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Singing America

In another corner of Teacher, editor Anthony Rebora is moderating a forum right now asking teachers a timely question:

On January 20, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the nation's 44th president, in an event that is expected to draw unprecedented numbers of people to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. How do you plan to address the inauguration in your classroom or integrate it into your lessons? Is your school making any special arrangments to allow students to watch and talk about the event? What do you hope students will get out of coverage and discussions of this historic transfer of power?

By the time you read this, I may be squirreled away with the wife at a little inn on the Eastern Shore, but crowds and freezing temperatures have not prevented me and my students from discussing this historic changing of the guard in the natural ebb and flow of our class. I wanted to share how the event has seeped into our classroom discussions of classic literature, giving them and it an entirely new cast.

My 8th graders completed The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass about the time Obama won the primary. I had them read from a piece called "In our Lifetime" by Henry Louis Gates (The Root, November 4, 2008) because I wanted them to see the connection between a history book past and the present in which we live. Here's a longish excerpt in which Gates traces the race’s traipse up the long staircase:

From Frederick Douglass, who visited Lincoln three times during his presidency (and every president thereafter until his death in 1895), to Soujourner Truth and Booker T. Washington, each prominent black visitor to the White House caused people to celebrate another "victory for the race." Blacks became frequent visitors to Franklin Roosevelt's White House; FDR even had a "Kitchen Cabinet" through which blacks could communicate the needs of their people. Because of the civil rights movement, Lyndon Johnson had a slew of black visitors, as well. During Bill Clinton's presidency, I attended a White House reception with so many black political, academic and community leaders that it occurred to me that there hadn't been as many black people in the Executive Mansion perhaps since slavery. Everyone laughed at the joke, because they knew, painfully, that it was true.


Now, as the inauguration takes place, we are nearly done with our next class read, what you may remember as the innocuous ode to fatherhood, To Kill a Mockingbird. Billy Holiday's Strange Fruit gave us chills when we discussed lynching, and Langston Hughes' poem, “Cross,” helped us understand the fear of racial mixing harbored by whites in Maycomb County, Alabama at the time of the story. For good measure, we’ve also taken a look at "I Hear America Singing" and Hughes' answer to Whitman, "I, Too, Sing America". Hughes’ words in particular have an indescribable resonance as an African-American assumes the highest office in the land:

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,
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
Then.

Besides,
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.

The simple message I hope my students will get out of our discussions about this literature, and the inevitable connections to the historic transfer of power they raise? Tomorrow is today. And at last, America is keeping its promise.

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