Poetry and Social Justice: Honoring All Voices
It’s been fifty years since the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, when discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin became against the law. It may be difficult for children today to imagine a world where such discrimination was a common practice, but it is important that we recognize the ongoing effects of such prejudice and pause to celebrate the progress we’ve made as a nation. That’s where literature can be especially powerful in capturing the pain of the past, the fight for justice, and our hopes for the future.
In my experiences working with children, I have found they are usually very aware of issues of justice and fair play, albeit in an often-narrow context. Ask them if they’ve ever stood at a store counter and watched all the grownups get attention while they wait and wait and wait, too shy or afraid to speak up. Or challenge them to think of a time at school or on the playground when they saw someone get picked on and they stood by and said nothing. We’ve probably all had an experience where we witnessed some level of injustice and were unsure or hesitant to respond. This can be a beginning point for a discussion of how justice on a societal scale evolves—and how our individual actions can contribute to the problem or to the solution.
For example, these anthologies gathered by Lee Bennett Hopkins provide a panorama of U.S. history that offers a helpful context for framing discussion or can serve as reference tools for understanding key events in our country’s history.
- Hopkins, Lee Bennett. 2000. My America: A Poetry Atlas of the United States. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Hopkins, Lee Bennett. 2008. America at War. New York: McElderry.
- Hopkins, Lee Bennett. Ed. 1994. Hand in Hand: An American History through Poetry. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Hopkins, Lee Bennett. Ed. 1999. Lives: Poems about Famous Americans. New York: HarperCollins.
- Hopkins, Lee Bennett. Ed. 2002. Home to Me: Poems Across America. New York: Orchard.
- Meltzer, Milton. Ed. 2003. Hour of Freedom: American History in Poetry. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press.
- Robb, Laura. Ed. 1997. Music and Drum: Voices of War and Peace, Hope and Dreams. New York: Philomel Books.
- Siebert, Diane. 2006. Tour America: A Journey through Poems and Art. San Francisco: Chronicle.
- Singer, Marilyn. 2013. Rutherford B., Who Was He?: Poems About Our Presidents. Ill. by John Hendrix. New York: Disney-Hyperion.
- Whipple, Laura. Ed. 1994. Celebrating America: A Collection of Poems and Images of the American Spirit. New York: Philomel.
Invite students to work together to locate poems from any of these collections that address justice issues. They can read their selected poem aloud to the group and identify the issue as they perceive it, citing language from the poem to support their case. Make a chalkboard chart of these various issues (racial discrimination, gender discrimination, poverty, etc.) and note where each poem fits. Talk about how the poet approaches the topic using point of view, past or present time, specific examples, and so on.Older students may be able to dig deeper into poetry that presents conflicts of the past. Collaborate with the history or social studies teacher to discuss poems from these works and place them in context on a historical timeline. Talk about how people of various backgrounds were treated, what role gender played in their struggles, and how they were able to prevail and be heard.
- Alexander, Elizabeth and Nelson, Marilyn. 2007. Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong.
- Bernier-Grand, Carmen T. 2004. César: Si, se puede! Yes, We Can! New York: Marshall Cavendish.
- Engle, Margarita. 2006. The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano. New York: Henry Holt and Co.
- Engle, Margarita. 2010. The Firefly Letters; A Suffragette's Journey to Cuba. Henry Holt.
- Engle, Margarita. 2013. The Lightning Dreamer. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Engle, Margarita. 2014. Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Littlechild, George. 1993. This Land Is My Land. San Francisco, CA: Children’s Book Press.
- McKissack, Patricia. 2011. Never Forgotten. Ill. by Leo and Diane Dillon. New York: Schwartz & Wade.
- Nelson, Marilyn. 2009. Sweethearts of Rhythm; The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World. New York: Dial.
- Rampersad, Arnold and Blount, Marcellus (Eds). 2013. Poetry for Young People: African American Poetry (reissued, reillustrated). Ill. by Karen Barbour. New York: Sterling.
- Weatherford, Carole Boston. 2002. Remember the Bridge: Poems of a People. New York: Philomel.
Connecting past and present
It is also important to point out that justice issues are not just in our past, but remain with us even now. Explore how people today experience injustice or empowerment in these poetry selections.
- Ada, Alma Flor and Isabel F. Campoy. 2013. Yes! We Are Latinos. Ill. by David Diaz. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.
- Katz, Bobbi. 2000. We the People. New York: Greenwillow.
- Myers, Walter Dean. 2011. We are America; A Tribute from the Heart. Ill. by Christopher Myers. New York: HarperCollins.
- Wong, Janet. 2012. Declaration of Interdependence: Poems for an Election Year. PoetrySuitcase.
Invite students to find news articles that address a social justice issue and encourage them to create “black out” poems by drawing through all unwanted words in their news articles with a thick, black marker, so that the remaining words create a “justice” poem.
It can also be meaningful to dig collectively into one book that addresses this timely topic. One powerful example worthy of group study is Voices from the March: Washington, D.C., 1963 by J. Patrick Lewis and George Ella Lyon. This poetry collection focuses specifically on the march on Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Six fictional characters tell their tales on this historic day in cycles of linked of poems alongside the perspectives of historic figures and other march participants for a rich tapestry of multiple points of view. The authors and editor of this new work were kind enough to respond to several interview questions that provide helpful insight into the creation of this book and into the events that shaped the authors’ perspectives. The responses below are from George Ella Lyon (GEL), J. Patrick Lewis (JPL), and editor Rebecca Davis (RD).
|George Ella Lyon|
For various reasons, that project didn’t take hold, but through my research I became fascinated with the March itself. I imagined something for older readers, a sprawling, multi-voiced book. Because I’m first of all a poet, and because the intensity of poetry fits the intensity of the day, I began writing poems.
What happened was that on March 1st I flew to California to speak at The Charlotte S. Huck Literature Festival at the University of Redlands. Pat Lewis, whom I’d met briefly before, was also on the program, too, and we had a great time talking. As we were leaving for the airport, Pat asked if I wanted to collaborate on a collection of poems, perhaps focusing on famous women. I was thrilled with this possibility, but after I got home it occurred to me to suggest the March as our subject since I was already working in that direction. Typical of Pat, he took off with this idea and drafted five poems in the week between coming home from California’s job and traveling to another one in Boston. (Having already written several books connected with the Civil Rights movement, Pat had done much of the research that I was just beginning.)
|J. Patrick Lewis|
I suggested to Pat and George Ella that they take some of the characters and develop their personal stories a bit further in the course of the manuscript, so that readers would see the impact that the experience of being part of the March had on these characters. I thought this might make what was already a personal and powerful manuscript even more personal and immediate.
In the final book, six of the characters have cycles of poems (ranging from four to eight poems each) that are braided amongst the chorus of voices in the manuscript. As the editor, I edited individual poems and also looked for balance in the collection as a whole. Part of the magic in this collection is in the many voices and points of view that it captures. The six characters--we've been referring to them as soloists in the chorus--couldn't take over the book; their individual melodies needed to blend in and harmonize with the whole.
It seemed to me, too, that an introduction was needed to help put the poems into historical perspective for young readers, and that it would be good to have back matter that would help readers sort the fact from the fiction in the story. We decided that it made sense to organize the back matter as a "Guide to the Voices," providing information about the historical figures who appear and/or are mentioned in the poems (under the heading "Historical Voices") and also listing the fictional characters (under the heading "Imagined Voices").
Setting the Scene
Help students visualize the setting for the historic march on August 28, 1963, by showing images of Washington, D.C., especially the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool in between the two. Look for the stunning picture book, Capital, by Lynn Curlee (Atheneum, 2003) or use images from online sources such as Washington.org, NationalMall.org, NPS.gov, or Google Maps.
Because Voices from the March: Washington, D.C., 1963 is rich with the perspectives of multiple characters, it begs to be performed “readers theater” style with individual students taking on a persona and reading those poems aloud as that character. Wearing a simple sign with their character’s name can be helpful and if simple props are available (hats, necklace, necktie, etc.) those can be fun visual aids, too. For an even more ambitious presentation, display a slideshow of images as a backdrop for the reading (and student volunteers can research images from that time period or that suit their characters; e.g., Lena Horne, Joan Baez, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, Marian Anderson, Charlton Heston, Malcolm X all attended the march!) Record their readings using VoiceThread. Or look for audio and/or video recordings of performances and speeches from the march. For example, you can listen to (and watch) Dr. Martin Luther’s King speech at multiple locations, including YouTube.
SIX SOLOISTS, fictional characters with multiple poems throughout the book
- Annie Ross, a student at Spelman College for Women in Georgia
- Raymond Jarvis, educated but unemployed, from Texas
- Renée Newsome, a high school sophomore in Washington, D.C.
- Dan Cantrell, a high school junior in Georgia
- Emma Wallace, farm hand from Iowa
- Ruby May Hollingsworth, a first grader from Arkansas
- A. Philip Randolph
- John Lewis
- Roy Wilkins
- James Farmer
- Whitney Moore Young Jr.
- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
+ Bayard Rustin, the March’s chief organizer of the march
Like poetry, music can play a pivotal role in expressing the dreams and hopes people have. Several specific songs are referenced in Voices from the March (e.g., “Creed (Song),” “Pigs are Flyin’ (Song),” “Anthem for Rosa Parks,” “Ballad for Martin Luther King, Jr.”) and many musicians and performers were present at the march. Talk about how music influences movements, uniting people, rallying enthusiasm, sharing disappointments. Consult these resources to study the role of music throughout our history. Talk about what kinds of songs today capture students’ current concerns and hopes for the future.
- Carawan, Candie and Guy. 1990. Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: A Sing Out Publication.
- Cohn, Amy L. Ed. 1993. From Sea to Shining Sea: A Treasury of American Folklore and Folk Songs. New York: Scholastic.
- Rappaport, Doreen. 2006. Nobody Gonna Turn Me 'Round: Stories and Songs of the Civil Rights Movement. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.
- Stotts, Stuart. 2010. We Shall Overcome: A Song that Changed the World. Ill. by Terrance Cummings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- In addition, NPR (National Public Radio) has created a resource of “Songs of the Civil Rights movement” with audio files and background information (http://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/99315652/songs-of-the-civil-rights-movement)
This can also lead to a discussion of form in self-expression. Why does one person write a poem and another person writes a song and yet another person writes a news article or speech? What forms can students identify in the works of poetry they have consulted (free verse, anthems, ballads, shape poems, protest poetry, etc.) and which “speak” to them most deeply?
Link with other works of poetry that also address justice issues. For example, the poetry of Langston Hughes is mentioned in Voices from the March. Encourage students to seek out examples of his work such as his anthology, The Dream Keeper (Knopf, 2007), or picture book versions of single poems such as I, Too, Am America, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Simon & Schuster, 2012). Older students can explore the compelling poetry gathered by Gail Bush and Randy Meyer in Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice (Norwood House, 2013). Plus, Voices from the March co-author, J. Patrick Lewis has also authored additional poetry collections on this topic including:
- Lewis, J. Patrick. 2013. When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders. San Francisco: Chronicle.
- Lewis, J. Patrick. 2000. Freedom like Sunlight: Praisesongs for Black Americans. Mankato, MN: Creative Editions.
- Lewis, J. Patrick. 2005. Heroes and She-roes: Poems of Amazing and Everyday Heroes. New York: Dial Books For Young Readers.
- Lewis, J. Patrick. 2005. Vherses: A Celebration of Outstanding Women. Mankato: Creative Editions.
For a completely different approach, we might also dig deeply into the years of this historic civil rights victory (1963-1964), with a cross-genre approach. All of these various works (in addition to Voices from the March) focus on this pivotal time.
- Curtis, Christopher P. 1998. The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963. Hudson, MA: Pathways Publishing.
- Evans, Shane W. 2012. We March. New York City: Roaring Book Press.
- Levinson, Cynthia. 2012. We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.
- Rubin, Susan Goldman. 2014. Freedom Summer: The 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. New York: Holiday House.
- Weatherford, Carole Boston. 2007. Birmingham, 1963. Honesdale, PA: Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press.
- Wiles, Deborah. 2001. Freedom Summer. Ill. by Jerome Lagarrigue. New York City: Simon & Schuster.
- Williams-Garcia, Rita. 2010. One Crazy Summer. New York City: HarperCollins.
And if you’re looking for additional online resources to help you study this period, this historic event, and social justice issues in our country, there are many helpful tools available.
This PBS “Eyes on the Prize” site offers lesson plans with links to video and audio clips, primary sources and interactive sites.
This History.com link offers an abundance of information on a variety of civil rights topics.
The “Starting Small” teaching tool at Teaching Tolerance is helpful and free.
This Birmingham Civil Rights Institute includes oral histories, a timeline and images of primary resources.
At this site of the National Civil Rights Museum, students can research what it was like “Before the Boycott.”
This Library of Congress offers timelines and findings from primary sources.
In the poem, “Lessons” (p. 51) in Voices from the March: Washington, D.C., 1963, they wear rings that say “Let Freedom Ring.” Invite students to create their own rings that symbolize freedom to them using simple craft materials (like red, white, and blue construction paper or pipe cleaners).
In Voices from the March, Lewis and Lyon offer several poems that look to the future (“The One and Only Malcolm X,” “August 28, 2013,” and “At Grandma Rascal’s Grave, January 19, 2015”). Challenge students to identify unresolved social justice issues that face us all now. How can we give those issues “voice” and make a difference for the future? Collaborate on a group poem that raises questions or paint a poem-picture of the future looking back to today and put that aside in a time capsule to revisit at a designated future date.
You'll also find more tips for teaching with this book in the Educator's Guide provided by Boyds Mills Press.
Image credits: ALA Book Links; Boyds Mills Press; VTNews.vt.edu; CivilRightsMuseum.org; library.howard.edu; GeorgeEllaLyon; JPatrickLewis;LeeBennettHopkins