(I can’t believe I didn’t talk about this one last year. This is one of my fave writing assignments. Though the range of quality is all over the map, even the “not so good” ones are usually entertaining to read. Anyway…)
“Hi, my name is mrC, and I’m an English teacher who doesn’t especially like very much poetry…”
There, I admitted it.
I don’t do a “poetry unit.” I don’t assign the kids to write poems (shiver), except as an option on novel final projects, and then I make them meet with me first and run ideas and rough drafts by me.
I do admire good poets’ ability to cram a whole lot of meaning into a few words, and there are some poems that just complement our reading so well, so we do read and discuss some poetry: e e cummings (check out this one), some Robert Frost (obviously), and my personal fave: Langston Hughes.
I read somewhere that Langston Hughes was one of the first black men in America to make his living entirely from his writing. He didn’t just write poetry; he wrote short stories and plays and essays too. His work is accessible, yet has depth, and oh how I love his use of slang and dialect. A part of the Harlem Renaissance, he was tuned in to the rhythms and the banter of the jazz dudes too.
Some years I do a whole web-quest sort of thing on the Harlem Renaissance, and we explore LH’s life and other poets from the time, like Countee Cullen and check out Bessie Smith’s life and music, and groove on some of the slang from the era — “salty dog” anyone? But even if I don’t do the whole HR thing, I always do “Theme for English B.”
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
The rest of the poem is ostensibly the page he writes for his instructor.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and then I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down and write this page:
We talk about how in 1951, North Carolina would still have had “whites only” facilities, and Harlem was an all black neighborhood, with the all-white NY City College in the middle. He lives at the YMCA. (Most of them are actually so into this that they don’t even start with the Village People.) We talk about why the walk home is so central to his truth; he’s not just walking home, he’s moving from one world to another.
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
“Is he right? Are you made up of what you feel and see and hear?”
“Well, let’s see. What if I take “Dale” here (I pick the most straight-laced, still looks/acts like a 6th grader kid in the class), and send him to South-Central Smell A, in the heart of “da hood” to live for a year? Would we get the same sweet Dale back?”
“No way!” A chorus.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
“Is there anyone who doesn’t like those things?”
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records — Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
“What? Is he saying that he’s turning in his essay on black paper?”
It doesn’t take long for them to get that if he’s being “true,” his life experiences will have to come out in his writing.
“No, the teacher won’t go, ‘Ha! Black guy!’ as he reads the essay.”
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.
By the time we finished working our way through it today, they actually applauded when I read the last line. They really seem to connect.
Then I hit them with…
“You have the same assignment Langston Hughes had. But you have until Friday.”
(to be continued)
(Here’s a link to the whole poem and some questions/activities.)