home » history, literature

deep like the rivers

18 October 2009 5 comments

Not long ago I was speaking to someone about the poetry I grew up with, and how much it meant to me – how it evoked such imagery in my head, and how some of it would go on to adhere to my personality, if not shape it.  Coupled with  my desire for this site, the two are matched well.  Here’s the first poet I thought of.

I think I was in the sixth grade when our teacher, Ms. Coleman, introduced me.  She was a large woman with gray-and-ash-blonde curly hair that was never “styled,” it was just “there,” and she wore the standard public school-issue floral dress that hung on her like a shade drapes over a parakeet’s cage at night.  She hardly ever smiled.  She was very capable of doing so, though.  When a child made a breakthrough, or thought beyond their years, we’d see it.  Her eyes would narrow further, and a grin would break out – half for the advance that the child had made, half for her having helped making it happen, I should imagine.  She taught us Arkansas History, a topic I would never study again until it was of my own choice. We learned about DeSoto and the Louisiana Purchase. We learned the meanings of “Toltec” and “Quapaw.”  It was from her that I got my first real picture of how patronizingly demeaning life for slaves was in the south – stories an eleven-year-old probably shouldn’t hear, but needed to – how the big white houses that the Junior Leagues were so proud of were built by the blood and sweat of humans owned by others.  How cotton, rice, and timber became cash crops for the state.  How “states rights” didn’t always have a pretty face, as Governor Faubus tried to prevent integration at Central High in ’54.

As one can plainly see, there is a thread to what we were taught.  Our state had way too many pictures of cruelty and bigotry.  And she knew there was a cure.  So, one day, she hauled out a tape recorder, and asked each of us to read a poem.  I eventually forgot which poem, but I never forgot the man.  An unassuming man; educated, probably tortured for many reasons (mixed-race lineage, may have been gay, et al).  But in selecting this undefinable being, it began a trend for me.

Think.  Dream.  Speak.  Words have power.  More than the swords of Spanish steel, the guns of territorial expansion, the steam of the tractor combine, or the power of a raging river.  Once spoken, they are there.  They cannot be ‘taken back.”  Words have power.

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you–
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me–we two–you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me–who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records–Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white–
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me–
although you’re older–and white–
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

Langston Hughes


  • DG Seaton said:

    And *you* got educated in Arkansas! Miraculous!

    I’m certain I was not exposed to anything even remotely this poignant at my religious indoctrination site, a/k/a religious school. If it wasn’t writ from gawd or about gawd, it wasn’t fit for reading. Or so seems my recollection. Certainly there wasn’t a lot of time spent on poetry. And what poetry *was* covered was pretty well-trod and predictable. By the time I was old enough to engage more meaningfully with what I could have gleaned from the curriculum, the dogma had long begun driving me *out* of school, at least mentally. (And on more than one school-skipping foray, physically as well.)

    I’d say thank your lucky stars, but we both know you thank Ms. Coleman.

  • DG Seaton said:

    P.S. I would qualify your “Words have power” statement. Words have power that *we* accord them. If they fall upon infertile ground, or if they do not resonate to the individual or the collective? That’s a function, a choice, under the auspice and arbitration of the listener/hearer. Whether the power is afforded by the culture or convention, or uniquely by each individual … it’s still a granting of power. We choose to let words have power. Or so it seems to me.

  • Emily Overturf said:

    Ms. Coleman read us Jane Eyre out loud. I went to her class (I wonder if you were in there, Danny – I guess you would have been) for reading when I was in 5th grade and I remember that and the graphic novels she had in her room of White Fang and Moby Dick. She definitely set my hat for the Brontes.

  • dan (author) said:

    Deb, I think of it as “kinetic” vs. “potential.” If the right mechanism is in place, then the power seems to be nonexistent. But I still believe the power is there, like a dam across a river. The lake may have been placid for years and years, but woe be unto those downstream when the dam breaks.

    I think of anarchist literature in the US right now; no one affords it any real power. But should the mechanism change, then the “potential” may very quickly turn into the “actual.”

  • DG Seaton said:

    A “mechanism” must be maintained. It must be permitted to work: the right power source, the right alignment. Again, all deigned by the listener. Anarchist literature will *never* affect certain listeners, as they are not hardwired (via their programming or willingness to be exposed). All choices. By the listener.

    What you describe is metaphor. Poetic, and powerful, but only to the interested observer.