“They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance.” Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave
The 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X was two days ago. In the midst of all the Twitter tributes and Facebook fanfare, I reflected on my own ‘Malcolm X’ phase which started during my undergraduate years at Towson University and still continues, in some form, to this day. Seeing a Black man whose speech was so articulate, so honest, so unflinching and so visceral was a powerful experience for me. In education, as in life, the qualitative comes before the quantitative - I have to see it before I can repeat it. This visual example of Black self-esteem pouring out through potent truth-telling was an object lesson for me. But it was not the first time I had been connected to a powerful Black male orator.
Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to me in middle school through the screen of the Cosby Show. Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and Paul Laurence Dunbar had a coffee talk with me in high school. Richard Wright and Alex Haley left their words with me in college. Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison allowed me to give their words to others in college and post-graduate school life. Those historical writers provided a context for me that was then complemented by ‘contemporary’ Black male voices in hip-hop and late 20th century Black literature. These writers helped me (and still help me) develop my literate identity, which sprang out of my Black awareness:
Awareness of being Black is the most powerful and the most fertile single inspiration for Black writers in America. It is ironic that Blackness, for so long regarded as a handicap socially and culturally, should also be an artistic strength . . . . All writers arrive at a reconciliation of a sense of tradition and a sense of difference. For nearly all Black writers in America that sense of difference was the recognition of Blackness. For nearly all, but not all. Being Black was less important for Charles Chesnutt than it was for James Baldwin. But for most, Blackness was the spur, the barb, or the shirt of pain that moved the artist to achieve distinction. -Charles T. Davis and Daniel Walden
Below are four ways that you can connect African-American male students with their historical (and contemporary) counterparts; thereby allowing them to have a template to express the thoughts of their mind, that could ‘die away for want of utterance.’
Start early. My son is only four years old at time of this writing, but my wife and I have been reading him books about Black males or with Black male characters since day one. It is never too early to show Black boys that they count by making books featuring them a regular part of instruction. Here is a list to get you started.
Use poetry and story. In Daniel Pink’s book, ‘A Whole New Mind,’ he posits that being able to create a story will be the way jobs are created in the economy of the future. I can think of no better way to help Black males feel at home in a literate space then to invite story into the classroom from Pre-K through 12. Have your Black male students write their own stories as shown here. Also, use poetry to reflect the Black male experience and all of its iterations from dreams to love of Black women to a desire for home. It’s about providing models of Black men expressing their thoughts and emotions for young Black boys yearning to do the same.
Supplant or supplemented the mandated curriculum as necessary. Anais Nin’s famous quote ‘We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are,’ is critical when it comes to the types of texts we put in front of our Black boys. These potential-rich boys may not relate to Shakespeare or Chaucer due to an intimate connection with their own milieu. To that end, maybe Richard Wright and August Wilson are better playwrights for Black boys. This does not mean to abandon works that are a part of American culture. Where would I be without this work? But, it’s about helping reify the themes and life experiences of Black Boys (‘If you can teach me how to cling to that which is real to me…’) while also informing their minds about the conventions of the language of wider communication, (‘while teaching me a way into the larger society…’), thereby allowing every Black boy to establish a text-to-self connection and a self-to-teacher connection (‘then will I drop my defenses and hostility, and I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.’ Ralph Ellison).
Show Black men shining. I love watching Black men powerfully tell the truth. I love seeing us speak with authority, like what happened last night. If we regularly feed images like these to our Black boys, it can serve as a counter-narrative to the many destructive images the media pumps out an alarming rate. Black boys should see Black males debating and winning, speaking from places of power and emoting with vulnerability and passion. Black male brilliance must be seen. Remember, it first must be qualitative before it can be quantitative.
Ending note: Curriculum is so much more than course guides, syllabi, standards and worksheets. Curriculum is the classroom environment that is created by accepted words, actions and ideas both in texts and from students and teachers. This environment is created second-by-second, and has the power to affirm or ignore the existence of traditionally under-served students and their cultures. When the curriculum is malleable enough to put Black male students and their experiences at the center, we create a space for them to thrive!
Only one more strategy to go.
Give a Black boy an amazing literary experience the next class period,
2/23/15 @ 9:10 p.m.