How We Should (and Should Not) Define Writers of Color in Classrooms

What surprised me was not the discovery that these educators of the arts were insisting that someone like T. S. Eliot or Robert Frost were the “greatest poets of the 20th century.’’ What had me head tilting was the fact that, when it came to a person like Langston Hughes, as a group we were asked to argue whether or not this particular writer, who happened to be American and Black, was “plain speaking.’’ This was then followed with a more complex query that brushed on the suggestion that Hughes was a ‘’provincial poet who focused strictly on race issues.’’ At that point one cannot help but sit back and think about all the times, those moments within one’s African-American version of childhood, when that sudden rush of excitement, a moment that is arguably equivalent to a caffeine lover’s relationship to coffee, occurs when a person of color and their work is finally being talked about in a large setting. Where was this same joy? Where was the satisfaction? Where was my mouth—a producer of sounds that would have played records about my decent familiarity with these African-American authors?

I wasn’t too sure on this. What I do know is that not a moment later I was writing not to myself, this educator, or my fellow peers but instead my adviser.

For some reason I was highly curious about the response. Not anxious or cautious, but a curiosity equivalent to a child watching their first ladybug crawl and tickle up their arms. Until this point she (the adviser) had been an extremely generous, and not to mention a very reliable person. The thing was, she wasn’t Black. And this factor loomed over me after releasing my edited, revisited, and carefully crafted email. This wasn’t a matter of if she would take the concern seriously. Knowing her I knew she would. It was just the difference between a Caucasian individual hearing, not understanding, the core of the message itself. To my relief she did. In fact, she found my email so well received that she expressed her satisfaction once more, just before asking if she could have my permission to forward the text over to the school board.

It’s been about three weeks. I haven’t checked back in to see if there exist any updates on the matter (my adviser had also mentioned that an actual action plan, if there was to be one, wouldn’t be finalized until much later). However the original discussion regarding Hughes still dawns on me. I can’t figure out if this is due to my surprise about the lack of awareness to begin with, or if these sprouted feelings of disappointment have to do more with the idea of another student, particularly someone of color, leaving similar classes with the impression that African-American writers cannot be recognized for their craft, their artistic composure and methods used, without these reflections on suffering, inequality, or social justice being an observer’s main vocal point—or in this case, height of recognition.

In other words, to me it was most ironic that while we were forced to philosophize over the heavy ink of Plath or the monochrome world of Frost, when it came to writers of color they (the school board) now wanted us to question the authenticity of the artist’s involvement in literary movements as oppose to studying the work itself. They subconsciously planted the idea that poets who were of color were poets, but not as a poet like Robert Frost. They featured race related excerpts from The Weary Blues, but left out the part that the 1926 publication featured poems that actually did not touch on race and rather the human condition, romance and fine imagery. Furthermore, and because the only two people of color that were mentioned in the span of eight weeks included Hughes and Brooks, and only Hughes and Brooks, I would find it very remarkable for an outsider to even try to argue that a ratio of approximately 12:2 is actually equal. The two, must I add, represents the only two people of color featured throughout the entire course in a class called Studies in Poetry. Not even American poetry, but poetry as a whole.

Some may find there to be some confusion and even disapproval regarding these claims. However I am willing to lend a helping hand.

The first red flag to consider is this. An educator who claims that an artist, like Hughes, was concerned with only race issues most evidently has not been exposed to his portfolio enough to see this is not just incorrect but especially inaccurate when using something like The Weary Blues as your primary source of reference, where poems like March Moon, Fantasy in Purple, Suicide’s Note, and The Dream Keeper, just to name a few, do not relate to a singular race, or just African-Americans, but rather humanity in its entirety.

In the end we then have the bigger picture, the second red flag, which portrays a nationwide occurrence where (some, not all) educators are asking their students to define the level of involvement of these artists, seen across artistic movements, who they themselves apparently have little knowledge of. This, once again, revealed through conversations that ask for a student to argue whether an African-American poet like Hughes was ‘’only concerned with race issues.’’

The third red flag is the act of a school board treating diversity as a factor and not a necessity within the curriculum. When a subject matter is treated as a necessity it is handled with care. The handler themselves will make sure this person or idea is represented in the most authentic way possible all while providing options (intended for the receiver) to versatile translation and various forms of conclusion. The handler also has a habit of encouraging conversation, and leading the main ideas, but straying away from agenda setting. This same concept, best thought of as a light bulb, unfortunately cracks when society asks our schools to showcase morefacesin their lessons when frankly some educators, based on their actions, are not that familiar with artists or writers of color, like Hughes and Brooks, to begin with. Why? Because even their own classrooms, growing up, favored individuals who just so happened to be Caucasian and male. Ultimately this leads to occasions of modern misrepresentation (as seen with the race question and Hughes) and many more one-sided conversations—particularly those that ask an educator to name who the ‘’greatest poets and writers’’ of the 20th century were.

 Again, this does not relate the amount of diversity in classrooms but the dialogue we encourage when introducing these figures to the youth and young adults—let alone those who are of color but have never heard of Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks (the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize, Phillis Wheatley (the first African-American to be published in the United States), or George Moses Horton (the first African-American to be published in the Southern United States). The last two names, I should note, I personally did not come across until after high school. And the fact that even a diverse traditional school setting failed to mutter, at least somewhere, of these revolutionary milestones downright confused me.

So what is the solution? To me it starts with asking ourselves how we are defining our artists. It begins with ridding comparisons of Langston Hughes to Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks to Sylvia Plath, and choosing to favor (in classrooms, at least) the research of one’s individual craft and takes on storytelling. From there we must ask ourselves the purpose of our opinion. Is it intended to educate? It is living room conversation? To me, the difference between personal and scholarly talk is substantial when there is a room full of individuals who are relying on youto present fact, queries based on fact and not opinion, and successes in history.

I do not speak for every classroom across the United States, nor do I represent any group or African-Americans as a whole. What I will say is that through my experiences, and based on the classrooms I’ve been seated in and graduated out of, while art is subjective it also has favorites. And this imbalance rests obvious in the change in dialogue when referring to White or Black, people of color or those of lighter skin, or those with more or less melanin.

by M. G. Hughes

Born and raised in the little coastal town of Oceanside, California, M. G. Hughes began writing at a young age when her grandmother, Gracie Lee Osborne Hughes, an accomplished educator, encouraged her to write in composition books. Throughout her primary school years Hughes continued to develop a passion for short stories, and it was upon reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book The Great Gatsby in her senior year of high school that she felt inspired to embark on a full-length novel. That story would be Margot Lee. But after experiencing a prolonged period of writer’s block with the plot, Hughes would turn to poetry for (seemingly) temporary creative relief. The rest is history.

As of 2019, and at just the age of twenty, Hughes has been featured across nine literary magazines and three anthologies. Her debut book, I Only Have Marmalade, muses themes of poetry, prose, general philosophy, and literary fiction.


More From Culture