“Miss, who’s Maya Angelou?” Over the past few months as we’ve celebrated Women’s History and Black History month I’ve come to understand one thing, my students aren’t entering into high school with prior knowledge of Black poets.
Now, it ain’t all of em but after one asked me who Maya Angelou was I began to run down a list of authors/poets which included James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes. No student knew.
My goal for National Poetry Month and the rest of the year is to create opportunities that allow students to analyze different forms of poetry through a historical lens.
Harlem Renaissance‘s own Langston Hughes is best known for his poem Harlem “A Dream Deferred” which brings up the question of the ways in which life shifts as we stop focusing on our dreams. However, his poem “I, Too, Sing America” and “Let America be America Again” provide lines to explore race, class & American culture.
Maya Angelou, a staple in some of our curriculums is still often times not explored within English & U.S History courses. Let’s be clear…… I have an unwavering love for Angelou. The moment I heard she was speaking at my alma mater USC in 2011…all my classes were cancelled.
Not really, I cancelled them myself. I had to see her in person. That feeling I had, however, has yet to be discovered for many of my students because many curriculums do not highlight the voices of Black artists, authors and poets. We are often times after thoughts, thrown in but not deeply and critically explored. Therefore as I move past the Great Depression, into WWII and begin lessons on the Civil Rights movement I’ll be sure to include Angelou’s “Still I Rise” and hopefully “Phenomenal Woman.”
“The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” James Baldwin
As educators, our jobs are to do exactly what Baldwin mentions above, shift the way our students view the reality around them. In order to do so I believe it’s necessary to not just use the poets mentioned above or some from their era but also elevate poets like those featured on Def Poetry Jam within the classroom. There are obviously dozens of Slam Poets featured on the now historical HBO series but some of my favorites to use in class are the following:
- “Cotton” by Preach (We Built This)
- We know we built this shit but the way Preach describes it truly kept my students engaged and they had a lot of questions after. Throughout the poem he not only says we built this country but also that we still “cotton pick” on store racks. Great way to discuss slavery, economy, capitalism and “secure the bag” culture.
- “So I Run” by Will the Real One Bell, RIP
- This one I LOVE to show to students – “I run till I get to Jackson, MS and its June 11, 1963 and I’m standin’ in the bushes, with this white man in front of me and as I peek over his shoulders, I can see what he sees and I scream, Medgar look out!” Bell creates amazing visuals as he goes back in history warning Malcolm X, MLK, Biggie, Pac and more the moments before they are killed.
- “Knock Knock” Daniel Beaty
- This one explores Daniel’s relationship with his absent father and the ways in which he currently navigates the pain as well as uses it as inspiration.
- “What Are You Fighting For?” by Gemini
- Gemini explores street culture and questions the reasons behind soldiers losing their lives on “blocks they do not own”
- “Where I’m From” by Lemon
- “Where I’m from is known as the borough of royalty, the infinite party rocka, the home of Big Poppa, 92 door knockers” – just play this one
- “Innocent Criminal” by Pat’s Justice
- “America is a rich man’s vision, but a poor man’s prison” – Pat’s poem is brilliant. He performed it at 20 and explores the link between our history, the crack epidemic and the current state of the criminal justice system. Also, he’s “from the city of fallen angels where ni*s ain’t scared to bleed” ….I had to add a LA native to the list.
- Alicia Keys – P.O.W. (From her book Tears for Water)
- This poem tackles the struggle of holding in our words specifically how we become trapped being complacent / complicit instead of speaking out. Great poem to highlight the importance of communicating our feelings/emotions despite respectability politics. Genius Lyrics
- “Motives & Thoughts” by Lauryn Hill
- Motives and thoughts explores the importance of knowing the motives behind how and why we all communication and act a certain way. Lauryn performs it beautifully and if used within an English/History curriculum it could be a groundbreaking entrance into discussing friendship, future, mental health, individualism and more importantly how the classroom can be used to break through the veil of ignorance. Genius Lyrics does an ammmazing job breakin’ down this poem. Print this and the conversation will almost run itself.
Lastly …. One of my all time favorites
- “We Made It” by Sunni Patterson
- Sunni’s performance of “We Made It” is gripping from start to finish. The poem is vulgar, shocking and the cold blooded truth about Blackness, slavery both modern day and the past. The range of conversations that could occur through using this poem are endless. Genius Lyrics
All of the poets I’ve mentioned are groundbreaking and phenomenal in their own right. As a season 1 – 6 DVD holder of Def Poetry and just overall Before using any in the classroom definitely check them out becaussssee ya’ll know some of them may be considered “controversial” “radical” or just the truth.