In the sixth century the Greek philosopher Heraclitus “declared that there is no fixed, unchanging truth- ‘Everything flows’-from which his follower, Protagoras, inferred that each person’s point of view is an equally valid description of the state of affairs: ‘Man is the measure of all things’” (Gamwell, 8). Centuries later the African American poet Langston Hughes wrote the poem “A Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which refers to rivers across the globe connecting his perspective as a Black man with the African diaspora far into the ancient past. Similar to the passage of time, rivers and diasporas change and are capable of shifting, expanding and disappearing from view. One of the main topics of the Poetry as Sound and Object seminar was erasure. We explored how erasure can be an intentional use of poetry. I noticed how meaning changes when words disappear during the act of erasure. What does poetry as a format for expression allow writers to do? Poetry perhaps allows writers to say what they cannot necessarily see but what they can feel about the world in words. Poetry enables students to express their emotions before they may know why they feel a certain way about the world around them. It gives them permission to share their ideas in a way that is more generous than standard academic writing. Alternatively, our seminar also analyzed the sonnet form and evaluated how the structure has been broadly used by poets today to express themselves. Like the thought experiment of Albert Einstein riding on a beam of light, the evidence for what was really there before is not as necessary as the imagination to envision or remember what may be there. The idea of the recurrence and obscuring of history symbolized by the changing paths of rivers was a metaphor that I drew inspiration from to create this unit.
During the course of this visual poetics seminar, I went on a tour of New Haven with Paul Sabin, Randolph W. Townsend, Jr. Professor of History and Professor of American Studies at Yale University. I learned that the city of New Haven where I teach, for example, had tributary streams which used to flow through the city, such as what is now the Oak Street Connector. The tour began at the Eli Whitney Museum which is located on a site with a river running past it. The American inventor Eli Whitney chose this location because of the river which he dammed to create a mill to make guns. Whitney is also known for the invention of the cotton gin. The invention of the cotton gin increased the profitability of slavery and drove demand for the importation of people from Africa to be enslaved in the American South and the Caribbean. It is an example of how an action in one area can have an unintended, outsized impact on another place and history far into the future. This unit begins with a student field trip to the Eli Whitney Museum. At the museum students will begin to learn about the history of American slavery with the cotton gin as a starting point of local Connecticut history.
During seminar discussion I conversed with a fellow named Carolyn Streets who shared a unit she developed about African American soldiers’ contributions during World War II. Her unit incorporated a literary link to Number the Stars, a book about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. From her unit I am borrowing the concept of change agents. Change agents are defined by Streets as people whose identities impact their decision to act with courage in order to resist oppression. Students can develop confidence in the course of the unit. They will develop their ability to communicate ideas through writing, performance and artistic production. Historical figures such as Arturo Schomburg demonstrate confident leadership skills in learning, collaboration and leading with curiosity. Langston Hughes as the narrator of the poem “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” is also a change agent who writes back to the past and alters the river of time’s course through his words. He uses his poetic agency to tell a story of Black people far into the past as timeless as the ancient rivers of the world.
The student population at the K-8 magnet school where I teach are primarily bilingual English and Spanish speaking Hispanic students from Mexico and Puerto Rico. The unit begins with reading the children’s book Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library, by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Eric Velasquez, aloud to the class. This text describes how a negative childhood experience with an ignorant teacher inspired the self-taught Puerto Rican historian Arturo Schomburg to become a change agent by creating a library about African American culture. When he was in fifth grade a teacher told Schomburg that Africa had no history. Instead of discouraging him this sparked his critical thinking skills to find the history of African people himself. He made it his life’s mission like the African American historian W.E.B. DuBois who documented the contributions of African American soldiers during World War I. Schomburg collected hard to find texts such as the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, who in 1773 was “the first African American and third American woman to have a book published” (Weatherford, 9). Schomburg was a friend of Langston Hughes, and at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem is a mosaic representing the poem “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” placed over Hughes’ ashes, which are contained in an urn shaped like a book. One of the seven basic story forms is the quest. The arc of the quest as an archetypal story is structured as a character called to action to take a journey that is frustrated. Then after overcoming ordeals accomplishes a summative goal (Booker, 83). This story form of the quest is a guide of the unit with students being called to follow Schomburg’s journey into the past and then end up with a deeper understanding of African American history, poetry and art by the end of the unit. This spring I visited an exhibition on display from April 3 – July 16, 2023 about the Afro-Hispanic painter Juan de Pareja at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It featured a display of photographs documenting how Schomburg researched the Black diaspora. Schomburg was drawn to look far into the past like the narrator of Hughes’s poem “A Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
The focus of my research for this unit was Langston Hughes’s poetry and his recording of Black life during World War I and World War II. Hughes is one of the major figures in the Harlem Renaissance, which was the result of the Great Migration. Another figure that features prominently is W.E.B. Du Bois. Significant archives of Du Bois and Hughes are located at the Yale Beinecke Rare Book Library. I visited the Langston Hughes archives in April. I saw his draft revisions of poems about war, such as “Trumpeter,” “Wisdom and War”, “Young Sailor”, “World War II Night Edition”, “Youth”, and “Without Benefit of Declaration”. Excerpts of these poems inspired the selection of poems within the unit lessons. These excerpts refer to the history of enslavement in America and foreshadow the marches of the Civil Rights Movement. Repetition of history echoes through these poems. Direct references to violence make these poems less accessible for teaching at the middle school level. I noticed that Hughes frequently refers to youth in poem titles. He emphasizes the past’s impact on present and future events. He implies that failure to reflect on the past has negative implications for the future. For example, the “Trumpeter” drafts drew my attention because in research I learned that the Harlem Hellfighters brought Jazz music to Paris during World War I. I learned from visiting a multimedia exhibition at the Jazz Museum in Harlem this spring that the band leader James Reese Europe recruited forty musicians and paved the way for musicians like Duke Ellington. The African American photographer Morgan Smith described his first impression of Harlem as shaped foremost by music. Smith describes how places like the Cotton Club and the Apollo were inspiration for his photographic subjects (Smith, 7). Olio by Tyehimba Jess was a foundational text for our Poetry as Sound and Object seminar. In it I found a description of music in a poem “Carmen Ledieux, 544 West 123rd Street, Harlem, NY: Jan. 26, 1926”, that captures the feeling of sound that hangs around after the notes have been played. Sounds that are “ancient” and sound “new” while also “waitin there to be heard all the time and how could it have been missed before now?” (Jess, 126). The poem refers to the holds of slave ships in a metaphor of the trumpeter’s eyes. The poem “Wisdom and War” drew my attention because of the title and the purpose of this unit to teach students from the lessons of war. “Young Sailor” is a poem which refers to youth, a central concern of Hughes and this unit. In the poem the young sailor is concerned with himself and today. The poem “World War II Night Edition” directly refers to World War II and demonstrates the totality of the impact of war worldwide from Manhattan to Japan. The poem “Youth” is another example of Hughes having an interest in the possibility presented by the next generation and yet he refers to the youth marching down the path from which they came. “Without Benefit of Declaration” is a poem that has great emotional weight. The imagery of snow as heavy as bullets and bullets as numerous as snowflakes is haunting imagery.
The institutions that I visited for research this spring were the Yale Beinecke Rare Book Library, The Jazz Museum, The Cooper Hewitt Museum, The Metropolitan Museum, and The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. I did a walking tour of Harlem with a guide and it had a stop at the Schomburg where I saw a mosaic of Langston Hughes’s “Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which he wrote at 19 and which began his career as a poet. Hughes and Schomburg had travel experiences that were formative. Arturo Schomburg, who was Afro-Puerto Rican, came to New York City from Puerto Rico when he was seventeen years old and learned English at night (Weatherford,4- 6). According to an interview of Langston Hughes, the poem “Negro Speaks of Rivers” was written while Hughes was travelling to Mexico. Hughes was inspired by crossing the Mississippi River and his knowledge of history as a teenager. Hughes went to Harlem following this trip (Blue, 1). His free-verse poem was inspired by both the enslavement of his grandmother and the role of President Abraham Lincoln in the abolition of slavery years after visiting the slave markets of New Orleans (The Morgan Library, 2022).
Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois saw the effect of combat on Black soldiers firsthand. During the Spanish Civil War, Hughes was a correspondent and reported for six months. During World War I, Du Bois was invited to meet Black soldiers in France and spent time interviewing them. World War I opened up opportunities for integration into society for Black soldiers who were fighting in segregated units and after the war suffered terrible violence. There are parallels between the combat courage of the Japanese American soldiers and African American soldiers during World War II. They experienced tremendous discrimination during the war and as veterans. I was looking through a book of photographs by the African American artist Gordon Parks and I saw a picture of returning soldiers opposite a photo of people living in a tenement house. The mood of the images could not be more different. Pausing between the juxtaposition, I reflected on the dissonance in mood between them. It recalled the May 1919 publication by Du Bois about returning soldiers after World War One that dismantled stereotypes about Black soldiers by highlighting the racialized violence, ignorance and disenfranchisement they faced when they returned from war (Williams,171). Langston Hughes wrote critically of the impact of Jim Crow segregation and racial violence in the United States. His concern about the rise of fascism in Spain mirrors the concern Du Bois had about the rise of Nazism in Germany.
Throughout the World Wars both figures were involved in the documentation of the historical contributions of Black people internationally. I found a book concerning a telegram Du Bois sent in the post-World War II period when he was denied permission to travel to Africa for a conference, a period that he felt was politically motivated. In the post-WWII era, Langston Hughes was also interested in political independence and artistic movements in Africa. In Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Library I found a letter dated August 19, 1959 in which Mrs. Miriam Singer writes to Hughes that: “This latest attempt on the part of the South African government to stifle opposition to its Apartheid policy by attacking the freedom of the press in the person of Ronald Segal – is particularly shocking. It is interesting to see the concerns of Hughes and Du Bois expand internationally throughout the century.” Ronald Segal was the Editor of the international quarterly Africa South. In another letter from 17 August 1959 there is a memo from The American Committee on Africa, Inc. that wrote that Segal was banned from attending any meetings for five years and that “The magazine has consistently opposed the government’s apartheid program of total racial segregation.”
Langston Hughes wrote the book of poetry The Dream Keeper and Other Poems for children. The poems from the text that anchor the lessons in this unit are “I Too”, “Color”, “Stars” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” I chose these poems based on direct and oblique inferred references to race and patriotism symbolized by the American flag. When introducing each poem from the text, I will pair the poems by Langston Hughes with the prints in the book of Pickney and the colorful collages by the children’s book author and artist Ashley Bryant from the book Sail Away. Students will also read an excerpt from Langston Hughes’s poem “Without Benefit of Declaration,” from the Yale Beinecke Rare Book Library. Comparison between the artworks will teach students about different approaches to signifying poetic ideas particularly well when they were made in response to the same poems. Carolyn Streets, a fellow in my seminar shared a project she taught concerning primary sources from soldiers that I also plan to incorporate into the unit. Through the poetry students will be introduced to the historical contributions of African Americans who fought during World War I and World War II, such as the Harlem Hellfighters during World War I and the Tuskegee Airmen during WWII. The unit will conclude with a field trip to The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. There students will visit the mosaic by the artist Houston Conwill commemorating the life of Langston Hughes that intersects with diasporic traditions of burial and cosmology. The mosaic is an artwork that covers the burial of Langston Hughes’ ashes symbolically contained in a book shaped urn.