I shall write of the old men I knewAlice Walker
And the young men
And of the gold toothed women
Mighty of arm
Who dragged us all
So begins Alice Walker’s short collection of family portraits, drawn from memories of the rural South. Like so many other writers, Walker has recorded the struggles, the joyous moments, and the conflicts of family tales. These family themes appear in much of United States literature and often particularly engage students because the themes touch them so close to home. After all, nearly all adolescents begin in some kind of family, enabling them to draw on a wealth of experiences to make sense of this new literature they encounter.
Yet many 1990s youth come from families seldom reflected in works of the Western literary canon — families whose languages, customs, and experiences fall outside of the U.S. mainstream. Because David and Susan teach in an urban multiethnic community in Oakland, they thought it timely to include in their eleventh-grade curriculum a unit on family themes in writings by Walker and other contemporary U.S. poets of color. In such literature, they reasoned, their students might see more of their own experiences reflected and validated, and they might gain heightened awareness of the diversity in U.S. culture with its many versions of family. Such an emphasis would fit neatly within the curriculum that David and Susan had designed.
A Multicultural Perspective
In their course called Interlinks, David and Susan integrate U.S. literature and history around key social issues. They believe that such an approach can help sensitize students to the need for a more just society and for a higher quality of life for all citizens. They maintain that once students understand, appreciate, and respect the differences and similarities among groups in this society, historically as well as in contemporary life, they will have a better understanding of themselves and of their roles in the rapidly changing world that awaits them upon graduation. While studying an issue or historical period, students read works by authors of many different cultures that make up the fabric of life in the United States. Following is a sampling of works that address some issues and periods Interlinks students explore:
American Slavery: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Douglass 1969)
Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansionism: Dances with Wolves; The Jungle
The Great Depression: The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck 1939)
Impact of Industrialization: Hard Times (Terkel 1970)
Chinese Immigrant Experience: The Kitchen God’s Wife (Tan 1991); Strangers from a Different Shore (Takaki 1990)
Struggle for Racial Equality: Autobiography of Malcolm X (Malcolm X 1966); Before the Mayflower (Bennett 1987) Mexican American Experience: The House on Mango
Street (Cisneros 1985); “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” (Paredes and Paredes 1972)
The Poetry Unit
Steven has worked as an English specialist in Alliance for Collaborative Change in Education in School Systems (ACCESS), a partnership between the University of California at Berkeley and the Oakland Unified School District. Because he had taught poetry often and had read fairly widely among contemporary works by poets of color, David and Susan invited him to prepare and teach a multicultural poetry unit. The three of us believed that a study of personal issues in family-themed poetry might help students link their lives to the larger social and historical issues addressed in Interlinks. In the unit, students silently read, listened to, and discussed poetry.
They wrote short personal and critical responses to individual poems and to groups of thematically related poems. In addition to these personal and critical responses, students created poetic responses. These poetic responses form the heart of the discussion that follows.
Nancie Atwell (1987) has identified at least three ways that students can effectively learn to write from other writers: borrowing “mode” (for example, ghost story or romance story), borrowing topic and theme, and borrowing technique. Students in the Interlinks class borrowed from the poets they read in these last two ways: imitating some themes of family and imitating structures and devices used in the poems they read. Students attempted three poems in their own novice poetic voices, revising one of these.
Old Ways/New Ways: Because the United States is comprised of so many groups who bring with them traditions from other lands, we can view the culture of the United States as one of many cultures. In many poems by members of U.S. cultural and ethnic groups outside of the white mainstream, we find tensions between traditional ways of living within the subculture and ways of the dominant white culture of the United States. This tension arises particularly in works by poets from recent immigrant groups such as Latinos and Asian Americans. Many times the poems tap into the wealth of memories and tales of “the old land” or of traditions passed down through the family. The tensions arise when the speakers of the poems feel torn between the two worlds.
Janice Mirikitani, for example, talks of how her daughter tries out new ways of being a Japanese American woman in “Breaking Tradition” (Bruchac 1983, Breaking Silence, 192); and Rosemary Catacalos focuses on a generation gap in attitudes toward religion in “La Casa” (Tatum 1990, Mexican American Literature, 620), closing her poem with comments on the elders: “They are afraid. / They know we will not stop. / We will only wave as we pass by. / They will go on praying / that we will be simple again.” Genny Lim explores old ways and new ways of being a Chinese American woman, referring to the “Sweet ‘n Sour” dimensions of life (1989, Winter Place 41). In “New Year” (Bruchac 1983, 65), Gail N. Harada describes memories of Chinese New Year as celebrated in Hawaii. Harada begins each of four verses with the line, “This is the old way,” setting up a simple structure that we found students able to imitate in exploring tension between old ways and new ways within families. After reviewing these and other thematically related poems, we asked students to make a pair of lists: one with details of traditions within their nuclear or extended families (images of “old ways”) and a second with images with “new ways” within the families. To stress the need for sensory images, we returned to the images of the published models, pressed students individually for greater detail of their traditions, and read aloud striking images from their lists. Students were able to work their details fairly easily into a simple structure, as in the following poem:
The Family’s LifePeter Ly
This is the old way,
the family dinner table is set with steamed fish,
bean soup, green vegetables, rice all around.
Everyone sits straight forward,
quiet, only the clicking of the bowls and chopsticks.
This is the old way,
the family gathering of Saturday night,
laughing, yelling hi ha with a
tone of heavy sound hard to my ears,
everyone’s mouth open wide all around
certainly, the giant clock rings ting-tang ten times,
louder than our noise, time for everyone to go to bed.
Today, this is the new way,
noise fills the dinner table,
sound of chopsticks and bowls no longer exists.
It’s also a lonely Saturday night.
I fall asleep with my t.v. beside me.
One boy, wrestling with the murder of his father a couple of years before, wrote a piece which went through a series of drafts, each further elaborating details of the old ways. Here are excerpts from his poem:
The Family GatheringHerman Greggs
This is the old way. The whole clan of Greggs gathers into a tiny two bedroom apartment.
The thirty-two gallon pot of gumbo boils on the tiny four-eyed stove. A sheet cake glitters and sparkles as people snap pictures.
Talking, chattering fill the room…
Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” plays on into the night,
as people outside get down and say things about the music.
“Damn, that sound good!”
As all this happens, a six year old watches his father crack crab and spice up the gumbo a bit.
This is the new way: three cousins gather into a tiny two bedroom apartment. A nine inch round cake replaces the big sheet cake.
Intellectual “conversations” replace the loud talking…
a son watches his mom cook gumbo. As he does that, he goes back a few years and remembers when it was
his idol, his “pride and joy,” his fallen hero, the father.
Two students varied the structure, creating new models for other students in future classes. In this first variation on the assignment the student author imagines his father’s life and writes in his voice. The poem began as a list of concrete details; each item beginning with an “ing” word: walking, letting, getting whipped, wearing Converse, having to eat cornbread. The poem simply links the items behind the opening line.
This is the old wayMelvin Thomas
Walking four to nine miles through rough and
rugged hills and land just to get to school.
Letting an old wrinkled up man pinch
my cheeks, saying that I was the
handsomest thing he ever saw.
Getting whipped for two days straight with
a big black cowhide belt for doing something
as simple as not saying yes sir to
the next door neighbors.
Wearing Converse with the bubble gum
tip that was passed down from your
cousin that lives in St. Louis with cardboard
in the bottom to cover the holes
Having to eat cornbread and syrup for
dinner when Mom’s Welfare check did
not get mailed out on time.
And about the new ways
There are none.
In a second variation on the structure, this next student first alters the old ways/new ways line; second, she sets up her poem as a sort of dialogue. In her first two verses, her father speaks to her; then she responds, beginning with the parenthetical remark that ends the second verse. Notice how the tempo picks up with clipped phrases when the daughter speaks, and the injections into her speech of a touch of black dialect.
The Way I Do My ThangRoma Young
This is the way you do your thing,
sit around the table with your family at dinner,
elbows off the table, say grace, no t.v., no
radio, don’t play in your food, and please
This is the way you do your thing,
eat peas — they make you healthy,
the word is yes, not yeh,
don’t talk back, I am your father
(the man that ain’t seen me in sixteen years?)
This is the way I do my thang,
I’ve now reached the spoiled brat zone,
do not yell at me, I eat what I want to
eat, and I don’t eat peas,
I eat in my room with the radio and t.v.
Understand. I call you Billy
I call my mom, mama
I disobey your traditions
I listen to my mom’s
She is my keeper
This is my new way.
Poems of Dedication and Tribute: In many works by contemporary U.S. poets of color, we find tributes to family members. If we stretch the notion of family to the very extended family of an entire cultural group, we find whole anthologies dedicated to important figures who serve as cultural heroes. One such collection, For Malcolm (Randall and Burroughs 1969), includes tributes to Malcolm X by such famous African American poets as Gwendolyn Brooks, Mari Evans, Margaret Danner, Robert Hayden, Etheridge Knight, Margaret Walker, Sonia Sanchez, and Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones).
Closer to the poets’ homes, however, we find poems dedicated to grandparents, aunts and uncles, parents, and brothers and sisters. Many of these dedication poems pay tribute to those who have struggled in generations past with back-breaking work, with poverty, and with racism, who faced adversity with courage and dignity, laying the groundwork for those who followed. In much poetry, particularly by African American and Latino poets, we find portraits of women who, though so often unheralded for their contributions, have shaped the experiences, feelings, and psyches of their children and grandchildren. Students, particularly the girls in the Interlinks class and in other urban classes who have written a poem of dedication, repeatedly pay tribute to their mothers even as they struggle in the throes of adolescence, a time when we imagine the mother figure more as inspiration for rebellion than for tribute.
Figure 1 lists a sampling of poems of dedication to family members. While any number of these and other poems can provide stimuli for poems of dedication or tribute, a pair of poems worked particularly well for us in providing not just the theme for students to borrow (tribute to a family member), but a technique as well. Alice Walker’s “For My Sister Molly Who in the Fifties” (1973a) and Sandra Cisneros’ “Abuelito Who” both use the word “who” in the title and to begin phrases that function in a near-list fashion that builds in emotional impact. Walker’s poem moves chronologically through nine stages of her sister’s life in nine verses, each using “who” in the opening line of the verse. Cisneros begins her poem, dedicated to the speaker’s grandfather, with a series of “who” phrases:
Abuelito who throws coins like rain
and asks who loves him
who is dough and feathers
who is a watch and glass of water
whose hair is made of fur
is too sad to come downstairs today
who tells me in Spanish you are my diamond
who tells me in English you are my sky
whose little eyes are string
can’t come out to play
sleeps in his little room all night and day
who used to laugh like the letter k (1987, 7)
Following are two sample poems, both revised, of dedication and tribute. Like the published models, this first student poem repeats the use of “who” and “whose” for a simple organizing structure:
For My Uncle DaveLaTonia Harrison
Whose dark skin glistened in the sun when he mowed the dead grass
And walked with a limp
Who always greeted me with “Hey bighead girl! How ya doing?!”
Who brought me the golden apple radio that read, “You are the apple of my eye” for my seventh birthday Who took me to my first circus and laughed when I cried
Who ran into my room with hundreds of orange balloons
When I was red with chicken pox
Whose sweet smell of Aramis cologne hit me softly in
The face when he breezed by
Who lay in a hospital bed — his color now dull
His big brown eyes closed
Whose crooked white teeth no longer showed
Whose laugh faded away and gray hair grew longer
For my Uncle Dave
Who died of cancer in 1989
This next student author offered this comment regarding the purpose for her poem of dedication: “I wrote this for my sister to give her the incentive to stay in school. Material things come later. ‘The greedy always fall behind.’ The strongest person in the world needs encouragement.”
Strong Black WomanTemeka Burnett
For my sister Andrea
One who always says
“I come from descendants of kings and queens from the mother land”
Truly an African princess.
For my sister Andrea
one who is now furthering her education
to become one of the best damn black nurses that ever stepped foot on Mother Earth.
For my sister Andrea
one who makes me truly proud to say “I am an African-American.”
I recognize her as a strong Black woman rising to the top of her rope.
Keep rising Black Woman
Poems Inspired by Family Photographs: A number of poems by contemporary American poets of color are inspired by family photographs. In many cases with recent immigrants these photos depict scenes of the homeland which trigger memories for the poets and speakers of the poems. One of the more famous contemporary poems inspired by photographs, however, begins in a prison cell where the inmate has taped to the wall a set of photos of family members here in the United States. Etheridge Knight begins “The Idea of Ancestry” (1980, Born of a Woman) with this verse:
Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grandfathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins (1st & 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know their dark eyes, they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me; they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee. (8)
In many of the poems inspired by photographs, the writer begins with a graphic description of the scene in the photo, then steps back to reflect on the scene. Virginia Cerenio follows this pattern in two poems form Trespassing Innocence (1989). She begins “family photos: black and white: 1960” with detail:
the light slides through lace panels on the window on the dark sofa sit two children
the baby propped up like a five pound rice sack leaning against a little girl.
she smiles, the white curve of baby teeth
a geometric contrast to her straight china doll bangs.
the father stands with a slight smile in pinstriped suit, hand on hip
his hair shiny with pomade . . .
even though you cannot see his shoes you know they are polished.
Later in the poem, the writer comments on what she sees. In “photos from the Philippines,” Cerenio describes a series of photos of her Filipino-American nuclear family hanging on the wall of her grandmother’s home in the Philippines. She follows the descriptions with commentary on how, though her cousins in the Philippines are significantly more modern than she is back in America, they connect as blood relatives: “i do not buy calvin kleins or levis/ i do not read vogue” yet “my girl-cousins gossip about me/ as though i lived next door / not an ocean and a visa away” (59).
David Mura slightly varies the pattern of describe-and-reflect when he describes the cast of characters in a photo in “A Nisei Picnic,” a gathering of second-generation Japanese Americans (1983, 207). One by one, he describes members of the family as depicted in the photo, then delves into the person’s history or what followed in later years. For example, in the second verse, he begins with description of his uncle in the photo, then provides historical background.
Here is my uncle, a rice ball in his mouth.
Eventually he ballooned like Buddha,
over three hundred pounds. I used to stroke
his immense belly, which was scarred by shrapnel.
It make me feel patriotic.
For two nights he lay in a ditch near the Danube and held his intestines with his hands.
When he came back, he couldn’t rent an apartment.
“Shi-ka-ta-ga-nai,” he said. It can’t be helped.
Here that poet provides a flavor of his uncle’s speech and his attitude of resignation toward the racist atmosphere during and after World War II.
We asked Interlink students to bring to class one or more family photographs to serve as inspiration for writing.
Students borrowed the strategies of the poets, both by describing as vividly as possible what they saw in the photographs and by reflecting on what possible significance the scene of the photo might hold.
- What does it reveal?
- What is it an example of?
- What happened to the people in the photo later?
- Does the scene hold special significance for lives of family members?
- Does the photo capture a social/historical experience or phenomenon?
Students wrote about photos of special occasions, such as birthdays of family members; some wrote about photographic portraits of individual family characters, such as a grandmother (“Her clothing was plain, a gray skirt / A dark shirt, black shoes. / My grandmother, a woman of God”).
Some students chose photos of everyday family experiences, such as a scene of a mother frying tofu, and described the scenes vividly enough to bring life to the mundane.
The three student poems we include here all describe the photographs clearly but vary in their degree of commentary on the scene depicted in the photo. In the first, the student poet focuses primarily on description of the photo but includes subtle comment on her father’s presence in the family: he would come home from “somewhere.” The poem closes with a phrase repeated to suggest perhaps the father’s sometimes absence, pointing out a kind of irony to the title of the poem.
Like One Happy Family
Sitting on a chair, I felt like a queen
with my father and three brothers
standing around me like royal men.
My father, whom I loved, has his tanned
brown arm around us.
Like one happy family we all smile to
My father who would come home from
“somewhere,” my mom said, tired, sad or
mad like a thunderous bull.
Red and blue are the colors of our clothes.
Red shirts with blue Levi’s
Red blouse with blue skirt.
Like one happy family we all smile to
“Cheese . . . cheese,” says the photographer
and “cheese” we all say.
the colorful island with aAngelica Herrera
deep green palm tree adds life
to the fake scene behind us.
The deep brown sand just like my
father’s eyes contrasts with
the blue and clear waves
Waves that come and go . . . come and go
Come and go.
The writer of this next poem vividly describes the scene in a family photograph, important in the family’s movement into the middle class. As with the student writer of the previous poem, this writer also slips commentary into the poem, in both the second verse and in her closing image of the sign.
Not a Through StreetLaTonia Harrison
It was 1977 when this was taken,
That’s my mom — a young newlywed,
Her silk blouse wrinkled,
Her Afro wide and well sheened
The white eyeshadow smeared with fingerprints
From my baby brother’s touch
That’s him she’s holding — his hair parted and nappy
His pudgy cheeks spread in a smile Smelling of talc and sour milk
It was a happy day — we’d just moved into our first house
My parents proud they’d “made good”
This was the house they’d raise their children in
The house their grandchildren would visit
The house they’d die in
The sun shone down on my dad’s pride and joy
An emerald green ’69 Pontiac LeMans
“Say cheese!” he screamed
I stood next to him begging if I could be next to
Snap the picture
My red dress ruffled and ponytail messed up
“I wanna do it! I wanna do it!”
They just ignored me
The house was yellow, the porch white,
The grass green — a bed of roses bloomed
And on the corner of our new block
The blinding yellow sign symbolic of our family read
“Not a Through Street”
In this third student poem about a family photograph, the writer remains fairly focused on the photo itself in the first two verses, then moves to discussion of a letter which accompanied the photo, followed by commentary on the whole story:
Only a PictureChristine McDermott
The background is full of misty clouds.
The incense is burning.
They stare blankly
If you look at the still memory
Taken for my mother, sisters and me.
Ba-Nguai has her gray strands of hair
Pulled back into a bun.
Her eyes seem so sullen and sunken,
A hint of watery emotion wanting to escape them
To fall onto her wrinkled cheeks.
But she won’t allow it.
Omg-Nguai is next to her.
The husband who worked the old country’s land
After the Communists took everything of value.
He sits in his gray cotton wear just as sullen as she.
With only a stiffer posture.
The letter with the photo reads
“I send this to you, my daughter
In hopes you don’t forget your family.
I hope we will be together soon in America.”
Separation, poverty, sadness, and me
Resulted after it.
My mother and father met during it.
And Ba-Nguai hasn’t seen her daughter or new granddaughters since that marriage.
Now all I have of my old loved ones, whom I never met,
Is only a picture. All because of it.
The Vietnam War.
The student author, daughter of a white American G.I. and a Vietnamese woman, has used the family photograph and letter as artifacts to stimulate thinking about the impact of war on the lives of her family members. Her poem provides a powerful contrast to another class poem, demonstrating the diverse ways a single war affected U.S. families. The contrasting poem, quoted briefly here, was written by the son of an African American man who fought in Vietnam:
To the man who was a boy
until the day
He went to war.
Then saw the body of his best friend
Torn in shreds…He still lives with
the horror and despair
of days long gone.
The Student Poems as Texts for Study
The students attempted three poems in their own novice poetic voices, then revised one. The writing and revision helped the students in a number of ways that we saw transfer to later class situations. Students had the experience of writing good poetry, in part because the emphasis during the unit on imitating themes and techniques in the writings of published authors insured some structured success. This journey into the world of the personal also helped make students’ later work on autobiographical essays and college application essays richer and more genuine than the more predictable fare we have all received for such assignments. The emphasis on elaboration with concrete detail also served the students well in later writing.
Also important in the unit was having students revise for publication — in this case, for a class magazine called “Family Gumbo,” the title of which came from the image in Herman’s poem. Figure 3 shows the cover of the magazine, designed by a graphic artist to include images of various poems from the collection, including Peter’s bowl and chopsticks, cameras and family photographs, music, the family dog, and a slice of birthday cake. Students read the magazine with great pride and interest. Because the poetry of both the published authors and the student writers dealt with themes of family, students (including those who do not typically perform school tasks with a great deal of enthusiasm or success) responded to the works with high levels of interest, recognition, and enthusiasm.
Besides stimulating personal expression, the development of writing abilities, and enhanced self-esteem, the student poems also serve as texts for further study. A quick review of themes explored in the student poems included in this article, for example, shows how the family-themed works by contemporary U.S. poets of color inspired examination of issues essential to our culture.
- Disintegration of traditions: Family and cultural traditions often disintegrate as families grow apart and assimilate into mainstream American culture (“Sound of chopsticks and bowls no longer exists,” “A nine inch round cake / replaces the big sheet cake.”).
- Absence or loss of a parent: Children recall with intensity the absence or the loss of a parent through lack of fidelity or through acts of violence such as the murder of a father (“his idol, his ‘pride and joy,’ his fallen hero, / the father”).
- The impact of poverty: Individuals who struggled in poverty as children are often unable to break that cycle (“Mom’s Welfare check did / not get mailed out on time. / And about the new ways / There are none.”)
- Importance of extended family: When the extended family is needed and valued, grandparents, aunts, and uncles become significant figures for children (“For My Uncle Dave…Who ran into my room with hundreds of orange balloons / When I was red with chicken pox”).
- Struggle for the American dream: So many families struggle to gain “a piece of the pie,” a chance at the American Dream (“we’d just moved into our first house / My parents proud they’d ‘made good’ ”).
- Need for heroes and role models: For members of groups who have been marginalized in American society, the desire for heroes and role models in the family becomes even greater (“For my sister Andrea / one who makes me truly proud to say / ‘I am an African-American’ ”).
- Impact of war on families: War has taken its toll on American families in a range of ways (“He still lives with / the horror and despair / of days long gone.” “I send this to you, my daughter / In hopes you don’t forget your family / I hope we will be together soon in America.”).
Language arts educators have argued that when students respond imaginatively to literature, they strengthen their reading, sense of voice, and their command of language. Angus Dunstan (1989), for example, argues that literature can provide models for student writing; when students create “literature,” they become more attuned to elements that make literature work and, therefore, become more attentive readers. Schooling typically invites voiceless, formulaic prose; imaginative writing can help students reclaim their voices (Moffett 1981). Furthermore, imaginative/ poetic writing focuses attention on language, thereby serving students in all of their writing (Britton 1985).
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Bennett, Lerone, Jr. 1987. Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America. Chicago: Johnson Publishing.
Britton, James. 1985. Language and Learning. Middlesex, English: Penguin.
Catacalos, Rosemary. 1990. “La Casa.” Mexican American Literature. Orlando: Harcourt. 620.
Cisneros, Sandra. 1987. “Abuelito Who.” My Wicked Wicked Ways. Bloomington, IN: Third Woman P. 7.
———. 1985. The House on Mango Street. Houston: Arte Publico P.
Cerenio, Virginia. 1989. “Family Photos: Black and White: 1960.” Trespassing Innocence. San Francisco: Kearny Street Workshop P. 53. (827 Pacific Street, Box 3, San Francisco, CA 94133).
———. 1989. “Photos from the Philippines.” Trespassing Innocence. San Francisco: Kearny Street Workshop P. 57.
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Harada, Gail. 1983. “New Year.” Breaking Silence: Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Poets. Greenfield, NY: Greenfield Review P. 65.
Knight, Etheridge. 1980. “Idea of Ancestry.” Born of a Woman. Boston: Houghton. 8.
Lim, Genny. 1989. Winter Place. San Francisco: Kearny Street Workshop P. 41.
Mirikitani, Janice. 1983. “Breaking Tradition.” Breaking Silence: Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Poets. Greenfield, NY: Greenfield Review P. 192.
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Paredes, Americo, and Raymond Paredes. 1972. Mexican-American Authors. Boston: Houghton.
Randall, Dudley, and Margaret G. Burroughs, eds. 1969. For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and the Death of Malcolm X. Detroit: Broadside P.
Takaki, Ronald. 1990. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. New York: Penguin.
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Walker, Alice. 1973a. “For My Sister Molly Who in the Fifties.” Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems. NY: Harcourt. 16-19.
———. 1973b. “In These Dissenting Times.” Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems. New York: Harcourt. 2.
X, Malcolm, with Alex Haley. 1966. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove P.