Sunday, April 12, 2020

Matthew Henry's Teaching While Black

 Main Street Rag Publishing Company

   Reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

“my third grade teacher,” the opening poem of Matthew E. Henry’s new collection Teaching While Black , is a lit fuse, quietly sizzling. The short poem recounts Henry’s experience as an elementary school student whose white teacher tried to explain to him that his black skin “lacked/ the ability to bruise/ or blush.” Though the young Henry tried “to show her a patch/ darker than the rest,” the teacher merely nodded, explaining that the patch “was harder to see on [Henry’s] skin.” As Henry’s collection moves from this introduction to the poems that detail the tension of his experiences as a Black educator, the reader anticipates the explosion promised by the references to Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” that surface, sometimes ironically, sometimes not, through the volume. It is a tribute to the strength of Henry’s skill and character that, though his rage at the injustices and ignorance he and other minorities suffer is evident in virtually every poem, he maintains a public cool in his role as educator.

Henry’s first poem, which shows how completely he is “otherized” by what in his last poem he characterizes as “the frumpy lies of well-intentioned white women” demonstrates the power teacher’s wield. As a retired educator myself, I am still haunted by the possible harm I may have done during a career that stretched well over thirty years. Am I still responsible for everything I did and said? For every interaction with a student or parent? Plaudits and platitudes received can’t erase my awareness that good intentions can leave collateral damage. Yes, I’m responsible, and can only hope to be forgiven for those I might have harmed. For those I helped—well, that was part of the job description, wasn’t it?

How, I wonder, could Henry not explode after being called a nigger in class by a white boy simply because the teacher “deferred his dream” by telling the student to put his phone away? In his poem “the surprising thing,” Henry remains frustrated by the “mandatory minimum expectation” that his students “consider their complicity” with racial and societal outrages “through complacency, yet . . . remain unmoved in all the worst ways.” The students find “academic ease” with familiar stories of Western literature, yet find the lives of minority characters “inscrutable—lives they ‘can’t relate to.’” Henry, somehow “still employed” forges on, fulfilling his duty as an educator, though it means “picking cotton from fresh aspirin bottles after every utterance which slices a peace from my soul,” as he asks “questions that make them cringe.” The “light” Henry exposes his charges to “is unsettling.” His own rage is courageously sublimated to his poem.

Henry, in his poems, permits himself to characterize his students’ ignorance in ways that would be impossible in the classroom. There is the student with the “D-minus in social studies mind” whose “future as a captain of industry . . . has already been purchased by [his] parents.” This student spews racist claptrap, though falls silent when “a Brown friend—whose family hails from the lands you hate” joins him at the lunch table. Then there is the student who minimized Harriet Tubman’s contributions because she saved “only 300” runaway slaves. Henry’s outrage, though confined to the poem, reverberates: “i hear you, my young white brother . . . now shut the fuck up and sit down.” Henry finds it a constant inner battle to maintain the kind of restraint demanded of an educator, as when confronted with a student who believed “the Klan didn’t exist anymore, hadn’t killed anyone in ages.” Ultimately, Henry, making “the only appropriate contact i could,” tells the student to “‘Stop talking,’ a finger slicing across my throat, miming the tracks of chins, knives, nooses.” And though the student silences himself, Henry concludes, “i should have said more.” It is up to the poem to reify the gesture and serve as the crucible within which Henry is free to fully express his frustration with his student’s ignorance and the society the child believes insulates him from criticism.

Henry opens the second section of “Teaching While Black” with a poem titled “in loco parentis,” reminding the reader that teachers take the place of parents while students are under their care and supervision. But, as the glimpses of students’ lives Henry provides in the subsequent poems of this section demonstrate, a teacher often functions not only in place of a parent, but also as a social worker, psychologist, and confessor—someone who may become cognizant of the factors within students’ lives that informs the individual that a teacher sees within the classroom. Poems like “little red,” “hide and seek,” and “justice” display the threats that lurk behind the “disguise” of “a badge” or a “stiff white collar,” the immediate danger of “bullets with the name of her brother or mother,” or of sexual predation that results in retaliatory wounds worn as “a badge of honor among his friends.” The tension for Henry the teacher between the classroom and a student’s real life is depicted in “kenosis,” where “Katrine’s silence” during a literary discussion “split my heart.” Later he learns that the poem’s subject, a drunken father, reminded the girl of her experience with a violent stepfather, and how “she nightly endured his endless gropes and gasps . . . a knife untucked from his thrusting back.” Other poems in this section relate traumatic episodes of students forced to deal with the misfortunes of parents: “happy birthday” shows a thirteen year old girl caring for an abused mother, who “curses your birth and pleads forgiveness,” then puts her mother to bed before she can “eat the cupcake Ms. Lowe gave to you at school.” Or the student who walks into his house, discovering “instead of a glass of milk or a tray of pizza rolls” the dead body of his suicidal father. Henry’s daily experience connects him to students with hidden problems such as “auditory and visual hallucinations” and students with issues stemming from gender identity. In the poem “show don’t tell” Henry juxtaposes the kind of standard critical comments a student might receive on a written assignment with vivid images of the student’s hidden life as a self-cutter: “cotton sleeves conceal hashmarks of silence/ precise rows against porcelain skin” vs. “So what’s the point you’re trying to prove in this paper?/ What’s your thesis?” How does a teacher, aware of the former facts, limit himself to the latter commentary?

Henry’s poems bring the students and their serious issues to life. But within the context of the classroom, how much can the teacher offer besides an attentive and sympathetic ear? Is bearing witness enough? Especially when the majority of students, as in Henry’s poem “muscle memory” are willing to allow the horrors that surround them to be “swept under the social rug.” A poem his only outlet to express his frustration, Henry watches as “eyes ahead, they file past the covered bodies, and head to A.P. stats.”

Are we waiting for an explosion in part III of Teaching While Black? What are the politics of oppression Henry can clarify in the classroom (and to the readers of poems)? Henry opens Part III of Teaching While Black with “etymology,” a prose poem in which Henry explains why “white” is not an “adequate ethnic label in America,” while “Black” has been accepted as such—a difference, he asserts “that often falls to me—their ‘Black teacher’—to explain.” While white Americans can attach a specific European association to their identity, Blacks, taken from “several possible ports [that] are not a country . . . are known by our hue (Colored, Negro, Black).” In the following poem Henry distinguishes by analogy between “all lives matter” and “Black lives matter,” accepting the responsibility to explain: “because my job description doomed me/ to be more didactic, to explain appropriate time, place, and manner,/ intent versus impact, the guilt and shame required to derail communal grief and hijack a narrative to make oneself more comfortable.” In an ironic hypothetical letter to the parents of an “Aryan Princess” in his class, Henry “is sorry to report/ the white supremacy you have patiently sown,/ watered, and sunned, has fallen on fallow soil.” He suggests they “invest more energy in imparting [their] white ways” instead of wasting time complaining about a classroom assignment concerning identity. In a subsequent “open letter to the school resource officer who almost shot me in my class,” Henry describes the various ethnic assumptions and markers that led to the near calamity, and “how the two who share my skin saw everything. made eye contact” later calling him “almost Tamir,” while the offending officer’s “near-miss story was met with laughter in [his] squadroom.” In “said the band-aid to the shotgun wound,” Henry again uses satire and irony to expose the hollowness of sensitivity training organized in response to racist behavior in his school, concluding “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well/ when they ask what we have done about these who/ instagramed the blackface in our assembly, tweeted/ the careful geometry of beer pong swastikas, or/ the myriad Halloween costumes our faculty now knows / they should not have posted on Facebook, or worn to school . . . focused on how much more unites us/ than divides, convinced—eyes closed—we’re all pretty much the same.”

Matthew E. Henry, Black teacher, fantasizes about a future moment in “an imminent nonet,” the poem’s form itself dwindling through its nine lines from nine syllables to one as if it is a dream that fades upon waking: “later I would correct my title/ before the school board: ‘that’s doctor/ “uppity nigger” to you,/ and don’t mumble into/ the microphone. You’re/ setting a bad/ example/ for the/ kids.’” While this confrontation may not take place in reality, it is cathartic for the Black teacher who must use poetry to declare his anger and frustration. In “to the Dreams that Explode” Henry again references Langston Hughes as he offers a personal manifesto: “after they question your magnitude,/ your right to produce more heat/ more light than they can comprehend, be not dimmed. Count your candles, increase/ your wattage.”

In his concluding poem, Henry brings the reader of Teaching While Black full circle, back to the white suburban elementary school to which he was bused, where his skin color was explained to him by “well-intentioned white women.” The poem is a litany of lessons he learned: “to be a chameleon; to code-switch;/ to bite my tongue instead of theirs; to make excuses/ for them, yet allow awkwardness to paint circles around heads/ asking what I prefer to be called (Colored? Negro?African American? Black?) never landing on my name.” Ultimately, he learned “to admire the ants who rebuild their lives after every collapsing storm/ or malicious white sneaker.” And it is to the classroom the adult Henry returns, admirably battling ignorance with truth, confronting ignorance with powerful poems that depict genuine suffering endured not only historically, but also in the real lives of sharply drawn young people. What poem, I wonder, would Henry compose about the recent Wellesley anecdote of the Black student mistakenly hustled onto an afternoon bus delivering students “back where they came from” in spite of the fact that he lived around the block from the school and had been waiting for his mother to pick him up? What did that mother make of her son’s absence?

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