen, I’ve done all kinds of things that aren’t appropriate, so some of that I held back. And then other things, like you said, that’s just for me. It’s just a precious moment that I want to have to myself. I think that’s important too.

Hand: But when you do open up, you really draw the reader into your world. In “Sandalwood,” we see you lurking outside a car as your friend and a man you wish you were with are steaming up the windows. You talk about how you feel that you shouldn’t watch such an intimate moment but the more you do the more you start to reflect on your own life. This is often how I felt reading your book; drawn in by the intimate moments, feeling a little bit like I don’t belong, but in the end learning something about myself from it. With that lead in, why do you think it’s important for people, like me, who are not gay or Black, or even men, to read your book, and get things out of your book?

Broome: I think in general it’s just important to know or to learn about how people who are not you exist in the world. The stories that I’m telling in this book are unique to me, but I do not think they are unique in general. I think there is something that everybody can pull from them. In this culture, we are constantly told that there is something wrong with us, and I think that everyone can relate to making themselves unhappy as they try to be what they are told they should be. It’s important for white people to be educated about the fact that we live in a white supremacist country. I think it’s important for heterosexual people to know the things that gay people go through. I think it’s important for Black people to know that there are gay people in their community that they’re ignoring. I think it’s important to read from others’ experiences and learn from them. Stories are really powerful, and I hope that the stories that I’m telling resonate in that way.

Hand: They definitely do, and I think you will see that as the reviews come in. You pulled me in with your openness and honesty. It’s real and gritty, and at the same time you have the humor to say, “I’m an asshole in this situation. I’m not perfect. I’m living in a world with other imperfect people. Maybe if we worked together, we could figure out how to coexist as imperfect people while we work on ourselves.”

Broome: Being imperfect together, yes exactly.

Hand: The last question I have for you is a little lighter than some of the others we’ve discussed, and it’s mostly for my friends who will be reading this interview. In the book you talk about how you lived through a time when JNCOs were really cool pants. You tried your best to make knock-off JNCOs when you couldn’t afford the real thing. I’m 18 years younger than you but I also went through a JNCO phase, as did several of my friends. While I didn’t go through the tactic that you describe in the book of rubber-banding large pants to look like JNCOs, which I think is genius, I settled for the K-Mart knock-offs. I’m hoping you can paint us a picture of your entire outfit the included your knock-off JNCOs.

Broome: There were several outfits. The 90s were a high-end fashion time. It was the height of fashion. I would go to a Goodwill or second-hand shop and just buy really huge jeans. I would synch a belt really tight around my waste and I’d cover it up with a really big shirt. I was really into sports shirts with players numbers on the back. If you could find 69, you’d hit gold, right? I would wear this big jersey that came down to my knees, and then I’d take the rubber bands and I would wrap them around upper thighs, and another rubber band just above my knees. This would successfully flare the pants out so that they would look like JNCOs. Also, you had to cut the hem so that the bottom frayed a little bit. You knew you were successful when the bottom of your pants completely covered your shoes.

Just picture me with a whistle neckless, because I was always at the club, I had the glow sticks, I had the big JNCO pants, and then a big pastel women’s football jersey. And I’m going to tell you and your friends, I looked like a complete idiot.