Langston Hughes’ Teachings: A Fifth Grader Breaks It Down

 

I wrote this a few months ago, but never posted it. Since it’s Langston Hughes’ birthday, as well as the first day of Black History Month, I thought it would be fitting to post it today. As always, when referencing students, names have been changed to protect their identities. For this narrative, I decided to use the names of Kendrick Lamar and Lupe Fiasco to replace the names of my students, because at one time, they were boys too–maybe collecting their thoughts is similar ways as my scholars.

In the beginning of the year, my scholars and I read a biography about Langston Hughes. We were reading about Hughes’ early life—how he almost grew up in Mexico City, but his mother moved back to the States. How he and his mother struggled to find stable jobs, despite having college educations. And of course, we learned about Hughes’ skill for writing poems in the voices of Black people he knew from the streets of St. Louis and Harlem.

Langston Hughes: American Poet by Alice Walker is a biography that I read to my scholars every year. It’s a great book that not only explores Hughes’ life, but it also captures the complicated relationships that exist within the Black community.

When we got to the point of the story where Hughes can’t find a job outside of being a busboy or bellhop, I paused and asked my students what was the problem, or conflict, of the story.

“There is no problem,” said Kendrick Lamar, who is one of my strongest students.

“Really? You don’t think there’s a problem?”

In addition to gathering information for their upcoming essay on Hughes, we were also working on how to write a succinct summary, by focusing on conflicts within a story. A common conflict we’ve read about is how racism has interfered with the work of leaders such as Cesar Chavez, Richard Wright, and Sonia Sotomayor. I was surprised that racism wasn’t an obvious problem to locate for Kendrick.

Using our class signal for disagreeing, other students, however, showed they had located a conflict in the story.

“Lupe Fiasco, why do you disagree?” I asked.

“There is a problem in the story. I think the problem is that Langston Hughes can’t find a job, because the white people won’t hire him for the good jobs, because he’s Black.”

Most scholars communicated they agreed with Lupe’s noticing.

“That’s not a problem,” Kendrick, who’s not really into the whole raising your hand system, shouted.

That.

Sounds to me.

Like a prawww—lum.

“A prawww-lum?” I said. “There’s a difference? Tell me more.”

I knew what he was about to break down for us. I, like Langston Hughes, know that my people have a beautiful gift of playing with language, creating new words, as well as new ways for using words that transcend what’s been deemed “appropriate” for school. Kendrick broke down his wordplay like very simply. He said:

A problem is something simple that can be solved. But not being able to get a job, because you’re Black? Well, that’s a Prawww. Lum.

At this point, Kendrick could have dropped the MIC and spent the rest of the day enjoying recess, as far as I was concerned. Not only did he demonstrate one of Langston Hughes’ life-long projects—to honor the beauty and skill of Black people seducing the English language as we see fit—but he also summarized one of the biggest praww-lums that continues to plague communities of color.

As I prepare lessons to tackle fifth grade standards—the skills that I’m supposed to have taught my scholars by the end of the year—I wonder….

When will the beautiful ways that my students manipulate and engage with language be honored and showcased in a respectful way? When will my scholars’ sophisticated observations about the world be valued, and be a part of the ways they are formally assessed and evaluated? When will unemployment for Black men no longer be a praww-lum?

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