Yesterday’s little concert by our school’s Glee Club was ostensibly themed around songs with the word “America” in them, sung by members of our school’s very heterogeneous student body. This is a student body that looks like America does today, even if that thought somehow threatens the cultural comfort of those who’ve become threatened by this “hazier shading” of America, especially in light of all that is going down across the country over the last month. While the “legally justified” murder of Trayvon Martin down in Florida occurred first in the timeline, it seems as it has become a final, ugly manifestation of the more underlying issues that appear to be corroding our society’s bonds of appropriate behavior.
And it’s not the only one. Since the boy’s death at the end of February, March has seen less deadly, but nonetheless ridiculous behavior by people apparently threatened by other people of color.
Take, for instance, this behavior at the NCAA Basketball tournament last week:
Members of the University of Southern Mississippi band chanted racist taunts at a hispanic Kansas State player during the schools’ NCAA tournament game on Thursday. After point guard Angel Rodriguez was fouled late in the first half of the second-round game, a few band members showered the freshman with cries of “where’s your green card?”
As if things could get any more ignorant, the basis for the band’s racism was itself misguided. Rodriguez was born in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States. Even if he hadn’t grown up in Miami and starred for a high school basketball team in that city, he’d still be an American citizen and have no need for a green card…
Even earlier this month, at the Texas state basketball tournament:
This month, a CBS News station in San Antonio reported on a high school basketball team’s celebration, which was marred by what appeared to be a racially motivated chant of “U.S.A., U.S.A.” by fans after a mostly white team defeated a team of mostly Hispanic players. The local schools superintendent apologized for the chant. “Obviously we were disappointed that this happened,” the superintendent, Kevin Brown, told the station. “That’s not who we are as a community.”
Then there is my own Golden Bears, the Cal basketball team, led by its guard and Pac-12 Player-of-the-Year Jorge Gutierrez, whose own story is easy fodder for members of either of the above groups to exploit . By losing its play-in game last week to South Florida before the opening round of the NCAA tournament, I am actually somewhat relieved that we were spared further embarrassment by one school’s fan base taunting yet another a basketball player on their opponent’s side for their perceived immigration status.
Even at this stage in this country’s history, the level of simple ignorance about race relations is stunning to me. Raised in the Orange County of the late 1960s-early 1970s, my experience growing up was eventful by being uneventful. My friends growing up were a mixture not unlike a war movie in terms of racial inclusiveness. I was also helped by a mother who would remind my sister and I that being born in America made just as American as anyone else. And as we’ve become even more multicultural, I can look around my classroom at any point during my day and see the polyglot mixture that California has been, and will continue, to become.
Which brings us to Langston Hughes and his poem, “I Too”. While the school’s Glee Club was learning to sing their songs about America, I’ve been trying to get my 6th graders to understand how Langston Hughes might sing it. These past couple of years, I have used Hughes’ poem in my classroom as a way to teach Response to Literature; more specifically, I am showing my students how to write Literary Analysis using poetry. I struck upon the idea of using Jackie Robinson’s biography as a way of introducing the larger concepts of the Civil Rights era: not as something that emerged along with Martin Luther King, but as a wholly organic movement that predates Dr. King, and Robinson, and whose emotional awakening is found in sentiments expressed by Hughes in “I, Too”, written in 1920s, and likely intended as a wake-up call for brethren of color.
And I think my students get it. In their own words. First NL, who intuitively tries to perhaps provide a thought for those among the Southern Miss band or the Texas high school basketball fan base about how hyper-perception of skin color can often make you blind to a larger reality:
…he’s telling us that just because he is a darker color, he isn’t different from us. He also says that nothing can hold him down and that he wants to be free of discrimination.
The speaker uses the symbol of integration and segregation. The table is where only whites were allowed…when the blacks have to be in the kitchen to eat while whites are at the table, it’s segregation. They have to be separated from each other. But in the end he is saying that they shouldn’t be separate, he could go sit with them because [African-Americans} have their own rights.
He expresses how they judge him [by] his looks; they treat him like an Alien, like a different species, like he’s a book. But as he said, he is also an American no matter how he looks, no matter how he is. No matter how he is treated, he is an American too. As he said in his poem, one day he will sit [at] the table…
[The poem] is about him wanting to be treated fairly, and that they shouldn’t treat him unfairly just because of his skin color. He’s also saying that one day he is going to stand up to them and they will realize that he is strong and deserves better than that, and that he will make them regret what they have done. He wants to have freedom and fairness like the others, not just depending on what skin color you have…
RS, who turns the speaker’s words on their head with this perception:
Thinking about this made me imagine how will I act if I was white back then. Would I be evil or good? Am I going to be nice or mean? I don’t really have an answer for that yet, but soon…
KM, who tries to put herself in the shoes of a contemporary African-American:
[Hughes talks] about how black people were treated, and how [this] treatment changed over time. In this poem, Langston is explaining how he gets treated differently because he is “the darker brother”. Langston shows how back then “darker” people weren’t really welcome to eat together [with whites] “when company comes”. He tries to show how some “darker” people don’t take it to heart. They “laugh and eat well, and grow strong”…what I think he’s trying to show the reader is how “darker” people really couldn’t argue back because white people didn’t care and would just beat them. So then, I think Langston tries to show by saying “Tomorrow”, he was saying in the future and how things would change and they’ll be at the table.
SS, himself an immigrant with a cultural history and experiences unique to him, making his perspective particularly poignant:
In American, the [poem} is about how black people are not treated right. He is saying that he has the right to do anything and do what whites can do too. Like in the [poem] he said, “They send me to eat in the kitchen, when company comes but I laugh, eat well, and grow strong. He is trying to say that he is tough to stand up to them, that he does need to listen to them [and] what they say.
JR builds upon SS’s experiences, given how the dominant idea of culture in this country often looks upon “otherness” not in terms of Black/White but anything not considered “American”:
When it says “I am the darker brother”, it says that he’s being judged or discriminated by his skin color, by his culture.
HLG gets the subtle shift of perception that Hughes provides the reader, when he talks about what his words directly imply for America, echoing SS’s sentiments about an African-American who is tough enough to stand up to them:
When Langston says “Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table when company comes. Nobody’ll dare say to me, ‘Eat in the kitchen’. “Then” he menand that, he knows he will sit at the table with everyone else, he won’t be sent to the kitchen ever again just because he has a different skin color. He says, “besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am, and be ashamed”, meaning that they will be ashamed of how bad they have treated him. And how rude it was to send him to the kitchen, just because of a different skin color. They will be ashamed.
JG, normally quite reluctant to write in-depth responses, grabs upon the lesson hook I provided by using Jackie Robinson to inform his analysis:
I think what the poem is trying to say is that every[body] is a part of America. It is also trying to say that everybody is the same; we should be treated equally. Like Jackie Robinson, we should all be able to play the same sports, eat in the same place, drink from the same water fountain, and go to the same school.
Imagine yourself in the [speaker’s] shoes. If I were him, I would think that I have the rights to do what I want to. When it says, “They’ll see how beautiful I am”, I think that it’s saying [that] beauty is not just from the outside but the inside as well. Also when the poet wrote, “Nobody’ll dare say to me, ‘Eat in the kitchen, then.’. I think that he doesn’t want to accept the way things were. And when he says “tomorrow”, it means that soon the way life was at that time would change.
Indeed, life at that time would change. And one would think that life at this time wouldn’t have to revisit the same struggles to accept these fundamental cultural, racial, religious, linguistic, and social changes that have already begun to take place in society, even as there would groups dedicated to prevent what has already begun. I didn’t put these ideas into these students’ heads, they were intrinsically understood, and Hughes’ poem gave flight to their ideas. Witness this final student writing that I want to share, SL:
I believe he wants to stop racism so everyone can be treated equally. So he thinks in the future there is no more discrimination against colored people. His dream came true, there is no more discrimination against colored people.
One would think so, right? Watching news these past few weeks, you get the sense that there is some unconscious need to lock that metaphorical kitchen door. But youngsters like those who are in my classroom every day are the ones who attitudes are, I hope, the attitudes that will prevail.
My students, along with the ones singing about America yesterday afternoon, ARE the company that’s coming. It’s time to get out of the kitchen.