“Making Hope and History Rhyme: Words That Will Echo Forevermore” (3 of 4)

Case Study #3: Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou

Following the first and second of four blogs in this series, I introduced our 4th/5th grade expedition, “Making Hope and History Rhyme: Words That Will Echo Forevermore,” which we hope you will read to gain a comprehensive view of the expedition unit.

Moving forward historically, our next case study began with Langston Hughes and his poetry. You never know what is going to interest a child when you begin a unit, but on the following morning of our Langston Hughes kickoff, I was overjoyed to have a student hop in at 7:30 and say “Hey Mr, play some ragtime!” This was a nice break from the usual Encanto soundtrack that played on loop for three weeks prior. This was also nice to see the kids were enjoying what we have been learning about. 

First, we set the context for where and when Langston Hughes wrote. We discussed the Harlem Renaissance and what life was like post-Civil War, and pre-Civil Rights Era. We built connections with his work by playing ragtime in class, reading Duke Ellington by Andrea Davis Pinkney, locating places he alludes to in his poems (Rome, Egypt, The Congo, Woolworth Building in New York City, and Southern United States) and connecting themes of his poems to other well known historical figures. We compared and contrasted: passages from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to Hughes’ “Freedom” and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech with Hughes’ “I Dream a World.” As Dr. King is an iconic figure in our country, comparing his work to Langston Hughes’ work makes him more engaging and relatable, and opens the door for more connections to be made as we build on each unit. Furthermore, starting with these poems, we are reminded that our work is grounded in action and dreaming big! Action towards an end to avarice, towards gentleness. Dreaming about an all encompassing, open armed America, where “love will bless the earth.” This work, this dream, is within our hands, heart, and feet.

"Letter From a Birmingham Jail" and "Freedom"

"I Dream A World" and "I Have a Dream"

Next, we read: “I,Too,” “Dreams,” “I Dream a World,” “Harlem,” and “Negro.” 

Langston Hughes Poems

We first analyzed the theme of his poems. In “I, Too” we read that people of color belong to America, too, and it takes “a cry of defiance and not of fear” to have a place at the table. In the poem “Negro” we read that the history and accomplishments of the African diaspora, and African-American people must be told and celebrated. In “I Dream A World,” we must dream of a more peaceful, embracing, and just world. “Dreams” and “Harlem” focus on grave injustice that Black men and women suffer from dreams deferred because of systemic and structural racism. Historically, people of color, unjustly, have had to be extremely resilient in pursuing dreams, which contrasts the message of what “The American Dream” is all about.  Hughes’ poems deal concretely with the creed of our country that all people are deserving of freedom and dignity, and the travesty that it has not always been the case.

We merged Hughes’ poetry with the historical and social context of the United States at the time, and how it intertwines with what we studied in prior case studies. The themes of his poems are tragic as they speak of thousands of American citizens, often citizens of color, whose dreams and lives are deferred, frozen, and barren. And yet, in the wake of this sorrow and dread, there is hope. Hope for a world that “peace its paths adorn,” and “where greed no longer saps the soul.” His poetry asks for deep reflection and demands immediate action, similar to speeches from Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. His experiences tie into the question of “What is America supposed to be all about?” Are dreams to dry up because the color of one’s skin? Is that “a more perfect Union?” Is living in a country where cooks are sent to the kitchen when company comes the epitome of the Declaration of Independence’s words that “all men are created equal”? Is leaving out the thousands of men and women of color who contributed to our country’s growth really the narrative we want to tell? Or worse, is leaving out the atrocities committed against thousands of men and women of color who contributed to our country’s growth the narrative we want to ignore

Langston Hughes addressed these questions, and through his popularity as a poet, told the story of an invisible, ignored America. 

Moving beyond the thematic and historical magnitude of his work, his poetry allowed our children to further master the elements of poetry and language. His poems are the ultimate model of how to use the elements of poetry. In each of his poems, there are clear cut models of rhythm and rhyme (as influenced by music of the times), vivid imagery, similes, metaphors, and repetition. Furthermore, we had many language dives, as the vocabulary in his poems are profound and unique. From here, we were able to build on our criteria list of what makes a high quality poem: extensive, creative vocabulary and rhythm. We built up our own mastery of poetry in studying models of high quality poetry that use alliteration, organized stanzas, and rhyme, all while studying profound depth and humanness in his work. 

Similar to Hughes, Maya Angelou’s poetry contains themes of hope, courage, compassion, and resilience. To kick off our Maya Angelou study, we bridged her work with Hughes’. We compared and contrasted her poem, “Still I Rise” (we left a couple lines out) to Hughes’ poem “Still Here.” 

Still Here by Langston Hughes and Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

As stated with our Hughes kickoff, it's important to bridge the work together, which is why this was our introductory poem.

Next, we transitioned to her poem “Human Family.” Again, this focus was twofold - to break down elements of poetry and to analyze themes. In the end, the human spirit yearns for solidarity and kinship with other humans, regardless of ethnicity. Our togetherness outshines our differences, if we take the time to embrace it! 

One Human Family by Maya Angelou

We concluded with reading excerpts from the poem she delivered at the 1993 Inauguration, “On The Pulse of Morning.” This poem and the context is crucial for many reasons. One, it's a monumental occasion in that she is the first woman of color to read at the presidential inauguration, the pinnacle of democracy, and fluidity of power in the United States. It's important to note that 1993 was not too long ago, which speaks volumes about the imbalance of power in our country. Yet, there she stood, exclaiming that “now is the time to make real the promises of democracy” for everyone. Her poem’s theme of hope, courage, and inclusiveness is incredibly moving. The content of the poem contains crucial teaching points and connections to our overall expedition. For instance, the passage:

“You, who gave me my first name, you,

Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you

Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then

Forced on bloody feet,

Left me to the employment of

Other seekers—desperate for gain,

Starving for gold.” 

We return to our homage to Six Nations, and Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, to reflect on the questions: “Where does the idea of democracy come from?” “Who was left behind in our country?” “What should we do about it?”

Furthermore, we drew on two connections to Phillis Wheatley.

“You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought,

Sold, stolen, arriving on the nightmare

Praying for a dream.

Here, root yourselves beside me.

I am that Tree planted by the River,

Which will not be moved.” 

These lines relate to Wheatley’s experience, taken from her family and homeland, arriving to continental America in a nightmare of a dream. 

Similar to Angelou speaking for President Clinton, Wheatley spoke for General Washington. This setup here is important both to show that women of color have played crucial roles in our nation’s history, and to plant the seed as we moved closer to our last case study on THE Amanda Gorman.

On the Pulse of Morning by Maya Angelou

Moving forward, we transitioned to the theological meaning of Angelou’s poem. By focusing on select excerpts from this poem, we took a deeper dive into themes that weave into our overall religious study.

 We focused on: 

“Yet today I call you to my riverside,

If you will study war no more. Come,

Clad in peace, and I will sing the songs

The Creator gave to me when I and the

Tree and the rock were one.”

In these lines, we return to the teachings of peace: “blessed are the peacemakers.” We are reminded of the call of the prophets to “turn our swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.” We return to the question, who is invited to the Kingdom of Heaven? Who is invited to our country? Angelou makes it clear that all are welcome to this place, a promised sanctuary, especially for the marginalized, the oppressed, and the peacemakers. She paints a clear image that this is what it means “to make real the promises of democracy:” to commit to peace and welcome the stranger. Ultimately, this is what I yearn for in teaching, where our classrooms are a beacon of hope for the children to move out from, carrying with them peace and compassion. 

Lastly, our study on Angelou is crucial visually. The lady knows how to deliver a poem; she is the ultimate performer. As stated with Truth and Douglass, we did not want to jump into the day where the children delivered poems to hundreds of people. Instead, we learned from the best on how it's done. Angelou is that lady. Fast forward to our celebration of learning, where the children had to both present what they’ve learned and read poems they’d written, we had young students slamming their fists and speaking animatedly with all sorts of guests. Some of them presented with sass, some of them with charisma, just like Angelou reading “Still I Rise.” 

The children’s ability to become experts on these poets, these poems, and their historical backgrounds, was moving and inspiring. The material they engage in each day makes me tremendously proud and humbled to work with them. Their development, academically and socio-emotionally, brings me boundless joy and a deep hope. Children are by nature, empathetic and sweet, which allows them to grasp the content of this case study with grace and zeal. These children embody the dream in Hughes’ work.