By York Notes Series Consultant, Mike Gould
‘Your door is shut against my tightened face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
But I possess the courage and the grace
To bear my anger proudly and unbent.’
These lines, written by black American poet Claude McKay, who died in 1948, might well have been written today. The lines are taken from McKay’s symbolically-named poem ‘The White House’, which is included in our Introduction to Poetry student pack. McKay deserves wider recognition not only for the quality of his work but also because the issues he raises - such as inequality, and how to respond to discrimination - have become even more stark over recent months. But, during Black History Month, how can we as English teachers ensure that giving attention to writers such as McKay becomes a more permanent fixture in the classroom? Here are four suggestions:
1. Expand horizons
Whilst it is comforting and sensible to teach what we know and like, sometimes challenging ourselves with new texts can be refreshing and rewarding. The limits of GCSE set texts are well known, but even within them we can branch out, thus rather than Macbeth, why not use the much-less-studied The Merchant of Venice as a springboard into discussions of race? Or for a British-Asian perspective on childhood, Meera Syal’s Anita and Me rather than An Inspector Calls? Edexcel’s addition of new set texts including works by Malorie Blackman and Tanika Gupta is a welcome step, but a real measure of progress will be how many of us take the plunge and adopt these texts for exam study.
And of course, while they are relatively sparse within the set poetry lists for each exam board, there are poems which, like McKay’s, explore the lived experience of black and Asian writers, for example in the positive and uplifting ‘Singh Song!’ by Daljit Nagra, whom we had the pleasure of interviewing in July. It is gratifying, too, to see Edexcel have introduced a new supplement to their anthology called ‘Belonging’, featuring poems by Grace Nichols, Imtiaz Dharker and Kayo Chingonyi, to name a few.
2. Expand the curriculum
But, beyond this, how can we fit more study of black and Asian writers into an already squeezed curriculum? Many of the skills central to GCSE English Language and Literature can be developed via the rich sources which are available to us all. David Olusoga’s ground-breaking documentary series ‘Black and British: a Forgotten History’ can still be watched on BBC iPlayer, noteworthy not least for the rhetorical brilliance of Olusoga’s central argument about the complexity of black history in the UK. On the British Library website, students can deconstruct texts by writers such as Andrea Levy or less well known voices such as Verona Pettigrew, a Jamaican immigrant to the UK in the 1950s.
3. Delve deeper
You can find many of Claude McKay’s other poems along with an introduction to his life on poets.org. Why not set students in Key Stage 3 a short project either about him or more widely on the Harlem Renaissance and who and what it referred to? Alternatively, take a powerful poem such as ‘To the White Fiends’ and use it as a route into exploration of context – why the poem speaks to us today. Or practise comparison skills by looking at ‘Adolescence’ in which McKay looks back on his island past and read it alongside Grace Nichols’ ‘Abra-Cadabra’ which is included in our York Notes for GCSE Study and Exam Practice Guide to AQA Unseen Poetry.
4. Tap into experience
Finally, we shouldn’t forget what a rich source students themselves can be. If we are to take Black History Month seriously, and ensure it isn’t a footnote but part of our central narrative as teachers, we should help students explore their own stories, whether that is in revealing the important part oral poetry plays in Arabic culture, or tracing the Windrush stories of some students’ antecedents, helping them make sense of their own journeys both emotional and literal. My own memory of teaching in a large secondary school in Luton is of the myriad voices, Asian, Caribbean, Italian, Polish and so on – all with their own stories to be told.
For a more detailed exploration of black literary history check out our range of York Notes Companions titles:
20th Century American Literature
New Directions, Writing post 1990
Mike Gould is a former Head of English and Drama and author of over 150 books and other educational resources. He has worked as a lecturer in English and education at Brighton University.