Poetry as an Exploration into Children’s Lives and Cultures

by Michelle Grace-Williams & Julia López-Robertsonwith Genitha Jackson, Tirisha Robinson, Janese Utley, University of South Carolina

I, too, sing America/I am the darker brother/They send me to eat in the kitchen/When company comes/But I laugh, /And eat well /And grow strong/Tomorrow…/They’ll see how beautiful I am/And be ashamed—I, too, am America.

Langston Hughes

The poem above, I Too, Am America, is an example of a culturally relevant poem that could be used by teachers as a vehicle to engage [all] students in discussions about social injustices and issues that may be relevant to them and their lives. Culturally relevant poetry may also be used as a critique to systems of oppression that are present in our society-in this case, specifically race and language.

‘Da Language’

Zentella (2010) argued that language is often racialized in America. She further contended that speakers of languages other than English often experience dialect dissing and linguistic isolation. Rather than excluding students’ home language, Meier (2008) argued that teachers should draw from Black children’s “sophisticated linguistic abilities” (p. 107) to engage them in the classroom and to bridge new learning. This was the primary argument presented in the Oakland Ebonics debate of 1996; the debate centered on the use of Ebonics in Oakland public schools to enhance the learning of African American students (Perry & Delpit, 1998; Smitherman, 2006). The Oakland school board declared that “Ebonics…should not be stigmatized, and that this language should be affirmed, maintained, and used to help African-American children acquire fluency in the standard code” (Perry & Delpit, 1998, p.3). There were many opponents of the Oakland School Board’s stance on Ebonics (Perry & Delpit, 1998) however; those who embraced this approach understood the difference it could make in the lives of students when their home language is valued in the classroom.

ToughboyOne poem with potential to be particularly meaningful to children of the African diaspora in middle or high school is the poem Ebonics in the book Tough Boy Sonatas by Curtis Crisler (2007). It critiques the negative stigma that people from the dominant culture ascribe to Ebonics, include their everyday experiences and make historical references through the use of words such as “slaves” and “Kunta Kinte”. The poem has several lines that could be specifically used to awaken the critical consciousness (Freire, 1970) of students. The following lines could be used to open classroom discussion about the negative attitude towards Ebonics in school:

If you handle second language correctly, with vibrancy,
teachers will label you different, call you
mimic, special [italics in original] (p. 69)

Students could also be encouraged to write their own poems expressing their concerns about the linguistic discrimination that is prevalent in society. Undergraduate students in a course on Linguistic Pluralism crafted this poem in response to a class session on Ebonics:

Da Language By: Genitha Jackson, Tirisha Robinson, Janese Utley
Ebonics is a language and it’s here to stay.
Whether or not you believe in it,
African Americans speak this way.
1997 is the year that it became official,
And AAL is its initials

Choosing culturally relevant texts reflecting children of the African Diaspora

When selecting culturally relevant texts for Black students, educators must be mindful that their history did not commence with slavery (King, 2013) instead, it began with the great empires of Africa and the scientific inventions of their ancestors who contributed significantly to the world’s civilizations (Akbar, 2013). It is also important that educators select texts that help Black students become cognizant of their strengths and their ability to use these to transform their world-as so beautifully articulated in the following lines from Countee Cullen’s poem Hey Black Child:

Hey Black Child/Do you know you are strong
I mean really strong/Do you know you can do
What you want to do/If you try to do
What you can do
Hey Black Child/Be what you can be
Learn what you must learn/Do what you can do
And tomorrow your nation/Will be what you what it to be

This poem does not promote the meritocracy that is emphasized in public schools; instead it accentuates the strength of Black children who are too often relegated to the margins of society. Selecting texts focusing on strengths could help to build a bridge between the home, community and school which would maximize the success of children of the African diaspora in public schools. It is not only important for us to build this bridge but we must also maintain it (Gibson, 2013). We can maintain this bridge by constantly drawing from the home and communities of Black children which can be done through home visits, family history projects, journal writing on cultural experiences and memories, and creating a space for community members to share their knowledge with students in schools.

In closing…

In our opening blog we asked you to consider inviting students to share personal experiences, their poetic works- as a means to connecting to the curriculum and speaking against injustices in society. We also asked that you consider engaging children in poetry that painted their experiences in a positive light, so as to ‘disrupt the status quo in school, that focuses on one way of knowing’. What activities could you include in the classroom to draw from students’ home language? What kinds of poems have you been using in your classroom? Are the poems honoring your students’ home language or reinforcing the status quo? If they are reinforcing the status quo how might you change this? How could you create a space in your classroom in which all students feel valued?


Akbar, N. (2013, Oct). Reclaiming and celebrating what works: Passing the torch. Wisdom circle at A Black Education Congress, Chicago, IL.

Crisler, C. (2007). Tough Boy Sonatas. Honesdale, Pennsylvania: WordSong.

Cullen, C. (2013). Hey, Black child. Retrieved 23 October, 2013 from

Gibson, K. (2013, Oct) Reclaiming and celebrating what works: Passing the torch. Discussion at
A Black Education Congress, Chicago, IL.

King, J. (2013, Oct). Reclaiming and celebrating what works: Passing the torch. Discussion at A Black Education Congress, Chicago, IL.

Perry, T. & Delpit, L. (1998). The real Ebonics debate: Power, language, and the education of African-American children. Boston: Beacon Press.

Meier, T. (2008).Black communications and learning to read. New York: Routledge.

Zentella, A. (2010, Sept 30). Linguistics symposium at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.

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