By Sharon Kunde
In addition to resting and recharging, the weeks leading up to the New Year are a perfect time for reflecting on our practices as educators. This year, I encourage ELA teachers to consider the diversity of the authors and works represented in their syllabi. Teachers who seek greater diversity when planning an English Language Arts syllabus may face a number of hurdles, including lack of time in an already jam-packed curriculum, difficulty in choosing between an abundance of options, or a lack of knowledge of what options there may be. Below, I explore a list of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth century poems by African American authors that can easily be included in existing secondary classroom syllabi, or that could form the backbone of a more involved unit-long or semester-long course of study.
Trafficked from West Africa and ultimately brought to Boston in July of 1761, Phillis Wheatley labored as a servant in the household of a family who taught her to read and write. Wheatley managed to publish a book of her poetry with a British bookseller in 1773 and was manumitted in 1784. Her poem “A Farewell to America,” which she wrote when she travelled to England to seek publication and better conditions for her health, complicates the idea that people travelled from Europe to the United States in search of liberty and equality. “On Imagination,” which can be read as a precursor to Romantic works like Frankenstein, gives a self-conscious account of the process of artistic inspiration and creation, ending with an allusion to Milton that both demurs and proclaims the poem’s literary ambitions.
Alice Dunbar Nelson
Born Alice Ruth Moore in New Orleans in 1875, Dunbar Nelson studied and taught in New Orleans until moving to Boston and then New York. Married first to writer Paul Laurence Dunbar and later to activist Robert Nelson, Alice Dunbar Nelson was herself an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Dunbar’s “I Sit and Sew,” which fulminates on the limitations of women’s domestic labor, complements more widely-taught American poems like Anne Bradstreet’s “The Author to her Book” or Emily Dickinson’s “The Soul selects her own Society”; Bradstreet’s poem offers a humble perspective on her own domestic labor—writing—whereas Dickinson’s poem embraces the isolation Dunbar’s poem repudiates. Dunbar Nelson’s Petrarchan sonnet “To Madame Curie” praises Curie’s scientific discoveries as a species of heroic exploration, and might, like “On Imagination,” be read alongside other Romantic works that explore the valences of exploration and discovery.
James Weldon Johnson
Activist, writer, editor, and statesman, James Weldon Johnson was a seminal figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Besides writing an important and teachable novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Johnson collected and edited The Book of American Negro Poetry in 1922. “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which has since gained fame as the Black national anthem, can be taught alongside other protest poems and sung poems such as “We Shall Overcome” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The poem’s oratorical power and sense of historical weight also brings to mind Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem, “The Hill We Climb.” Johnson’s “A Poet to his Baby Son,” an apostrophic poem freighted with ambivalence and irony, shows another side of Johnson’s perspective on race, protest, and art. In its skepticism of art’s impact on society and artist alike, the poem could complement study of modernist works like Invisible Man or “The Waste Land.”
While representing diverse perspectives in our syllabi cannot be the only way in which we seek to cultivate greater equity in education, this kind of representation is a necessary starting point in giving students a broad and flexible perspective on literature and writing.
Dr. Sharon Kunde is an educator, scholar, and writer. Her current book project is titled “Natural Reading”: Race, Place, and Literary Practice in the United States from Thoreau to Ransom; an article drawn from this material appeared in Twentieth-Century Literature. Her poetry has appeared in The Colorado Review, Salt Front, and The Spoon River Review, among others. She teaches 8th and 9th grade at the Lycee International de Los Angeles and blogs about hiking in the California backcountry at https://throughhike.wordpress.com/.