LANGSTON HUGHES TRIBUTE ISSUE
after teaching Claude McKay's sonnet
We discuss Harlem Renaissance poetry.
But discuss is the wrong verb
at least at the beginning of class
when their silent stares focus
on their desks—they don't look
at each other, and no one looks at me,
not even the one black student in class.
I wonder if his shoulders slump
at the silence as much as mine have—
I wonder if like me he fights
the desire to leave the room,
frustrated by the unspoken—
what is it? Guilt? Defiance? Belief
that Obama's election has burned
off the fog of oppression, rendered
irrelevant the laments of the past?
Do they fear a word dropped careless
in the room? When one hand breaks
the stillness, and I tiptoe with language
that at once focuses on and obscures race,
dancing instead through scansion, poetic
devices, allaying their fear of a screaming
indictment or a stern reminder of what their
ancestors did to mine. The conversation
warms, spreads, moves cautiously but safely
to the ending couplet. When the black student
reads "I Too Sing America" I know
he hears himself in the poem and I
hold him back after class, ask if I can
hug him, and I fight back tears as we
walk out into the hallway.
Hayes Davis is a high
school English teacher and founding member of Cave Canem. His work has
been published in Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington,
DC, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First
Decade, and Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, and the
journals New England Poetry Review, Poet Lore, Gargoyle,and
the Delaware Poetry Review. He lives in Silver Spring, MD.
in Volume 12, Number 1, Winter 2011.
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