Over the past five years, while participating in the Yale -New Haven Teachers Institute, I have written extensive units detailing the lives and achievements of Edward Hopper, Jacob Lawrence, B. Traven, the Wright Brothers and Langston Hughes. During each project I have read extensively about these creative geniuses. During the Langston Hughes project, I developed a historical narrative that touched lightly on specific areas of his monumental portfolio. His literary accomplishments were well represented by his novels and short stories, his plays, and his poetry. Hughes’ poems often conveyed serious messages that were seldom pleasant but he wrote these poems with compassion and hope.
This year I have decided to develop a unit that focuses primarily on Langston Hughes’ poetry against the backdrop of earlier and later poetry (Paul Dunbar and Gwendolyn Brooks, respectively); that is to say, a unit that studies universal themes and historical occurrences as they follow a progressive journey across continents, oceans and chronological time lines. This unit will explore black history dating back to ancient civilizations; and as we move to the present day, we will examine a variety of themes , including but not limited to racial prejudice, miscegenation, dream fulfillment, opportunity and freedom.
As an introduction to Hughes’ work, we will briefly study Paul Dunbar, a prolific black writer who completed a large collection of short stories, four novels, and volumes of poetry. He wrote in the late 1800’s and he was one of the first black writers to earn a living from his writing. Dunbar’s works are wonderful selections for middle school students because they are easy to understand and they demonstrate excellent poetic techniques. His poems fall into two categories: humorous dialect poems that often depict warm, loving relationships, especially with his mother, and short, non-dialect poems that shed some light on the reality of being an oppressed people.
Dunbar’s poetry will lend itself nicely to our advance into the 1920’s, a time that brought the Harlem Renaissance. For the first time, blacks began the process of introducing America to itself — that is, to all members of its extended family. For so long before then Black Americans had been denied access to the cultural and economic mainstreams of America. The first writers of this movement developed literature that was rich in detail and sought to describe the dramas of everyday living. These writers presented the plight and struggles of Black Americans everywhere; they recounted the joys and sorrows , the fears and hatreds, the opportunities and the prejudices. Many of these writers sought to challenge the conscience of White America to consider equal opportunities for all.
During this time period, black writers became very self-assertive. Writers such as McKay, Toomer, Bontemps, Cullen and Hughes became widely accepted as peers of universally-accepted poets of the time. Hughes, as a major writer during this Renaissance period, contributed largely to the recovery of the oral folk tradition, with its roots in jazz and rhythm and blues. His poetry, while reflecting his black heritage, portrays the constant struggle for opportunity and freedom. As we study Hughes, we will seek to analyze the historical events or consequences that prompted Hughes to create such masterpieces as “The Negro Mother”, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, “The Weary Blues”, “Dream Variations” and “I, Too, Sing America”. These poems and many others served as a platform from which Langston sought to bring about social change. As he created his poems, he sought to portray his people with a strong sense of realism. He often wrote on controversial racial topics but he wrote in such a way as to please large elements of both his white and black audiences.
To conclude my unit, we will briefly study Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Afro-American to win the Pulitzer Prize. Her imagery is strong and visceral. To some extent she could be considered a forerunner of contemporary black poets in that she deals openly with the disillusionment widely experienced with the Caucasian society, emphasizes black pride, and understands the urban poor. Her poetry celebrates the truth of life, touching the sights and sounds in a poor black community. She is rooted in this experience. One can see a common bond between the writer and her subjects; she can identify with their pain and laughter, their shattered egos and dreams. She is most famous for “The Bean Eaters” and “Children of the Poor”. These selections will be ideal for my students because they share similar circumstances.