Al Young and Great Teachers of Black Poetry

On NPR news this morning Renee Montagne did a good interview with Al Young, who is poet laureate of California and has a new collection of his poems called Something About the Blues. The write-up on the interview notes that:

Al Young  took to writing poetry, as he describes it in one poem, “to make out the sound of my own background music.” Though he’s lived in California for decades, the 68-year-old poet was born in rural Mississippi and had the good luck to find himself in one very special classroom in the second grade.

Young’s account of that very stimulating classroom decades ago highlights the great achievements of many African Americans under the extreme apartheid conditions that constituted U.S. segregation (a type of near-slavery for most):

In the segregated South of the 1940s, Young attend a black-only school. “At the Kingston School for Colored, we put a lot of emphasis on things that would be now called African American, on Negro literature and Negro culture,” he tells Renee Montagne. “So we memorized poems by people like Langston Hughes, of course, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.”

The reason the children read these poems and sometimes learned to be outstanding poets themselves was, of course, many fine teachers, almost all of them being African American. One of the sad tragedies of the early years of school desegregation in many areas of this country was the firing or exclusion of many of these excellent Black teachers (and principals) because whites who controlled the desegregation process wanted it that way — that is, they wanted the least desegregation possible and no education of their own children by such excellent Black teachers.

In 2004 there were numerous recollections and social science research discussions of the Brown school desegregation decision, by educators and activists across the land — and of the role of the Black civil rights movement in bringing change in U.S. schools, often for the better in terms of access to improved school socioeconomic resources. However, school desegregation has often been an overall failure in creating better learning settings for all children, and especially for children of color, mainly because white decisionmakers have made it such. Young’s account highlights the greatness of these previous generations of Black teachers.

The NPR account then accents how Young got to the West Coast and about his concerns in his poetry with all Americans:

Young moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1960, “under the sway, all of the hullabaloo. The Beat Generation was sounding its horns … and there was just a lot of romance about it.” He had $15 and a guitar. Young’s poems touch on not only blues and jazz music but also, not surprisingly, life in California. In “Watsonville After the Quake,” he writes about the Mexican immigrants forgotten in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

(The website today has some of his poems to read.)

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