08/14/2013 06:29 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2013

Considering a Theme

The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you---
Then, it will be true.
("Theme for English B," Langston Hughes)

As the film Fruitvale Station unfolds in theaters this summer and the Smithsonian considers Trayvon Martin's hoodie for the collection, I wonder how, or if I could (should?) find a way to bring the topic of race into my classroom. Have my students learned enough to consider and critique beyond the knee jerk reactions, the preconceptions, the fear of being called out, labeled or misinformed? Do I have the right to ask them?

As I plan, the question sharpens: what do I want to elicit with the question? By opening this can of words, what I am looking for -- what is the desired end understanding?

Running along this stream, Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B," comes to mind. The poem addresses the complexity of a conversation about race in the classroom. I think of it because it crystallizes the heart of the issue, and I think of it because it puts me into the reality of the student, rather than the teacher, experiencing and understanding a class.

In the poem, a professor gives an assignment to get to know the students and to see what they can do with words. In his response, Hughes reveals his truths. The only person of color in his classroom, he wonders if his page, like himself, will be labeled with stereotypes before he has even finished it.

Even Hughes' framing of the assignment, with its vague advice to let that "page come out of you" as the place to start carries a bit of critique--is making this page that simple, especially when it comes from such a complex and often so undefined place? In writing, is it possible to get to the heart of the matter, to get beyond our defining characteristics to reveal our true selves? Race, like any other individuating aspect, cannot be divorced from the thinking and the work we do the classroom. Conning myself into thinking that I teach a colorblind class, and therefore don't need to create a space for this subject and conversation, is shortsighted and naive.

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?

I ask my students to constantly engage with the world in their thinking, writing, talking, and reading to find a way back towards understanding themselves and each other. I notice that I often underestimate the difficulty of the questions I ask, and am learning to give the conversation time to develop and find a shape. The hardest thing to do is to wait. A discussion about race in a diverse setting is difficult for students who may not have had to develop the diplomacy and empathy that accompanies a discussion of difference. Actually, it is difficult for most of us. It is the proverbial deep water. Adults often avoid this conversation out in the world, unless current events push us to pay attention.

Where does this conversation generally happen in our lives? Usually it is with people we consider like ourselves to some degree, in a safe space, and may even happen indirectly. This is what students walk in knowing how to do. Jokes and stereotypes they may have can diffuse anxiety and also mask ignorance. It is their armor. How can we begin know each other? To this end, a classroom can become a place that is separated from the "real" world. When and how else would all 30 of us be sitting in a (very) small room together, talking about these things?

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.

In opening this conversation, do I overlook the possible elephants, or invite in the monsters under the bed? To think, and to bring their whole self into that thinking, asks students to reflect and to be honestly aware of themselves and the world in which they move. And for this reason, a conversation about race can naturally evolve in the classroom.

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!

A student will walk into my room on the first day with many preconceptions. The things she or he has heard about me, their existing opinions about the subject and school in general, and finally my race, my sex and even my age. I will have the student's academic and anecdotal history, as well as my first day perceptions. But after that first day, we have to get past those fragments; to spend a semester trying to talk about literature and life while looking over the fence at each other is limiting and boring. There is a power differential in play: a teacher sets the work, the structure, and the values of the class. But while a teacher is responsible for every element of their classroom, a student is responsible for showing up and taking a part in that system. In this relationship of trust and respect, the work can begin.

Hughes allows brave and complex truths to appear on his page. To ignore the conversation of the hard things -- race, class, sex, disability and so on, and to send students onwards into the world without necessary words and frameworks for their lives is a disservice. In a classroom we can learn to talk about these things in an inclusive and responsible manner. There must be an acknowledgement of the past, an awareness of the present, and a realistic, informed and evolving view of the future.

To this end, I love the long dashes and sounds that draw out the last lines of the poem. Within these long pauses Hughes reveals the truth of the poem -- the learning in English B must be mutual. While he recognizes the political reality of the classroom and the differences between himself and the teacher, he is still pushing against the silence. There is hope. He is writing, the conversation starts.

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.