Poetry: The Merry-Go-Round


By Langston Hughes

Where is the Jim Crow section

On this merry-go-round,

Mister, cause I want to ride?

Down South where I come from

White and colored

Can’t sit side by side.

Down South on the train

There’s a Jim Crow car.

On the bus we’re put in the back—

But there ain’t no back

To a merry-go-round!

Where’s the horse

For a kid that’s black?

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes, copyright 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.


By Linda Christensen

Langston Hughes’ poem portrays a moment in history as experienced by a child. This poem can introduce students to Jim Crow laws and segregation and prompt students to write about personal experiences with discrimination. It can also be used with Melba Pattillo Beals’ autobiography, Warriors Don’t Cry. In the opening chapter, Beals describes trying to ride “Prancer,” a horse on the merry-go-round, when she was five, and the ticket master yelling, “You don’t belong here, pickaninny.”

  1. After reading the poem out loud, encourage students to talk about what they learn about Jim Crow laws and segregation from Hughes’ poem. The first chapter of Beals’ book illustrates numerous other examples from a child’s point of view.
  2. After discussing the content of the poem, point out how Hughes uses questions from an innocent narrator to show the reader how the Jim Crow laws work on trains and buses.
  3. Ask students to make lists of contemporary injustices that a child might ask innocent questions about: homelessness, hunger, low wages, pollution, immigration laws, or the export of jobs that pay a living wage.
  4. Students may create their own poems about these issues using questions from children’s points of view, or they may choose to write about incidents from their own lives when they encountered discrimination.