Global Contributions of African American Writers: Using Poetry to Facilitate Connections between Historical Periods and Students' Personal Experiences

Article excerpt

As an English major and pre-service teacher, I am naturally drawn to the literary canon as a means of reflecting upon historical periods. Throughout my public and post-secondary education, literature has illuminated, and at times even revealed, periods of historical significance that were not a part of any traditional history curriculum I experienced. It was through the writings of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois that I first heard many of the voices of our nation's past that often go unheard within our public schools. Similarly, the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez provided a new and authentic perspective on history that glaringly revealed the exclusion of many African American voices from our nation's classrooms.

Throughout my teacher education program, I have been immersed in culturally responsive teaching theory and practice, which Geneva Gay defines as "using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively." It is based on the premise that "when academic skills are situated within the lived experiences and frames of reference of students they are more personally meaningful, have higher interest appeal, and are learned more easily and thoroughly." (1) This immersion in culturally responsive teaching has given me a heightened awareness of the injustice of denying students the opportunity to study the works of African Americans who have had a defining role in shaping the American social, political, and cultural consciousness, and also the negative impact that such an exclusion has on student engagement and student achievement.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to meet Sonia Sanchez while attending the 93rd Annual Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) Convention in Birmingham, Alabama. Experiencing firsthand the powerful grace and truth of her spoken word was a bittersweet experience. I was reminded of my own limited K-12 educational experiences, but more importantly, I was faced with the realization that the majority of today's students are experiencing a similarly narrow curriculum. Despite decades of curricular reforms designed to be inclusive of the multiplicity of voices that comprise the American experience, students continue to be taught a narrowly defined view of both history and literature. Ultimately, my encounter with Sonia Sanchez served to solidify my belief in and commitment to using literature as a means to facilitate student connections to history and their own lives through culturally responsive teaching.

Literature is a powerful lens through which historical periods come alive. It allows the reader to connect with history in a unique and often very personal way. While numerous African American writers have made significant contributions to the literary canon, many are only now being recognized for their work. The global contributions of African American writers were prolific at two distinct, yet connected, points in American history: the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Harlem Renaissance, situated historically between the Great Migration and the Great Depression, gave birth to a new African American cultural identity despite rampant racism and economic oppression. Alain Locke deemed it a "spiritual coming of age" offering the "first chances for group expression and self determination." (2) Through this spiritual awakening the voices of James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Langston Hughes were resoundingly heard.

Langston Hughes, one of the best known writers of the Harlem Renaissance, was thrust into the mainstream of American literature, successfully earning a living by writing. Hughes's writing was powerful and groundbreaking; however, his success is due in part to the cultural movement that became the Harlem Renaissance. …