Problems . . . and Sometimes Hope
It would be ridiculous to imply that the lives of African Americans were or are without problems, major problems. Many poems are available to spell this out quite clearly. From the times depicted by Robert Hayden in “Middle Passage”, a poem which presents the agonies of “passage”, including the Amisted Mutiny (written as though Hayden’s words were those of white crew members), up until the twentieth century “S.O.S.” of Imamu Amiri Baraka “calling all black people”, poets have described the sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles faced by African Americans throughout history.
In examining this type of poetry, the same general procedure will be followed. Some poems will be part of my weekly presentations. Others will be grouped together as a category, read silently, orally, and sometimes dramatically, discussed, and sometimes used as motivation for historical research and as encouragement for pupil poetry.
Some poems in this category present a harsh picture but contain material which must be dealt with if reality is to be understood. The brutality of a group torture by a white mob is vividly presented in Richard Wright’s “Between the World and Me”.
. . . And a thousand faces swirled around me,
clamoring that my life be burned . . .
When such a poem is covered, I think it is important to balance it with a poem offering some promise for the future, as in Langston Hughes’s “I, Too Sing America”. (A more detailed lesson plan is included.)
. . . Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed . . .
It is also quite important that, through other activities, pupils become aware that negative, prejudiced behavior was and is not universal among the white population. Appropriately reminding the class of this seems necessary for a balanced presentation. I have found that reading Mildred Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” and showing the film “Mississippi Burning”, accompanied by adequate discussion, are two helpful steps in this process. Both works fit well with this category.
There are also a variety of light, often humorous, poems about very human problems. In “one of the problems of play”, Nikki Giovanni discusses a universal problem encountered by children.
. . . i play hard and have to
go and i don’t like to
go in when i’m out
so i go out
side when i’m out
There should be no difficulty motivating pupils to discuss and write about similar problems.