Friday, February 13, 2009

"The Idea of Ancestry"

In honor of Black History Month (which my school has yet to formally acknowledge) I am teaching my juniors African American poetry. The unit is, of course, supposed to teach the different literary devices that they can use to approach a text. Seems simple enough, right?

My class consists of reluctant readers, "dumb" jocks, lazy jocks, a kids with unclassified "learning" disabilities, ESL students, hormonal/horny girl/boy crazy jocks and kids with passive aggressive anger management and/or race related anxiety/bigotry. They are, needless to say, a tough crowd.

My "selling" point for African American poetry, as well as all the other works I teach them, is the lives of poets. The poets I teach them and that I have been taught have sorted lives. Though they are capable of great art, they are imperfect and terribly human. However, their flaws are almost forgiven because of their incredible talent.

The poet I taught on Thursday is Etheridge Knight. I found Etheridge by accident and I can't even remember how. After finding him, I went to the library and checked out every book they had. I, again, lost sleep reading his works. What's amazing is his story and how his story hits too close to home.

Knight was born in Mississippi in 1931. He was a high school drop out, joined the Army, served in Vietnam and came home with a nasty injury. He self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. He was at one time married to Sonia Sanchez. Long story short (too late, I know) he ends up in jail where he finally gets sober and starts writing. From this man comes the most incredible poetry I have every read.

My brother struggled with addiction in some form or another. (He has never copped to it because that would mean he would have to admit to being wrong - and he never is.) He has been in and out of jail. He lies. Cheats. Steals and is constantly trying to make a quick buck as opposed to an honest one. The killer part is the fact that the kid is smart. SUPER smart. He rolled in from God knows where at 3am the day of his SAT and scored a 1150 without sleep or effort. Problem is: He makes really bad decisions. Decisions that have taken the whole family down with him.

I had the poem on audio and I had them listen to it. I then asked for reactions. My one student didn't understand why the poem is so great. So I tell him. Stanza by Stanza. Line by line. I dissect this poem. I explain the 47 faces and what they represent. I ask them to tell me the significance of salmon spawning and how it functions in this poem. I explain to them the slang used to refer to drugs and how he was ALMOST okay with himself before he came down. I relate it to my brother and how he is smart, but lacks the ability to let it out as Etheridge does so well.

I end class by using what I just told them to explain the title of the piece. There is a moment of pause and reflection and then I dismiss them.

I immediately feel accomplished because I taught them something but heartbroken because my own brother is still unable to overcome his demons.

I can't change either of their situations and I can't change their choices. What I can do is use Etheridge Knight as an example of the transformative power of poetry. If I succeed in doing this, I'll let you know.

The Idea of Ancestry - Etheridge Knight

1 comment:

  1. I think you have already succeeded admirably. If you know something that someone else doesn't then the level best you can do is plant a seed. If you are unbelievably lucky then at the moment of your planting the rest of the world and universe and fate and what your students ate for breakfast and how much sleep they've gotten and whether they are love struck or heart broken or suicidal or ambivalent have come together at a point where they are ready to receive what you have brought to the table and take it and run.

    Of course, we all know stories of gurus, teachers, rabbis and others who have the ability to instantly transform with a look, a touch, a bit of verse or scripture. Unlike you and I they have, through years (and likely lifetimes) of practice, embody truth and unconditional love so powerfully that anyone in their presence can only choose to stay or go, but nobody who stays can do so without implicit consent to intellectual and spiritual revolution in their own lives and hearts. I hold you in the vision of ongoing spiritual refinement that allows you to simply embody truth and love, and let the children teach them selves.

    Much love and appreciation for all that you do.


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