Thursday, February 5, 2009

Poetry Break: African American poet Langston Hughes

Introduction: According to the editors, Langston Hughes wrote this poem for a class assignment at City College of the City University of New York.

Theme for English B
By Langston Hughes

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down , and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
Hear you, hear me—we two—you, me talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.)—Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be I love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
Although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

(From POETRY FOR YOUNG PEOPLE: LANGSTON HUGHES edited by David Roessel & Arnold Rampersad, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. 2006)

1) How many English teachers have never had students groan about writing an essay? Even poets sometimes question that assignment, just as in this poem. Have your students write a one page essay about themselves without talking about themselves directly. They can put it into free verse or prose, but the point is to flex their creative writing muscles.
2) Langston Hughes' birthday is February 1st. What a great way to kick off Black History Month! Stock your classroom with as many Langston Hughes collections as you can find. Give each student 20 minutes to find a poem to share, and then spend the rest of the class time reading the poems out loud.

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