Plenty of good books are available, of course, that give an honest picture of the lives of black Americans. The tutorial programs in Boston have been using them, and so have many of the more enlightened private schools. In the public schools of this city, however, it is difficult to make use of books that depart from the prescribed curriculum. When I made a tentative effort to introduce such materials into my classroom, I encountered firm resistance.
Earlier in the year I had brought to school a book of poetry by the Negro author Langston Hughes. I had not used it in the classroom, but it did at least make its way onto a display board in the auditorium as part of an exhibit on important American Negroes, set up to pay lip service to "Negro History Week."
To put a book by a Negro poet on display is one thing. To open the book and attempt to read something from it is quite another. In the last weeks of the spring I discovered the difference when I began to read a few of the poems to the children in my class. It was during a period in which I also was reading them some poems of John Crowe Ransom, Robert Frost, and W. B. Yeats.
Hughes, I have come to learn, holds an extraordinary appeal for many children. I knew this from some earlier experiences in other classes, and I remembered, in particular, the reaction of a group of young teen-agers in a junior high the first time I ever had brought his work into a public school. On the book's cover, the children could see the picture of the dark-skinned author, and they did not fail to comment. Their comments concentrated on that single, obvious, overriding fact:
"Look—that man's colored."
The same reaction was evident here, too, among my fourth-grade students: the same gratification and the same very vivid sense of recognition. It seemed a revelation to them that a man could have black skin and be a famous author.
Of all the poems of Langston Hughes that we read, the one the children liked the best was a poem entitled "Ballad of the Landlord." The reason, I think, that this piece of writing had so much meaning for them was not only that it seemed moving in an obvious and immediate human way, but also that it found its emotion in something ordinary. It is a poem which allows both heroism and pathos to poor people, sees strength in awkwardness, and attributes to a poor person standing on the stoop of his slum house every bit as much significance as William Wordsworth saw in daffodils, waterfalls, and clouds. At the request of the children, I mimeographed some copies of that poem, and although nobody in the classroom was asked to do this, several of the children took it home and memorized it on their own. I did not assign it for memory, because I do not think that memorizing a poem has any special value. Some of the children just came in and asked if they could recite it. Before long, almost every child in the room had asked to have a turn.