National Poetry Month 2014 comes not on “little cat feet,” like Carl Sandberg’s “Fog,” but in the wake of Walter Dean Myers and his son, Christopher, responding to reports of the whitewashing of books for children. Walter Dean Myers explains:

But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.

Myers identifies James Baldwin as the moment he discovered what was missing, and then Myers asks:

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

National Poetry Month 2014 also comes just as we have Baldwin’s Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, which includes a beautiful and inspired Introduction by Nikky Finney:

Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, James Baldwin

As we search for ways in which to insure that students, as Myers did, find what is missing in the texts students are often required to read, I recommend the poetry of Baldwin and Finney. Along with Finney’s full Introduction above, students can access Finney’s Playing by Ear, Praying for Rain: The Poetry of James Baldwin, and then their poetry (see Nikky Fnney at Poetry Foundation).

These entry points to poetry can then lead to multi-genre/mode/form considerations, such as The Most Powerful Piece of Film Criticism Ever Written—about Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work. Noah Berlatsky’s essay includes two important links as well to another African American writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, inspired by Baldwin (see Jose Vilson on Baldwin as well):

Along with seeking texts that have people who look like all our students, we must also consider language. A wonderful bi-lingual poetry unit can be developed from two beautiful and powerful books: Barbara Kingsolver’s Another America and Jorge Luis Borges’s Borges: Selected Poems (see Borges at Poetry Foundation), Kingsolver’s translated from English to Spanish and Borges’s translated from Spanish to English:

Another American
Borges: Selected Poems

Myers ends his essay by confronting how texts represent African Americans and how African American males, specifically, are impacted:

And what are the books that are being published about blacks? Joe Morton, the actor who starred in “The Brother From Another Planet,” has said that all but a few motion pictures being made about blacks are about blacks as victims. In them, we are always struggling to overcome either slavery or racism. Book publishing is little better. Black history is usually depicted as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement. Then I’m told that black children, and boys in particular, don’t read. Small wonder.

“There is work to be done,” Myers concludes, and National Poetry Month is an ideal time to start, or continue that work.

Additional Reading

Reading Out of Context: “But there was something missing,” Walter Dean Myers

From Baldwin to Coates: Denying Racism, Ignoring Evidence

remnant 20: “your absence will sadden other afternoons”

Assorted thoughts on poetry

James Baldwin: Challenging Authors

Reading, Learning, Teaching Barbara Kingsolver