The Poetics of Liberation
A central question I grapple with as a white teacher working in a predominantly Black and Latinx school community is how to effectively teach racialized content in a way that brings joy and empowerment into the classroom. As opposed to a curriculum that solely centers narratives of pain and oppression as if they are the defining experience of People of Color. A great mentor, activist, scholar, educator, and founder of CREADnyc (Culturally Responsive Educators of the African Diaspora), the late Khalilah Brann used to lovingly admonish me, “There needs to be joy in your curriculum, Alex!”
While developing my units for the 2017–2018 school year, I participated in a year-long series of workshops developed by Brann and titled Woke Cypha, which aimed to create “learning experiences that are centered in the development and mastery of academic skills and positive racial identity development for students of the African Diaspora.” The workshops introduced participants to several guiding principles for developing culturally responsive curriculum for Black and Brown students in New York City, including the Sankofa principle. Sankofa is an African word from the Akan tribe in Ghana. The literal translation of the word is, “It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” The etymology of the word is SAN (return), KO (go), FA (look, seek, and take), and the symbol is a bird with its feet firmly planted forward and its head turned backwards. The principle of Sankofa teaches that a strong future cannot be separate from seeking knowledge of the past.
“Don’t scare me like that, colonizer.”
“Wakanda forever!” could be heard through the halls at Academy for Young Writers in East New York, Brooklyn, throughout February and March as I began my spring semester writing elective with a group of 10th-graders. I wanted to harness the energy that had spread as a result of Ryan Coogler’s film Black Panther, set in Wakanda, a technologically advanced African nation that had never been colonized. In April, we began our poetry unit with a brief introduction to Afrofuturism via Wakanda and Janelle Monae’s album Dirty Computer. Then we started exploring the work of artists whose content and craft invoke liberatory realities, such as Jamila Woods, Eve Ewing, Zoe Leonard, and Adjua Gargi Nzinga Greaves.
The lesson included here is the 14th of 23. After spending time considering how poets write alternate ways of being in the world, this lesson introduces students to the concept of Sankofa as a possible framework for writing poetry. The unit’s essential questions are: How do poets write liberatory futures into being? How do poets use language to disrupt an unjust world? What language is helpful in discussing a writer’s craft? Although I have taught the following lesson within this extended unit, you can adapt it into a stand-alone, two-part lesson that might be used in any poetry, history, or literature course.
Part One: Where Do You Stand?
As an opener, I post the following two statements and ask students to choose the one that most aligns to their own perspective:
A. We cannot change what has happened in the past so we should focus on creating a better future.
B. The knowledge of the past must never be forgotten if we want to ensure a strong future.
I ask students to identify as an “A” or a “B” depending on the statement that resonates most, and have the As and Bs gather at different sides of the room. Once students are in groups, I ask them to share their reason for agreeing with the statement they chose, and then ask them to consider reasons that one might disagree with their perspective. In other words, I ask them to identify a possible counter argument. After approximately three minutes, I invite each group to choose a spokesperson to share their responses. I find by the end of the brief share out, students mostly agree that it is important to move forward and that the past serves as a guide for planning the future.
Once students have returned to their seats, I display an image of the Sankofa symbol via a projector or SMART Board. I ask students to work with a partner to take an “inquiry stance” for the image.
In one minute, each partnership makes a list of as many questions as possible about the image. We then go around the room and have each partnership ask a question until all questions have been shared or three minutes are up. Students might ask: What is the bird holding in its mouth? Why is the bird’s head turned backwards? No analysis is allowed at this time—only questions. The objective of the inquiry activity is for students to invite each other’s analysis through their own questions.
At this point, I ask if anyone would like to decode the image and explain their reasoning by referencing details of the image. Then I introduce the concept of Sankofa and share the definition. I remind students that we’ve been looking at ways in which writers create utopias and imagine liberatory futures through poetry, and that today we are going to read two poems that position themselves toward the future while incorporating the past. I provide students with copies of the poems and, if possible, I project the poems on a SMART Board or with a projector.
As a class, we read the beginning of “dear white america” by Danez Smith:
i’ve left Earth in search of darker planets, a solar system revolving too near a black hole. i’ve left in search of a new God. i do not trust the God you have given us. my grandmother’s hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the blood-fat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir. take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent. i want the fate of Lazarus for Renisha, want Chucky, Bo, Meech, Trayvon, Sean & Jonylah risen three days after their entombing, their ghost re-gifted flesh & blood, their flesh & blood re-gifted their children. i’ve left Earth, i am equal parts sick of your go back to Africa & i just don’t see race. neither did the poplar tree. we did not build your boats (though we did leave a trail of kin to guide us home). we did not build your prisons (though we did & we fill them too). we did not ask to be part of your America (though are we not America? her joints brittle & dragging a ripped gown through Oakland?). i can’t stand your ground. i’m sick of calling your recklessness the law. each night, i count my brothers. & in the morning, when some do not survive to be counted, i count the holes they leave. i reach for black folks & touch only air. your master magic trick, America. now he’s breathing, now he don’t. abra-cadaver. white bread voodoo. sorcery you claim not to practice, hand my cousin a pistol to do your work. i tried, white people. i tried to love you, but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch, talking too loud next to his bones. you took one look at the river, plump with the body of boy after girl after sweet boi & ask why does it always have to be about race? because you made it that way! because you put an asterisk on my sister’s gorgeous face! call her pretty (for a black girl)! because black girls go missing without so much as a whisper of where?! because there are no amber alerts for amber-skinned girls! because Jordan boomed. because Emmett whistled. because Huey P. spoke. because Martin preached. because black boys can always be too loud to live. because it’s taken my papa’s & my grandma’s time, my father’s time, my mother’s time, my aunt’s time, my uncle’s time, my brother’s & my sister’s time . . . how much time do you want for your progress? i’ve left Earth to find a place where my kin can be safe, where black people ain’t but people the same color as the good, wet earth, until that means something, until then i bid you well, i bid you war, i bid you our lives to gamble with no more. i’ve left Earth & i am touching everything you beg your telescopes to show you. i’m giving the stars their right names. & this life, this new story & history you cannot steal or sell or cast overboard or hang or beat or drown or own or redline or shackle or silence or cheat or choke or cover up or jail or shoot or jail or shoot or jail or shoot or ruin
this, if only this one, is ours.
The first time we read the poem together, I interrupt them after the first five sentences and ask the class to collaboratively answer a few questions that ground students for the small group discussions that follow. I might ask: What’s happening in the poem so far? To whom might the pronouns refer? Who are the people named? What do the allusions reference? Is there any evidence of the Sankofa principle?
I find that it’s important to pause the conversation while the student excitement and desire to discuss is still high so that the meat of the discussion can take place in the small groups.
To transition to the second poem, I ask students to name other ways in which a poet can honor the past in addition to paying tribute to people who have been treated with injustice in the United States. After two or three students share ideas and we’ve identified honoring our family and ancestors as another way to honor the past, we read the beginning of “big bang theory” by t’ai freedom ford:
in theory, she big bang.
her brown round lump of a body
stardusting half dozen babies into being
and giving God all the glory.
first Junior, who sprang to 6’4” like his daddy
ate up everything including the cardboard
pickled his tongue in sips of thunderbird
till shriveled liver polka-dotted his hands and lips pink.
Sista came next, wearing Ethel like storm cloud
and hex, shamed her into Angelina, meaning:
messenger of God but she big
and unpretty as a heathen.
Doris Yvonne got all the pretty and the skinny
and the crazy, so folks couldn’t covet.
at 6, she saw colors fuzzed round people
thought everybody had this rainbow vision.
then in 1952, my mama brown-nosed herself
here. granny named her Amber, a quiet, too-dark
punk of a girl, ass-whippings all the way home
from school. married her fool-self off at 14.
Wayne came out in handcuffs. did not
pass go. went straight to jail. met
Muhammad and became Ramel
became crackhead became ghost.
Pamela named me. cute as she wanna be
spoiled with religion, granny’s baby
spent half her life in the church testifying
to chicken wings, getting her holyghost on.
granny big bang. sequined hat
gangster. kicked Otis senior out
for mucking up her doilies with
engine grease. grandbabies everywhere.
fat as pork rinds and hungry as slaves.
she banged pots til they bled gravy,
banged her big body to the floor
in stroke. invented: serious as a heart attack.
she buried all the men with Jesus
on her breath. and when her big-boned
self big-banged to dust, we didn’t call
it death. we called it magic.
After we read the first three stanzas together, we collaboratively answer a few questions to ground students for their small group discussion. I might ask: What’s happening in the poem so far? To whom might the pronouns refer? Who are the people who are named? Do you notice any evidence of the Sankofa principle?
In my 10th-grade class, I allow students to choose which poem they want to read and discuss in a small group. For example, if 15 students are interested in reading “big bang theory,” I divide them into three groups of five. However, depending on the students’ level of experience in collaborating as self-directed groups, I also might pre-assign groups of four or five students to each of the poems. (Depending on students’ comfort and experience with analyzing poems, one might choose to look at and discuss the poems as a class instead of having the students work in small groups.)
Once students are grouped, I give them the task. First, identify two students who will read the entire poem aloud to the group. Then, invite each group member share their favorite line. Finally, prepare to present the answers to the following questions to the rest of the class:
What do you think this poem is mostly about?
Where is there evidence of the Sankofa principle? Provide one example of how this poem envisions a liberatory future while “looking back.”
What are the “poem ingredients” someone could follow to write their own poem?
Part Two: Writing in Response
If the students are comfortable working independently, I give the class a 15-minute reading period to read both poems to them- selves. Otherwise, I would ask one or two students to read the poems aloud to the class. Next, we review the “poem ingredients” that were generated by students during the first part of the lesson, and I ask each student to finalize their decision about which poem they’d like to write after. My 10th-grade students came up with the following ingredients:
If you want to write a poem inspired by “dear white america” by Danez Smith:
• Write about leaving earth to find a better place (i.e. where there is no racism, sexism, etc.).
• Use repetition (“I have left earth…”).
• Use similes and metaphors to make comparisons.
• Use stories from the past (American history or other histories).
If you want to write a poem inspired by “big bang theory” by t’ai freedom ford:
• Choose one person that came before you in your family (e.g., grandparent, aunt).
• Compare the person to the “big bang” or choose a different scientific phenomenon or theory.
• Write whatever you know about that person or make stuff up.
• Include other family members related to that person.
• Write four-line stanzas.
• Create one stanza about each person.
• Use imagery and descriptive language.
The prompts provide students with differentiated entry points for honoring the past in their poems. Students who don’t want to bring in history and current events can write about family. After students write, we hold a class reading in which every student reads a draft of their own poem.
The Sankofa principle has become a roadmap for my thinking about curriculum. Students often complain that their history classes are irrelevant. But I want students to see that they are history. I want students to make the connection between what they’ve inherited and the future that is theirs to create; to honor their ancestors and teachers while being free to dream the futures they deserve. The poems that the students write during this unit invite them to see their own lives and experiences as authentic and valid contributions to both literature and history. I continue to hold Khalilah’s admonishment near my heart and ensure there is joy in the curriculum. While struggle is an important part of the two poems we explore in this lesson, both honor those who have come before as well as the joyful possibility of what may follow.
Alex Cuff teaches classes in reading, writing, and restorative justice at the Academy for Young Writers, a 6-12 public school in East New York, Brooklyn. She is the author of the chapbook Family, a Natural Wonder (Reality Beach, 2017). Her poetry and prose has been published online at The Recluse,...