(Note: The editors have chosen to partially redact a form of the n-word that appears when quoting Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics.)
In 2016, America was treated to two excellent television series that focus on the life of O.J. Simpson, FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America. By delving into Simpson’s murder trial against the backdrop of Los Angeles’ unchecked police brutality in an honest and thoughtful manner, both shows succeed in explaining why the majority of white Americans were so shocked when Simpson was found innocent of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and why the majority of black Americans were elated when the verdict was read. While it would seem that everyone was watching the same trial and considering the same evidence, this was clearly not the case. What most white Americans, including myself, did not see was how most blacks historically saw the LAPD – as a group of powerful, government employees who had no regard whatsoever for the civil rights of black people and who were never held accountable for using excessive force or even killing black people whom they encountered on the job. Even when cameras captured every moment of police brutality, as in the case of Rodney King, the justice system failed, thus perpetuating the message that black lives didn’t matter. These television treatments of Simpson’s trial hopefully allowed many white Americans to see – and, therefore, understand – the reaction of many black Americans to the verdict. Black Americans could see – because they had seen – police plant evidence, lie on the witness stand, and abuse their powers. The issue for the purpose of this article is not whether Simpson should have been found guilty or innocent or whether the prosecution should have prepared better or whether Simpson’s “dream team” of lawyers conducted themselves ethically. Instead, the purpose is to show how English teachers can take a lead role in educating students to see the lasting effects of slavery on the African American community; reading selected poetry can prompt greater understanding and bring students who have not been affected by racism to a place of action and allyship.
In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses the difficulties black Americans have had protecting their bodies, both from acts committed by white people in power and by members of the poor black community who use violence to assert a semblance of status and power. By using the form of a letter written from father to son, Coates writes,
You would be a man one day, and I could not save you from the unbridgeable distance between you and your future peers and colleagues, who might try to convince you that everything I know, all the things I’m sharing with you here, are an illusion, or a fact of a distant past that need not be discussed. And I could not save you from the police, from their flashlights, their hands, their nightsticks, their guns. Prince Jones, murdered by the men who should have been his security guards, is always with me, and I knew that soon he would be with you.” (90)
For the 15% of the students at my all-girls’ school who identify as African American, Coates’ words are not shocking. However, for many of the remaining 85% of students at my school, it is unimaginable that a father, today, in the United States, would feel powerless to protect his child. While our school has been educating faculty and students about white privilege, it is understandable that my students have a hard time talking about race when the country as a whole struggles to do the same. It is difficult to see an issue from another person’s point of view when the majority of our schools and neighborhoods are not integrated. And while most of my white students can share experiences of how it feels to be viewed suspiciously as potential shoplifters when they go shopping, they do not experience being the subjects of the gaze because of their race. When a parent is pulled over by the police for speeding, they may fear that their parent may have a pay a hefty speeding ticket. However, I doubt it would ever cross their minds that an encounter with the police may result in bodily injury. So how can students who are not black gain a fuller understanding of Coates’ words? Is the Black Lives Matter movement only a result of the past few years of police brutality? If slavery ended so long ago, how could it possibly be relevant today? In 11th grade, students at my school study American history. Reading literature allows them to see human faces beneath the textbook and to connect with other people’s experiences on a more emotional level. In my English class, reading poetry written by black Americans not only validates these writers as artists worthy of study in a high school curriculum, but also allows all students to reach a new critical understanding of how our country’s history has shaped the experiences of the black community.
Robert Hayden’s poem “Middle Passage” puts us on a slave ship and leads us to a discussion about one of the most enigmatic and disturbing questions in American history: how could a country established around the principles “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” justify the enslavement of a group of people? By writing this poem from the point of view of slave traders, Hayden allows us to gain a better understanding of the following:
- What atrocities are people capable of committing against others when they don’t see another as human?
- How can people use moral principles to justify atrocities?
- How can a poet’s use of stylistic devices give us new understandings of these matters by reaching us both emotionally and intellectually?
As we read Part I of ”Middle Passage,” we examine the discrepancies between what the white narrator, a crew member on board a slave ship, sees and what the reader sees by focusing on imagery and diction. Two of the stanzas that resonate with my students the most come from Part I of the poem:
“That there was hardly room ‘tween-decks for half
the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashioned there;
that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh
and sucked the blood:
“That Crew and Captain lusted with the comeliest
Of the savage girls kept naked in the cabins;
That there was one they called The Guinea Rose
And they cast lots and fought to lie with her:
First, I ask my students to respond emotionally to these stanzas. How do they make us feel? How does Hayden create this emotion of disgust for the scene?
- Use of imagery: what do we literally see? What kinds of physical feelings does this create in us? What does the speaker see? What is his attitude?
- Use of diction: What does Hayden gain by having the narrator refer to the people as “sweltering cattle”? By having the crewmembers “cast lots” to have sex with one of the women? Why use indefinite pronouns to refer to the Africans?
- Use of pacing: What emotional effects do the semi-colons and colons create?
- How does Hayden allow us to understand the discrepancy in attitude between the reader and the speaker?
Examining and discussing Hayden’s use of literary devices allows students to see how Africans were seen: as cargo, not are human beings, and just like animals, they were not privileged with any rights or any autonomy over their bodies whatsoever. And, by telling the story of this voyage through the point of view of various white narrators, Hayden keeps the Africans voiceless, which, ironically, creates an even more powerful feel to the anguish of their plight. The references to “seeing and not seeing” in Part I of the poem allow my students to understand the creation of a mindset that allowed everyone involved with the institution of slavery to dehumanize people of African descent. Additionally, Hayden’s references to blindness lead to conversations about the connotations of the word and its implications for the perpetuation of atrocities:
…A plague among
our blacks – Ophthalmia: blindness – & we
have jettisoned the blind to no avail.
It spreads, the terrifying sickness spreads.
Its claws have scratched sight from the Capt.’s eyes
& there is blindness in the fo’c’sle
& we must sail 3 weeks before we come
We then examine the words “plague” and “sickness” and discuss how slavery can be seen as a disease. Did this “blindness” just allow white people’s consciences to become immune to the brutal “business” of slavery? Or is Hayden also suggesting that this disease led to a physical affliction within their bodies that became hereditary? Is it possible for racism and other forms of injustice to infect society as a whole?
The Legacy of Slavery
Hayden’s poem gives my students a foundation for understanding the factors needed for people to act inhumanely, to disregard the sanctity of another person’s body and soul. While there are many poets who allow us to bear witness to the African American experience after the Civil War, for the purposes of this article, I chose to focus on Claude McKay, who lived from 1889 -1948. It is also interesting to consider his use of the Shakespearean sonnet as a poetic form of political protest. His poems “The Lynching” and “America” both echo ideas presented in “Middle Passage” and speak to race relations today.
His Spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.
His father, by the cruelest way of pain,
Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
The awful sin remained still unforgiven,
All night a bright and solitary star
(Perchance the one that ever guided him,
Yet gave him up at last to Fate’s wild whim)
Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char.
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghastly body swaying in the sun
The women thronged to look, but never a one
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.
As we consider form in “The Lynching,” we review the structural purpose of a Shakespearean sonnet: the ending rhyming couplet provides the theme of the poem while the three quatrains convey the ideas that allow us to understand the poet’s purpose. I ask my students to focus on the first two quatrains and consider the devices McKay uses to create this horrific scene:
- Use of imagery: What do the words “swinging char” allow us to see and smell?
- Allusions to Jesus’ crucifixion: Why might McKay liken this man to a Christ figure? Which words allow us to see this?
- Allusion to the North Star: what significance did the North Star have for slaves? What role does the North Star play in the poem? This poem was written after slavery was abolished in the United States. Why might McKay have included this allusion? Do we know the setting of the poem? Why might this not matter?
Juxtaposing our reaction to the man’s body with the point of view of the people watching in the last quatrain allows us to discuss how people can have such radically different reactions to the same sight. Before jumping to the rhyming couplet, we discuss McKay’s use of sibilance as he describes white women’s passive reaction to the sight. We also discuss why McKay may put the spotlight on women: stereotypically speaking, how would we expect women to react to such a sight? Is it more compelling that they seem to have no emotional reaction to the brutal murder of a black man?
The couplet always produces anger in my students. The contradictory alliteration and consonance (McKay’s juxtaposition of the melodic ls on the first line of the couplet with the harsh ds on the poem’s last line) accentuate the startling image of young boys dancing around the body (which they see as a “thing”) as if they were playing “Ring Around the Rosy.” How do the sound devices and use of specific words allow us to hear McKay’s tone change to angry condemnation? I then ask my students to explain how the children could act this way. How do they see black people, and where did they learn to see humans as “things”? What connections do we see between this poem and Hayden’s? What had they learned in history about the failures of Reconstruction and post-Civil War South (e.g., Jim Crow laws)? McKay’s poem “America” is almost prophetic in its last four lines:
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood,
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
As we read this poem, we look closely at the mixed attitude of the speaker toward America, which he conveys, in part, through the pacing and punctuation in the poem. How do we hear the speaker’s voice change in different parts of the poem? Why does he personify America? Why does McKay invert the syntax on line 11? What meanings could the word “darkly” have? How can reading this poem allow us to understand current events in America through the eyes of the black community? How does this poem speak to the news articles and blogs that explore how public policy, tribalism, and violence today are tearing our country apart?
Internalized Self-Hatred and the Need to Redefine Beauty
Many authors, notably Toni Morrison, have addressed the standard of beauty inculcated within the black community from slavery – the lighter the skin, the more European the features, the more the black body can be seen as beautiful and, therefore, valued. In her novel The Bluest Eye, Morrison examines the detrimental effects of being seen as “too black” on her characters. Pecola, the little girl who truly believes her life would be happier is she had blue eyes, receives this message not only from the white people she interacts with, but also from her own community. The shame she feels as a result of having dark skin is reflected in the beaten-down way she carries herself and the deference she bestows on lighter skinned black people. She is a child with little sense of self-worth and no power to assert herself.
In her poem “Song No. 3 (for 2nd and 3rd grade sisters),” Sonia Sanchez also allows us to see the effects of racial self-loathing on a young girl:
can’t nobody tell me any different
i’m ugly and you know it too
you just smiling to make me feel better
but i see how you stare when nobody’s watching you.
i know i’m short black and skinny
and my nose stopped growin fo it wuz ‘posed to
i know my hair’s short, legs and face ashy
and my clothes have holes that run right through to you.
so i sit all day long just by myself
so i jump the sidewalk cracks knowing i cain’t fall
cuz who would want to catch someone who looks like me
who ain’t even cute or even just a little tall.
cain’t nobody tell me any different
i’m ugly anybody with sense can see.
but, one day i hope somebody will stop me and say
looka here, a pretty little black girl lookin’ just like me.
We begin our discussion of this poem by considering the speaker and the devices Sanchez uses to bring us into her world. While we could also discuss the effects of class on her sense of self, we look primarily at the effects of centuries of internalizing a white standard of beauty. Here, her black body is not at risk of harm by outside sources, per se, (as in “Middle Passage” or “The Lynching”), but by what she sees when she looks in the mirror.
I ask my students to look at the title of this poem and to think about why Sanchez addresses it to second and third grade girls. They generally agree that when girls are very young they are usually not conscious about what they look like; however, as they get into the later years of elementary school, they begin to see themselves in a more aesthetic sense, which can affect their self-esteem. We also consider the following:
- The attitude of the speaker toward herself. How does Sanchez create this child’s voice through her use of enjambment and diction? What is the effect of repetition in the poem?
- Which physical features does she tell us about?
- Why would she equate “black” with ugliness? Why can’t she see herself as “cute”?
- How does how others see us affect the way we see ourselves?
Bringing It All Together: Rap Music as Poetry
Last year I used rap music to shed more light on some of the issues raised in works written by African Americans. In particular, as we listened to songs from the rapper and poet Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly, a few of my students commented that they had heard these songs, but they never really listened closely to the lyrics. “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” speaks particularly well to the issues raised in the literature discussed so far. In Verse 2, Lamar sings:
Dark as the midnight hour, I’m bright as the mornin’ sun
Brown skinned, but your blue eyes tell me your mama can’t run
Sneak me through the back window, I’m a good field n***a
I made a flower for you outta cotton just to chill with you
You know I’d go the distance, you know I’m ten toes down
Even if master’s listenin’, I got the world’s attention
So I’mma say somethin’ that’s vital and critical for survival
Of mankind, if he lyin’, color should never rival
Beauty is what you make it, I used to be so mistaken
By different shades of faces
Then Whit told me, “A woman is woman, love the creation”
It all came from God then you was my confirmation
I came to where you reside
And looked around to see more sights for sore eyes
Let the Willie Lynch theory reverse a million times with…
(Hook) Complexion (two-step)
Complexion don’t mean a thing (it’s a Zulu love)
It all feels the same (it’s a Zulu love)
After researching the allusions to slavery (“Willie Lynch,” “a good field n***a”) and Zulu philosophy, we began to explicate Lamar’s words and further draw the thread of how black people had been seen and how Lamar uses his eyes to envision a healthier way of seeing his community. I asked my students to look at his use of diction that refers to color and eyes and to pay particular attention to words such as critical and vital. What is Lamar’s tone in the song? Does it shift as he approaches the hook?
Likewise, in the song “The Blacker the Berry,” Lamar’s words pack an emotional punch as he references how the black man’s people have been seen and his use of I and you throughout Verse 1:
You never liked us anyway, fuck your friendship, I meant it
I’m African-American, I’m African
I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village
Pardon my residence
Came from the bottom of mankind
My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide
You hate me don’t you?
You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture
You’re fuckin’ evil I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey
You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me
And this is more than confession
I mean I might press the button just so you know my discretion
I’m guardin’ my feelings, I know that you feel it
You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’
You made me a killer, emancipation of a real n***a
By starting with “Middle Passage” and working our way through years of African American history, we were able to engage in a more enlightened discussion of Lamar’s message and tone in both songs. In both songs, Lamar draws the past into the present and takes control of how he is going to see his black body; however, the diction takes on an entirely new meaning when contrasted with his tone.
We considered the following questions:
- What words would you use to describe the tone in each song? How does Lamar’s use of punctuation and enjambment allow us to hear these differences in tone?
- How do we hear the word n***a in each song?
- How do we hear the words “good field n***a” in “Complexion” and “proud monkey” in “The Blacker the Berry”?
- Are there any other differences in Lamar’s diction or use of poetic devices? Why may these be important to understanding the differences in tone?
The hook of the song provides more to contemplate, such as Lamar’s use of repetition:
I said they treat me like a slave, cah’ me black
Woi, we feel a whole heap of pain, cah’ we black
And man a say they put me inna chains, cah’ we black
Imagine now, big bold chains full of rocks
How you no see the whip, left scars pon’ me back
But now we have a big whip parked pon’ the block
All them say we doomed from the start, cah’ we black
Remember this, every race start from the block, jus ‘member dat
Again, we were able to link the past with the present by looking at the new meaning attributed to words such as chains and whip and to consider the following questions:
- How does Lamar show the black community’s ability to redefine themselves through language?
- How do we see Lamar, a black man, through his lyrics?
- To what extent do we feel the pain of the past in his lyrics?
- Considering everything we have read, how should we see America’s past How does the literature help us understand the various cycles of violence? How is it possible to use the past to create a better future for all Americans?
From Seeing to Understanding
My African American students are right: white people can never know what it’s like to be the subject of the gaze in their daily lives. However, by reading and listening to works by black authors, my white students are in a better position to understand why and how slavery is something blacks cannot so easily “get over.” Whether we like to admit it or not, much of our country was built on the backs of African slaves and their descendants, and while the Civil War ended the practice of slavery, it did not end the racism that allowed slavery to exist. Reading and responding to literature that addresses the perpetuation of racism puts a human face on events my white students may or may not learn in history class and can help eradicate ignorance. My hope is for them to understand why Coates was not surprised when the police officers who killed Michael Brown were acquitted and why Coates is fearful about his son’s ability to keep his body from harm. My hope is for them to be able to say to their black classmates, “you’re right; I can’t know what it feels like to be in your shoes, but I can see the inequities and injustices that exist and where they come from, and I want to be an ally for change.”
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel and Grau. 2015.
Hayden, Robert. “Middle Passage.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, Web. 4 July 2016.
Lamar, Kendrick. ”Complexion (A Zulu Love).” Rap Genius. Genius Media Inc. Web. 4 July 2016.
Lamar, Kendrick. ”Complexion (A Zulu Love).” To Pimp a Butterfly. Aftermath, 2015. CD.
Lamar, Kendrick. ”The Blacker the Berry.” Rap Genius. Genius Media Inc. Web. 4 July 2016.
Lamar, Kendrick. ”The Blacker the Berry.” To Pimp a Butterfly. Aftermath, 2015. CD.
McKay, Claude. “America.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, Web. 4 July 2016.
McKay, Claude. “The Lynching.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, Web. 4 July 2016.
Sanchez, Sonia. “Song No. 3 (for 2nd and 3rd grade sisters).” Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry. Eds. Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan. Penguin Books, 1994. 111.
Learn more about Sharon Rudnicki on our Contributors page