“I don’t understand how you could walk into that building day after day for 22 years,” the older woman standing at the copier told me. “I have to go in there once a week, and I fear for my life every time I walk up those stairs. All of those Black boys with their hoodlum clothes — sweatshirt hoods pulled up over their heads, baggy pants — I’m afraid they’re going to knock me down the steps and steal my purse.”
I look at her and remember Damon and Sekou, young Black men I taught at “that building”: Jefferson High School. I remember their brilliance, imagine their faces — one now at law school, one at NASA. I think of Kanaan’s huge heart, of Frank’s humor. I think of Aaron Wheeler-Kay’s poem written after we visited an art museum exhibit of Carrie Mae Weems’ work:
I Went Looking For Jefferson
and I found…
all the nations of the world
wrapped in baggy jeans
Closed minds slowly opening
like doors under water.
Jefferson is our whetstone
the blade is our mind.
There was no blade to open the mind of the woman at the copy machine. I’d met her before in countless other closed minds through the years: people — teachers, parents, reporters, students from other schools — who sized up those who attended or worked at Jefferson based on stereotypical images, usually without ever venturing inside our classrooms.
STUDENTS AND STEREOTYPES
Students, particularly students who don’t fit the social norm because of their race, language, sexual orientation, weight, or ability to purchase the latest fashions, bear the brunt of such stereotypes. They sometimes share their anger and frustration at inappropriate times and in inappropriate ways. But the classroom can be a safe place for students to not only talk back, but to affirm their right to a place in the world.
During the years I worked at Jefferson, I found it necessary to help students “talk back” to disrespectful and untrue stereotypes of our school. In one particularly helpful assignment, they write a poem as their way of “talking back.”
I begin by reading Margaret Walker’s powerful poem “For My People.” Walker’s poem teaches about the hardship that African Americans endured, but also celebrates the triumphs of her people. She ends the poem with an exhortation: “Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. … Let a race of men now rise and take control!”
We look at how Walker constructs her poem with the repeating phrase “For my people.” She uses the phrase as an introduction to her theme for that stanza and follows it with a list. For example:
For my people everywhere singing
their slave songs repeatedly: their
dirges and their ditties and their
blues and jubilees, praying their
prayers nightly to an unknown
god, bending their knees humbly
to an unseen power;
Walker’s poem teaches the strength of using repetition and lists in poetry. I also point out the rhythm of the line — “their dirges and their ditties and their blues and jubilees,” and the repetition of sounds — singing slave songs, dirges and ditties, and praying prayers.
Then I ask students to create a list of their “people.” I tell them to think of all of the communities they belong to. I list mine on the board as a way to stimulate them to think beyond their immediate categories. My list consists of Jefferson, poor whites, working class, Norwegians, Germans, teachers, feminists, social activists, women, mothers, overweight people, environmentalists.
I often use Jefferson as a model because it’s the one community we all share. We catalogue reasons to celebrate our school: its diverse student body, the many languages heard in the halls, the Jefferson dancers and the gospel singers, Michele Stemler’s Spanish classes, the powerful student-created murals on the walls. Then I ask them to pick one of their communities and list what they could praise about it. I also ask them to think about any common misconceptions people have about any of their “people” and suggest that they might “talk back” to those judgments in the poem I ask them to write.
My student Cang Dao wrote in his poem “Race”:
People don’t know how I feel
“You can’t talk like us.”
The words hurt me more than
It hurts them to say.
I’m getting an attitude.
Too many jokes,
I can’t accept it.
What’s wrong about me
That may not be accepted by them?
Is it the way I look or
The way I talk?
How many languages can you speak?
I speak four.
Is there something from
Me that you want?
My beautiful brown eyes or
My lovely skin?
Don’t get jealous.
When Cang wrote this poem, we discussed how kids made fun of his newcomer English, but we also discussed how he can speak more languages than most of the student body. He embedded pieces of that talk in his poem.
Lori Ann Durbin, a senior in my Writing for Publication class, was a transplanted cowgirl who ended up at Jefferson High School. Her poem “Country Folk” celebrates that heritage:
For my folk, two-steppin’, shit-
Blue collar, redneck, bowlegged
This is my song to you.
Moonshiners, horse ranchers, hill
wild women, bare feet, it’s nothin’
twangy sweet fiddle, songs about
maybe sappy to everyone else, but
Fishin’, singin, ridin’ bareback in
tight cowboy butts and Wranglers.
I love the way they feel.
Tailgate parties, couples in the
It’s not just music.
It’s a way of life.
Justin Morris, another senior, took the stereotypes about Black people and used them in his celebration. His poem demonstrates an in-your-face love for all aspects of his heritage. (One night I was at a local copy store making huge posters of these poems to hang around the school. Several African-American men from the community were copying on a machine close to my oversize machine. They laughed when they read Justin’s poem and took one of the copies to hang in their office.) This is Justin’s poem:
For My People
This is for my people
who are “colored”
who are proud.
For my people
who cause white women to clutch
who white men look down on
who drank from different
who fought prejudice.
For my people
with kinky afros
and gheri curls.
For my people
with big lips
and wide noses.
For my people
with black power
fingertips drenched with barbecue
For the people
with pink hearts
and brown/black skins.
For my people:
The woman who feared for her life each time she walked Jefferson’s halls “confessed” her racism — which is perhaps the first step toward change. I will bring her my students’ poems. I want her to see beyond the baggy pants and sweatshirts to the whetstone that sharpened their minds. I hope that by reading their words, she’ll see the “pink hearts” inside the “brown/black” skin, she’ll hear the intelligence that ricochets off Jefferson’s walls and know she doesn’t have to be afraid.
Giovanni, Nikki. “Legacies.” Words with Wings: A Treasury of African-American Poetry and Art, Ed. Belinda Rochelle. (Singapore: HarperCollins, 2001.)
Hughes, Langston. “My People.” Words with Wings: A Treasury of African-American Poetry and Art.
Walker, Alice. “Women.” Words with Wings: A Treasury of African-American Poetry and Art.
Walker, Margaret, “For My People.” This is My Century: New and Collected Poems (Athens: University of Ga. Press, 1989.)