Literature from Children’s Roots

Kitchen Poets and Classroom Books

By Terry Meier

Children need to see their cultural traditions reflected in the classroom.

Among the many colorful examples of children’s work hanging on the walls outside Ilene Carver’s second grade classroom in Boston last year was a crayon portrait of two African-American heroines, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks.

The seven-year-old artist had titled her portrait “Sisters for Freedom.” Although over a hundred years of history separated the lives of these two women, in De-Kasha’s portrait they appear side by side, united in common struggle. At the end-of-the-year assembly several months later, DeKasha stood in front of the school community and proudly declared her intention of becoming a “freedom fighter” when she grew up.

DeKasha’s portrait and the words she spoke at the assembly are a powerful testament to the success of Carver’s second grade literacy curriculum because they illustrate how for DeKasha, as well as for the other children in Carver’s classroom, books became connected to real life. In terms of children’s literacy development, nothing is more important than this connection. In his autobiography, Malcolm X tells us that even though he already knew how to read and write when he went to prison, it was only when he discovered, in the prison library, books that presented the real history of Black people that he truly became literate. Similarly, the novelist Paule Marshall writes of her own early literacy that even though she spent many hours in the Macon Street library reading “voraciously” from the works of European and Euro-American writers, she always sensed that something she couldn’t quite define was missing until, one day, as she writes:

… browsing in the poetry section, I came across a book by someone called Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and opening it, I found the photograph of a wistful, sad-eyed poet who to my surprise was black. I turned to a poem at random. ‘Little brown baby wif spa’klin-eyes – come to yo’ pappy an’ set on his knee.’ Although I had a little difficulty at first with the words in dialect, the poem spoke to me as nothing I had read before of the closeness, the special relationship, I had had with my father … And I began to search then for books and stories and poems about the ‘race’ (as it was put back then), about my people. 1

The little girl narrator of Ntozake Shange’s poem “toussaint” describes how she snuck into the adult reading room of the St. Louis Public Library and discovered a book about the Haitian revolutionary leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture. Like DeKasha, who made a connection between her own life and the long ago lives of two women she knew only through text, Shange’s narrator transforms the “dead Toussaint” into an imaginative presen(t)ce:

Toussaint L’Ouverture
waz the beginnin of reality for me
in the summer contest for
who colored child can read
15 books in three weeks
i won & raved abt TOUSSAIN
at the afternoon ceremony
waz disqualified
cuz Toussaint
belonged in the ADULT
& i cried
& carried dead Toussaint home in
the book
he waz dead & livin to me 2

Many teachers today recognize how important it is for children to see themselves — their experiences, their cultural traditions, their histories — reflected in the literature that is read and discussed in the classroom. For example, while Shange’s eight-year-old narrator — circa 1954 — had to invade the adult reading room of the public library in order to discover a book about Toussaint L’Ouverture, children in Monique Brinson’s classroom in Boston can find a children’s book about him on the shelves of their own classroom library. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of classrooms like Brinson’s and Carver’s (though not nearly enough) where African-American children not only learn about people and events important in and to their history, but also read many books written by African-American authors. These books present children with a rich variety of real and imagined situations, characters, and themes that reflect the diversity of African-American experience and that help make the act of literacy meaningful to children’s lives.


Books written by African-American authors are important to children’s literacy development for another reason as well. Many of these writers draw on the stylistic and rhetorical features of African-American oral and literary traditions. In doing so, they provide powerful linguistic models for children to draw on in developing their own speaking and writing abilities. The importance of such models for young writers and speakers cannot be overestimated.

In an essay entitled “The Poets in the Kitchen,” Paule Marshall traces the earliest and most significant influence on her writing back to the basement kitchen of the brownstone house where she grew up and where her mother and her friends, exhausted from cleaning white people’s houses all day, would gather around the kitchen table for tea, cocoa and conversation in the late afternoons. Reflecting back on the importance of those conversations for her later development as a writer, Marshall writes:

For me, sitting over in the corner, being seen but not heard, which was the rule for children in those days, it wasn’t only what the women talked about — the content – but the way they put things — their style. The insight, irony, wit and humor they brought to their stories and discussions and their poet’s inventiveness and daring with language. … 3

The importance of stylistic models — i.e., ways of using language — that resonate with the developing writer’s own linguistic and cultural experiences is echoed by the literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. when he describes his adolescent encounter with the work of James Baldwin. While Marshall describes features of oral language, in the passage below Gates focuses on an example drawn from the Black literary tradition:

Finding James Baldwin and writing him down at an Episcopal church camp during the Watts riots in 1965 (I was fifteen) probably determined the direction of my intellectual life more than any other single factor. I wrote and rewrote verbatim his elegantly framed paragraphs, full of sentences that were somehow Henry Jamesian and King Jamesian, yet clothed in the cadences and figures of the spirituals. … 4

The connection Gates makes between discovering the power and beauty of Baldwin’s language and the subsequent course of his intellectual life speaks not only to the close relationship between language and identity, but suggests as well the intimate connection between whatis said and howit is said, between meaning and the language that encodes it. Geneva Smitherman, for example, makes the point that although the Black Language sentence “God don’ never change” and the Standard English sentence “God doesn’t ever change” may appear at a superficial level to be near-equivalents, in terms of the deeper meanings they convey, they are in reality worlds apart.5 The second sentence cannot replace the first without significant loss of meaning (despite how glibly teachers sometimes talk with students about “translating” their language into “Standard English”).

Significantly, when asked by an interviewer what she thought made her writing so distinctive, the Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison responded by talking about Black Language:

The language, only the language…. It’s the thing black people love so much – the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them. It’s a love, a passion. Its function is like a preacher’s: to make you stand up out of your seat, make you lose yourself and hear yourself. The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language. There are certain things I cannot say without recourse to my language.6

As teachers, what Morrison says about Black Language should give us great pause. “The worst of all possible things that could happen would be to lose that language,” she tells us. What do Morrison’s words mean for teachers who work with African-American students, especially African-American students who speak Black Language/Ebonics as their first language?

Most fundamentally, I think Morrison’s words suggest that as teachers we have a responsibility not to destroy with one hand what we are ostensibly trying to nurture with the other. Her words caution us not to embrace so narrow a conception of literacy—so narrow a conception of what it means to be an effective writer, a powerful speaker — that we end up choking off children’s linguistic roots, turning their language(s) into what bell hooks calls “outlawed tongues, renegade speech,” denying legitimacy to the very linguistic abilities children need to draw on in order to become what Malcolm X would term truly literate.


Does this mean that because access to one’s native language variety is so important, we don’t really need to insist that all students master the standard code? Of course not. Proficiency in the standard code is essential to survival in the United States. But using the standard code does not mean that students have to give up all the stylistic and rhetorical features associated with Black Language/Ebonics. Shirley Lewis, for example, describes a highly successful writing program for community college students that is based on the notion of helping students acquire competence in what Lewis terms “Standard Black English.”7 While proficiency in Standard Black English requires that speakers and writers conform to the grammatical conventions of the standard code, it allows for the incorporation of many stylistic features associated with Black oral and written traditions—e.g., characteristic intonational patterns; metaphorical language; concrete examples and analogies to make a point; rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and other forms of repetition, including word play; use of proverbs, aphorisms, Biblical quotations and learned allusions; colorful and unusual vocabulary; arguing to a main point (rather than from a main point); making a point through indirection.

The concept of Standard Black English is potentially powerful for students at all grade levels, especially for speakers of Black English/Ebonics. It establishes a standard of excellence that incorporates not only features of language they are likely to hear in their own homes and communities, but also features of language characteristic of the rich African- American oral and literary traditions that are these children’s rightful legacy.

Many educators lament the fact that some African-American students seem to reject literacy and, in Franz Fanon’s terms, to equate “talk(ing) like a book” with “talk(ing) like a white man.” To the extent that this equation holds true in the experience of African-American children, we need to ask ourselves what we are doing (or not doing) in our classrooms that lends credence to this false equation. Over their 12 years of elementary and secondary schooling, for example, how many African-American students get the opportunity to read a sizeable portion of the vast body of literature written by African-American authors, the opportunity to discover for themselves that — if number and quality of books, articles, poems, and plays written by African Americans over the last two centuries are the measure — then in fact there is no contradiction between “book talk” and “black talk”?

As teachers, one of our most important responsibilities toward African-American children (and indeed, toward all children) is to insure that they gain exposure to this literature and that they are provided opportunities to respond to and reflect upon it through multiple mediums (e.g., writing, discussion, art, music, drama) and in multiple ways, including using this literature as sources of stylistic inspiration for their own experimentations with language.


As with adult literature, the children’s literature written by African Americans reflects the diversity of language varieties represented in African-American communities. A number of very talented contemporary writers incorporate features of Black Language/Ebonics in their books. In addition to their general literary merit, such books are particularly useful for

talking with children about linguistic diversity and for helping them to develop more conscious awareness of how they (and others) use language, what sociolinguists and others refer to as metalinguistic awareness.This is an extremely important part of literacy instruction because as children increase their metalinguistic awareness, they gain greater facility in adjusting their linguistic strategies to accomplish different purposes and to suit different audiences.

Flossie and the Fox, by Patricia McKissack, is an excellent example of a book that could be used very effectively to increase children’s metalinguistic understandings. Set in rural Tennessee, probably sometime in the early 1900s, the book tells the story of a little girl named Flossie who is able to outwit a fox by pretending not to believe he’s really a fox. While the fox speaks in standard code, Flossie, her grandmother and the narrator all use linguistic features that McKissack identifies in her “Author’s Note” as characteristic of “the rich and colorful dialect of the rural South.”

Flossie not only uses her superior reasoning ability to outwit Fox; she also uses language more effectively than he does. In a manner akin to “signifyin(g)” in African-American vernacular and literary traditions, Flossie subverts Fox’s potential power by turning his own pompous language against him. By skillfully playing off his words, Flossie exposes Fox’s “sense” as nonsense. For example, when Fox tells her “‘I am a fox, and you will act accordingly,” the indomitable Flossie responds, “Unless you can show you a fox, I’ll not accord you nothing.’“ By the end of the story, Fox has been reduced to following behind Flossie, “begging to be believed,” and Flossie has been able to arrive at her destination safe from harm.