Walt Whitman vs. Public Enemy

Among other things, Walt Whitman is the recipient of New Jersey's highest honor.

Among other things, Walt Whitman is the recipient of New Jersey’s highest honor.

One of the more notable features of any English textbook teacher’s edition is what I like to call the “monkey margins.” These are the notes and guides that are placed in the margins of the pages that are designed to make teaching that particular piece of text so easy that a monkey could do it.

I’ll admit that there are times when I have found the monkey margins useful, like last week when I was able to use them to answer a student’s question about a story’s historical context. But most of the time, the monkey margins are ridiculous and seeing them reminds me of a time four years ago when I was in my third year of teaching and was at the beginning of my Harlem Renaissance unit in my eleventh grade English class. I started with Walt Whitman. Which to someone unfamiliar with the Harlem Renaissance seems to be an odd place to start, but since one of my featured poems was Langston Hughes’s “I, Too,” I felt that it would be great to start with the “source material” so to speak. Besides, “I Hear America Singing” was in the eleventh grade textbook that every student had so there was no copying necessary.

As textbook publishers often do (in this case, it was Prentice Hall), there were a few poems next to Whitman’s in a “compare/contrast” type of thing and some of the questions the book asked students had to do with looking at the different messages the poems were sending. I had this in mind anyway when I came up with the idea to use those two poems; after all, so many of us look at the same piece in different ways that I thought it would be good to see different interpretations of the same idea before opening students up to making interpretations themselves.

So I broke the class into groups. I think there were 24 or 25 students in the class, so we made small circles/clusters of five to six desks apiece and each of those four clusters was given a different thing to read, then we went around the room and they presented the piece and talked about what it meant to them. The first was the Whitman poem. The class mostly saw it as patriotic, that Whitman was puffing out his chest and talking about what makes America great. I tended to agree with their interpretation–“I Hear America Singing” sounds like it is the source material for many a stump speech on the campaign trail. Whether or not that’s true was the other question. Do people, especially our politicians really value the contributions of the American worker/average American? The response was tepid–it seemed like most of them didn’t have an opinion one way or the other.

Hughes’s poem was next. It quickly led to talk about a need for a different voice and why African-Americans during that time felt that they were underrepresented, as were Native Americans in the third piece, “To Walt Whitman” by Angela deHoyos. We didn’t have any passioned comments about it or anything, and I probably asked a question that was incredibly leading then got the usual nods that you’d get between glances at the clock or discreet replies to text messages. Anyway, seeing that I had more time left than I had planned (which is murder when you’re on block scheduling sometimes, btw), I glanced at the monkey margins for deHoyos’ poem. Under the question regarding her poem’s message was a prefab answer reminding me that Walt Whitman did take Native Americans into account when writing his poetry and her criticism is actually a little off.

I chuckled to myself and may have even thought, “Uh, not the point!” or “Really?” Here was the textbook telling me the “answer” to something that I really didn’t need to be told the answer to in a fashion that was completely off and a bit off-putting. Sure, I could probably prove Prentice Hall correct and look up the amount of references to Native Americans in Whitman’s poems but I didn’t get the sense that deHoyos was really nitpicking him and the textbook’s response kind of sounded like something your reactionary, racist uncle would say in the same breath he decided to complain about how “they” have a history month or how “they” made up Kwanzaa.

In fact, the question I did ask is: Why does she feel this way? Who is she trying to give a voice to or registar a complaint for? Who does she feel is underrepresented in the anthems and the pride? Then, I went to the fourth group and instead of having them recite our last piece, I plugged in my iPod and played “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. Not surprisingly, most of the class woke up. We talked about why Chuck D and company were so angry, and then we talked about the concept of an anthem, what an anthem means, and their purpose.

I know that I probably should have broken all four down and talked about metaphor and simile and whatever other poetic devices were being used, but I find that breaking down and really beating the crap out of a piece of literature doesn’t always bear the most fruit. Sometimes looking at something for what it is and what it means to you and the other people around you is how it sticks with you beyond the next bell. I suppose I should be thankful that the poem was in the textbook and therefore I got quite a bit out of it, even if I didn’t use what was in the monkey margins or any of the metric ton of supplementary materials that Pearson Prentice-Hall provided. But for the money that was spent on textbooks and those supplementary materials (which, by the way, included transparencies. I don’t even have an overhead projector in my room), I think we could have bought a class set or two of a quality “survey course” type of poetry collection or a few “best of …” short story collections and found out ourselves what the answers are instead of being led along.

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