People — Famous and Family
This category will explore a variety of famous people who played an important role in African American history, along with highlighting tributes made to family members. By “family members”, I mean anyone playing a significant role in a person’s life.
Some poems on famous people will be introduced as a weekly poem
when that person is the subject of our social studies curriculum. Harriet Tubman poems fit naturally when studying the Underground Railroad. Some versions of “John Henry” could complement facts on railroad expansion in the United States.
Other poems on a given person will be presented in clusters after either the person has been investigated or the period in which he or she lived has been covered. These poems will be used both as a review of material previously covered and to motivate further investigation of the particular individual or the historical setting. Naturally, silent, oral, and sometimes dramatic reading of these poems will continue, as well as pupil discussion of their content. Besides motivating further research, the poems could serve as motivation for pupils to write their own tributes, possibly accompanied by appropriate art work.
There are many poems about famous people that might be used, but I shall mention one that, to some, honors a less familiar figure. “American Gothic”, or “To Satch”, is a short poem written by Samuel Allen honoring Satchell Paige, a legendary pitching star from the Negro leagues who after many years of exclusion finally was admitted to the Majors. He pitched effectively well past the age of fifty and, according to some, he said he would die on the mound.
. . . I’m gonna reach up and grab me a handfulla stars . . .
And whip three hot strikes burnin’ down the heavens . . .
Besides the heartache and joy of his story, this poem leads naturally into discussion and possible poetry about Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, and other African American athletes who overcame the barriers of prejudice. (A more detailed lesson plan is included.)
Turning to poems about family, there are numerous works to draw from. Many, but not all, come from anthologies written specifically for children. Many are written especially for mothers, but others are for fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and people who might not be blood relatives but certainly can be considered family members.
In “Aunt Jane Allen”, Fenton Johnson asks, upon the death of an eighty-year-old neighborhood fixture:
. . . Have those who bore her dust to the last resting
place buried with her the gentle Son that she
gave to each of the seed of Ethiopia?
Discussion of this poem could focus on appreciating those who touch our lives positively but whose value often goes unnoticed.
(A more detailed lesson plan is included.)
In “To P.J.” by Sonia Sanchez, pupils will see a very different style and mood.
. . . if i cud ever write a poem as beautiful
as u, little 1/yr/old/brotha
poetry would go out of bizness.
Besides speculating who P.J. really is and perhaps what his initials stand for, pupils can examine how this poem is written. What is different? Why do you think she writes this way? Do you approve? Would you like to write a poem like this?
Placing family poems in a separate category provides the opportunity to examine the role which family has played in African American history. Despite social circumstances that have conspired to destroy it and in spite of the scars these depredations have left, the family has proven itself a vital sustaining force throughout the years. Though pupils may have individual family problems, these poems highlight some of the positives in family members that might go unnoticed or unappreciated and could help the child to expand her/his perception of the family’s scope. This could be true for all children.