Poetry in a Time of Crisis

High school educators call on the power of poetry to help students critique injustice and develop empathy.

By Linda Christensen

On a post-Sept. 11 visit to New York City, my daughter Gretchen and I caught a taxi to a "Poetry in Crisis" reading at Cooper Union. After we settled into the taxi, Gretchen pointed to a note written in ink on the leather seat, "This cabbie doesn't have an American flag. Don't tip him."

The cabbie was an immigrant. From his accent and appearance, I'd guess he was from India. During our short visit, just about every taxi we rode in flew the stars and stripes. It felt mandatory. Obligatory patriotism.

Immigrant cabbies had reason to be fearful. Following the Sept. 11 tragedy, Arab-Americans and other Middle Eastern- or Central-Asian looking people were attacked at an alarming rate.

In an effort to raise student awareness about such anti-immigrant attacks, I worked with Renée Bald, a social studies teacher in Portland, OR, to develop a poetry lesson that highlighted the attacks and put them in historical context. We wanted students to see how fear too easily turns into repression based on religious or racial identity.

One of the most powerful poems we used was "first writing since," by Suheir Hammad, an African-American/Palestinian. Hammad wrote this poem a week after the Sept. 11 attacks, and I read the poem in its entirety to the class. (The poem is available here.)

Prior to reading, Renee and I told students: "Mark places that remind you of your own reactions. Also, mark lines that show us her fears."

Hammad, like many of us, identified with the survivors who lost loved ones, who would wait at home for a phone call, a key in the door, the familiar shuffle of feet on the porch to let us know our family, our friends escaped. But as a Palestinian American, Hammad also captures the fear that many Arabs felt after witnessing the event.

CHAOS AND JUSTICE

To further underscore the current discrimination and violence against Arab Americans, we handed out brief summaries of discriminatory acts that occurred in the first two weeks after the attacks. (See Attacks on Muslims and Arab Americans.) Prior to reading about 20 of the attacks, we told students that they would be writing a poem about discrimination or injustice. To prepare for this, we encouraged them to highlight incidents that created a visual image for them, that created a visceral reaction or helped them understand the current crisis from a personal point of view. Two events struck students more than others:

  • Islamic Institute of New York received a telephone call threatening the school's 450 students. The male caller said he was going to paint the streets with the children's blood. The school is closed, but continues to receive several threats a day. (Seattle Times/Detroit Free Press)
  • One Muslim woman said she, her husband, and their eight children endured a night of terror when an angry mob rose outside of their home in Oak Lawn, IL. The woman, who asked not to be identified out of fear, said, "We had people riding up and down our block shouting obscenities, 'Go home you bleeping ragheads, bleeping a-rabs, we're gonna get you.' My husband and I stayed up all night guarding the windows," she added. "My husband is of Arab descent. He gave four years of his life in the U.S. Navy ... to have some skinhead with an American flag screaming at your house." (Reuters, Chicago)

Once students had a feel for the violence being perpetrated against Arab-Americans since Sept. 11th, we shared two poems "We Would Like You To Know" by Ana Castillo and Janet Wong's "Waiting at the Railroad Café." We told them they could use either poem as a model for their own writing. (Wong's poem is in Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. 2 and also available here: Waiting at the Railroad Cafe. Janet Wong has a student- friendly website www.janetwong.com.)

Castillo's poem, in which she counterposes stereotypes about Latinos with more accurate information, is an excellent prompt for students to engage in writing about discrimination. We read Castillo's poem and, using the graph format, we generated lists of words or phrases typically used to stereotype Arab Americans, and then opposing lists to deflate those stereotypes:

    We Are Not                     We Are
    All terrorists                       Family members
    All murderers                     Students
    Members of the Taliban     American citizens
    We do not all wear turbans

Student Kristin Eberman followed Castillo's format in her poem:

    We would like you to know
    we are not all
    part of the Taliban
    nor followers of bin Laden.
    We were born in this country
    and are U.S. citizens.

    We do not all
    wear turbans
    nor are we all taxi drivers.
    We do have
    a home and
    family we love.

    We are not all
    against America
    nor are we spies
    passing on secret information.
    We are all
    a part of this country
    and also have family and friends
    in New York and
    killed in the World Trade Centers.

    We would like you to know
    we are not all
    terrorists
    nor murderers.
    We also have feelings and pride
    in our country, America.

Wong's poem "Waiting at the Railroad Café" powerfully portrays an Asian father and daughter and their differing reactions to the discrimination they face at a café. After reading the poem out loud, we asked students to locate the two different forms of discrimination in the poem: One is passive - a waitress ignores them; the other is active - a drunk yells at them.

After discussing the content of the poem, we pointed out how Wong creates a movie close-up of the moment. We see the father with his arms folded; we hear them talk; we watch the waitress ignore them.

Then we asked students to create a poem detailing one of the acts of discrimination against Arab-Americans we read about earlier. We encouraged students to use details to help their readers see and hear the story in their poem. Freshman Rebecca Jacobson wrote:

    The News Comes In
    The news comes in early that morning.
    "Terrorists attack."
    "This is war."
    Everyone says it is so remote
    so not real.
    But not to me.

    I walk down the street
    bombarded with glares
    jeers
    insults.
    I hang my head in shame.
    "You did this to us!"
    "Go back to your own country!" they scream.

    What do these people not realize"
    This is my country.
    I come home, broken, and see my house is, too.
    Windows smashed
    spray paint decorating the walls
    in an array of obscenities.
    "Why?" I ask. "Why?"
    Out of the corner of my eye
    I see my neighbor emerge from her
    unblemished home.
    She glances at me, wary
    then turns around.
    Though not without firing me a look
    that could slice steel.

Poetry is only a piece of a much broader social justice curriculum that aims to critique injustice and build empathy. But at this moment in our nation's history, poetic intimacy seems an especially valuable strategy to invite our students to touch the lives of others - others who may be in urgent need of allies.

Linda Christensen (lchristensen@pps.k12.or.us) is high school language arts coordinator for Portland, OR Public Schools, and an editor of Rethinking Schools.

Winter 2001 / 2002