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?

Happy Birthday Langston Hughes

Langston Swag

Happy Birthday Langston!

My students and I will read some of your words tomorrow. They love you and can relate to you.They memorize you without me instructing them to do so.  Maybe, it’s because you affirm their voices and their beauty.

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

This is why I love you and your words, your legacy and your spirit.

Top 3: My Happy Things

 

Things can get a little heavy around here. My blog centers race, which isn’t a topic that lends itself to lightness.  In attempts to alleviate some of the heaviness that can come along with the discussion of race/racism in America, I want to bring a little sugar to my blog, with a dose of happiness.

Meet, “My Happy Things.”

This is an ongoing series to appreciate the little things bringing joy into my life. I invite you to think of, and maybe even share, the things that are making you happy.

Let’s begin with…

1. This book.

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It’s the first Octavia Butler book, and the first “science fiction book,” I’ve read (though Butler classified this book as “kind of grim fantasy”). The storyline isn’t exactly light, but Kindred is a page-turner. Dana, the main character lives in 1970s Altadena, CA (the neighboring city to my hometown, Pasadena) with her white husband, but is mysteriously transported to the antebellum South. She is continuously transported back and forth between the 1800s and 1970s, and we, as the readers, try to make sense of her experience through her travels.

The experience of reading Kindred is intense, but  makes me happy because it causes me to think of time in a different way. Time travel isn’t a new concept, but for this sci-fi newbie, it’s new for me to actually consider it as an alternative reality. What if time is more than a fleeting moment that is constantly changing? What if time maintains itself, until the future needs to return to past moments for lessons on the future?

Why would anyone need to return to the antebellum South? I would say never. But, I think Butler may be trying to reveal a different perspective to me.

 2. Rereading My Journals.

Journal organizing – some date back to the early 90s…yeash!

A post shared by Billie2Nina (@billie2nina) on

Rereading journals is usually an awkward, but revealing process. Sometimes, I’m reminded of moments I wish I hadn’t accounted for, while other times, important life lessons are revealed.

This time around, reading my journals is making me happy, because I’m able to see and learn from themes in my journey.  Noting these themes allows for me to see where I need to grow, while honoring who I am. And let’s be real– reading journals from middle school or elementary school is extremely entertaining. High School, on the other hand, was mostly awkward for me.

3. Anytime I hear, or see a video/ video still for this song. 

On the last day of school, it’s a personal ritual to post DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith’s eternal classic, “Summertime,” AKA “Summa-time” on my FB page. I’m happy when I hear DJ Jazzy Jeff, say “Drums Please,” followed with the scratching record and “Aaaaaaahhhhh   Yeeeeeaaahhhh….. Summa/Summa/Summatiime,” because it instantly transitions me from strict/tense, Ms. Peters to laid-back/relaxed  Kirsti.

Happy Summatime, Ya’ll!

What’s making you happy right now?

Losing Our Elders: Rest in Power and in Peace, Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou

Losing Our Elders: Rest in Power and in Peace Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou

I feel my process of aging most when someone I love and admire passes. On January 9th of this year, we lost ethnomusicologist/poet/activist, Amiri Baraka. Earlier this week, on May 28, 2014, we lost poet/activist/spiritual mother-of-many, Maya Angelou.

There are people whose power is so great, we think they will conquer death. That is, until they die, reminding us of the mortality of everything and everyone around us. Fortunately for us, both Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou left us their words to hold and to pass down to generations who will only know them as thinkers from before. While their bodies are no longer here, their words remind of us of their power. For that, we are so lucky.

Reading Race: Favorite Passages from My Favorite Books of 2013

This year has been a year for invigorating reading. Books, ranging from topics like  Black men and the prison industrial complex, women and writing, Roaring 20s fiction, contemporary fiction, Toni Morrison (she deserves her own category), and meditations written by my favorite author, made their way to bedtime and me-time rituals. When deciding my favorite books of the year, I selected ones that I’ve thought about the most since reading their offerings. The books whose passages make their way into conversations with friends and students, whose teachings inspire me to be more thoughtful, radical, or more brave. The books that have grounded me, and reminded me why I am who I am, why I am doing what I am doing, or need to change how I am doing things. While I read some books that didn’t directly address race, I find it to be of no surprise that this year’s favorite books all incorporate dialogue around race.

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3. CAN WE TALK ABOUT RACE? by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D

Can We Talk About Race: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation  by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum shifted my thinking around my role in education. The fact the she simply wrote the book reminds us the necessity  to write and talk about race as educators, as well as the importance to talk about race with our students. I think all educators—regardless of the demographics of your students—should read this book, along with other works engaging in conversations around race and education.

   The most important idea from this book is Tatum’s ABC’s for creating inclusive learning environments: “environments that acknowledge the continuing significance of race and racial identity in ways that can empower and motivate students to transcend the legacy of racism in our society even when the composition of our classrooms continues to reflect it. What do I mean by the ABC’s? I mean, A, affirming identity; B, building community; and C, cultivating leadership.” Read the quick, but important 130 page book to read her explanation of the ABC’s.

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2. AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

The only fiction book to make it to my top 3, and the only author to make it into a Beyonce song, Americanah is a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche that speaks to race, love, nationality, and familial relationships. The protagonist, Ifemelu, is a Nigerian woman who goes to America to study. Upon moving to the U.S., she not only finds herself having to adjust to American ways of living, but she also has to figure out how to navigate American race politics. She copes with her new relationship to racial politics on her personal blog. In the backdrop is the story of how she balances her Nigerian identity in America, while still feeling connected to Nigeria, and the peoples she’s left behind.

One of my favorite scenes is when Ifemelu is at a dinner party in Manhattan the day after Barack Obama becomes the Democratic Party Candidate for President. Liberalism is in the air, and there’s talk of living in a post-racist society. A black woman says she dated a white man in California, and race was never an issue. Ifemula, who has had her share of wine and white boyfriends calls nonsense, and says:

“‘The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in American and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because its just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they’ll say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.’

The host, a Frenchwoman, glanced at her American husband, a slyly pleased smile on her face; the most unforgettable dinner parties happen when guests said unexpected, and potentially offensive, things.”

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1. BORDERLANDS/ LA FRONTERA: THE NEW MESTIZA by Gloria Anzaldua

Borderlands by Gloria Anzaldua

I’ve already posted some of favorite quotes from Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands in a previous post, and I see no harm in reposting another one from my favorite book of 2013. Reading Borderlands was like coming  home for me. In a book that legitimizes the complexities of being multilingual, multicultural, multispiritual, she writes as a whole person. She refuses to compartmentalize her multilayered self, despite having lived in a society that struggles living outside binary clauses. We are told you’re either this or that, but Gloria says she is all the above, plus more; she is mestiza, and she is whole.

 

“The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view. She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode—nothing is thrust out, the good, the bad, and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she returns the ambivalence into something else.”

I am mestiza. I am Black, Finnish, East Indian, Scottish. I am whole. I am all the above. I am not other. I am mestiza. I am a believer of God, the earth, the womb, the sky, the water, the ancestors and spirits. I am whole. I am all the above. I am not other. I am mestiza. I am daughter, wife, teacher, friend, writer, student, auntie, sister. I am whole. I am all the above. I am mestiza. I am whole. I am not other. I have never been with a woman. I love women. I am in love with a man. I am not straight. I am not gay. I am not bisexual. I am whole. I am all the above. I am not other. I am mestiza.

 

** Choosing only 3 books for 2013 was not easy. Some books that would have made the list, had I done my top 5 or 10, are Dreams of My Father by President Barack Obama, Women and Writing by Virginia Woolf, My Foreign Cities by Elizabeth Scarboro, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa Harris Perry, The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering As the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way by Alice Walker.

FACES: Gloria Anzaldua

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Have you ever come across a face you’re immediately attracted to, but don’t know why? A face– whether in person or via a photograph- that brings instant comfort, peace, assurance? Today, I looked up Gloria Anzaldua, the activist/author of my Book Clubs’ next choice, Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza. For me, Gloria Anzaldua’s name is as familiar as Angela Davis, bell hooks, Gloria Steinman, and other great feminists/ womanists who’ve been the voice of the voiceless. But Gloria Anzaldua’s face is one I couldn’t have recalled with such certainty as I can now.

When I searched her image this evening, I was immediately drawn in by her smirk, both childish and wise, and her eyes marking secrets she’s wiling to share to the most special people.  The unexpected familiarity and comfort of her image (that I had seen before, but had only moved me now) reminded me of the sly way in which our ancestors come to communicate with us in, sometimes, abrupt ways. She has passed on to the other life, but I look forward to uncovering the messages– the teachings– she has left for me in writing.

Have you ever been moved by the image of a “stranger” whose image felt strangely familiar?

To Watch or Not to Watch: Working Through the Ethics of SALINGER’S Desired Privacy

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We all have our own relationships to The Catcher in the Rye— our reasons for being moved, or [for a few] not moved by Holden Caulfield’s cheeky narrative. For some, Catcher was the first book they’d completed since picture books. For me, it was the first book  I was assigned that I could actually relate to.

This seems odd, I’m sure; the first time I engage in a literary relationship, with the classroom as my setting, and it’s with a New York, prep school, white male, who’s working through his adolescence in 1950s America- but hey, pickins’ were slim in my Eurocentric education, and for me, Caulfield was all that. And like so many other readers, the keep-it-real approach of Caulfield was a refreshing discovery for my 14 year old self. Though there were times when I doubted the “truth” in his storytelling, Caulfield’s inability to easily fit into his world was relatable to a Black/mixed girl attending a predominately Euro-American and Asian/Asian-American high school. Our backgrounds and experiences were vastly different, yet there were many relatable emotions linking our humanity.

The  experience I had with my high school reading of Catcher has always been one of those break-out literary moments that stand out in my memory. When I read it again in the summer of ’09, I became more intrigued with the writer who made this possible. I was surprised to discover that Salinger was still alive at the time (he died a year later at the age of 91), and became more and more intrigued with the absence of information on him. As Salinger fans know, he became extremely private after writing of The Catcher in the Rye, and there wasn’t much information I could find on his life, except that he wanted to remain private.

Now, three years after his death, a biographical book simply called Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno has been made available, and a documentary of the same name will be released in the Bay Area this Friday. Anyone who knows me knows that a documentary about any artist brings me much gratification. I’m extremely curious about  the varying lives that are lived, and the solitary, but creative life of an artist is always both intriguing and inspiring. I am a voyeur, without a doubt.

Now, I have the potential to find out more about the mystery man who was the cause of my first literary affair. And yet, my giddiness is caught up in guilt. Again, I, along with most people, know very little about Salinger, but what I do know is that he desired and demanded privacy. There were numerous legal battles he fought up until the summer before his death, because people were trying to tell their version of Salinger, and/or Salinger’s characters, and for the most part, he won these battles. He was able to protect his right to privacy, in spite of people like myself, salivating to know more about him.

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But now he is dead. Salinger is no longer here to defend his privacy. And with his passing, we get a new biography and documentary, to match, to please our curiosity. So, what do we do? Do we read, or watch, someone else’s version of Salinger, knowing that he, himself, would be furious? Do we convince ourselves that his spirit-self no longer cares for privacy, and understands the “importance” of us knowing more pieces of his identity? Or do we go against the nature of our times of having [undeserved] information at our fingertips, and turn a blind eye to such titillating gossip?