Home > Editorial, The Industry Cosign > Student Told To Read Langston Hughes Poem “Blacker”

Student Told To Read Langston Hughes Poem “Blacker”


By Denene Millner

Post image for Student Told To Read Langston Hughes Poem “Blacker”A Virginia high school English teacher is under fire for repeatedly singling out her sole African American student—most recently demanding that the 9th grader read a poem by acclaimed African American poet Langston Hughes in a “blacker” style in front of his class.

Jordan Shumate, a student at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, Va., says he was reading Hughes’ “The Ballad of the Landlord,” a 1940 protest poem about a tenant thrown in jail for challenging his landlord, when his teacher, Marilyn Bart, interrupted him. “She told me, ‘Blacker, Jordan—c’mon, blacker. I thought you were black,’” Shumate told the Washington Post.

When the 14-year-old student refused to continue reading the poem, Bart showed him how it’s done. “She sounded like a maid in the 1960s,” said Shumate, whose story was corroborated by a fellow student. “She read the poem like a slave, basically.”

Insulted, Shumate asked his teacher if she thought all black people spoke that way, only to be reprimanded for speaking out of turn and ordered back to his seat.

Shumate brought the incident to his mother’s attention last week after the teacher repeatedly singled him out because of his race; once the teacher demanded Shumate rap a Tupac song; during a lesson about the Holocaust and stereotypes, she asked Shumate to explain the meaning behind an image of grape soda, clearly a reference to the stereotype that black folk love the sugary beverage.


Said Shumate: “I do know the stereotypes, but she could change the questions so I’m not like the king of black people.”

So here’s the thing: as an African American mother of three children being raised to be unapologetically black, incredibly intelligent and as outspoken as they can possible muster, I get why young Shumate was insulted. What, exactly, is a “blacker” style of reading and how does one go about applying it to a Langston Hughes poem? And why would any grown, thinking, reasonable instructor with as many years under her teaching belt as Bart—she’s been a Fairfax County school teacher since 1990—think it reasonable to demand her sole black student shuck and jive through a Tupac song on cue or break down why we black folk just love us some grape soda?

I can say with certainty, though, that African American children who find themselves alone in a classroom full of people who neither look like nor know the authentic black American experience carry the weight—shoulder the burden of not only knowing our history, but explaining its breadth and articulating clearly that while we love everything about our culture and people, we are not a monolith of hood rich, rap lyric-spewing, stereotypically “black,” grape soda-loving ignoramuses who can conjure up 1940s urban dialect on queue. Of course, this may be a lot to expect of a 14-year-old like Shumate who clearly just wants to, like, live, without being “the king of black people.”

But aside from a call to the principal and the local TV station, I truly hope Shumate’s mom, who is savvy enough to get her son’s story on national news, uses those well-placed connections and cultural intelligence to teach this teacher and the school principal and the lunatics in the comments section under this story at the Huffington Post just why Bart’s actions were offensive and how she could have better taught her lessons without insulting the crap out of her lone black student. I mean, I applaud Bart for challenging her students with Langston Hughes poetry, for discussing stereotypes and their hurtful impact on humans. Hell, she even gets a big up for knowing who Tupac is. And I don’t think for one minute that she should shy away from teaching about race in America and black folks’ place in it. But perhaps she could have dug down to the meat—explained the vernacular of 1940s Harlem and explained its southern and African roots instead of assuming a 14-year-old kid in a ninth-grade English class in 2012 would know its significance and import. Maybe instead of singling out Shumate to explain the black people love grape soda stereotype, she could have asked him—or, even better, one of his white student cohorts—to debunk it.

Or maybe if she really wanted to teach a lesson about the beauty of a Langson Hughes poem, the teacher could have chosen, “I, Too, Sing America,” a piece that can’t get any “blacker” for African Americans. It should be required reading for all students. And apparently teachers who want to teach about race but are clueless about how to get it done.

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  1. Shahidah
    March 20, 2012 at 9:45 AM

    Wow. She needs to be fired, like, last week!

  1. March 28, 2012 at 8:44 AM

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