I remember the first time I was introduced to his words. My parents decided to put me in an all black private school in third grade. When I walked into Mr. Dunbar’s class, they were reciting, in unison, one of Mr. Hughes’ poems, The Negro Speaks of Rivers.
My self-esteem was at an all time low because of teachers and their prejudices at my previous school. But the way Mr. Dunbar had these kids shouting that poem went straight to the core of my young, bruised beautiful blackness and healed it. The thunder of Mr. Dunbar’s deep voice only added to that moment and with each word they shouted I began to dismantle the lies society was telling my young mind about the color of my skin.
“I’ve known rivers…”
I remember standing there as Mr. Dunbar came over and placed his hand on my shoulder to try and ease my new-kid-in-class nerves. As he stood towering over me, a feeling I couldn’t describe surrounded me.
“… ancient as the world and older than flow of human blood in human veins…”
I realize now what I was feeling was a sense of worth and belonging that I wasn’t getting from my white peers in my old elementary school.
When that poem ended, Mr. Dunbar’s voice boomed “I, too!” and the class began reciting Mr. Langston’s poem “ I, Too.” For the first time I wasn’t the only black child in class. There was an entire classroom of students that looked like me and I let my little 3rd grade guard down as they chanted with the great fervor Mr. Dunbar demanded of his students:
“ I, too, sing America.
I watched in awe but also felt lost because I had no idea why they were reciting those words, and yet, I listened and my mind, even at that young age, understood its meaning.
“I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes…”
The poem went on and came quickly to the last verse:
“ Besides, They’ll see how beautiful I am-and be ashamed. I, too, am America.”
The silence filled the room as Mr. Dunbar ushered me to my seat and said “who would like to tell Audra who wrote those poems.” Someone raised their hand and I heard the words “Langston Hughes.”
Mr. Hughes gave me so much. That little girl, sad and bruised from prejudiced teachers and mean kids in her old school, became proud of her blackness. Militantly so (which is an ongoing joke in my family now).
I still know those two poems by heart to this day. I also have several of his books sitting on my shelf, which I have yet to get around to (I know, that’s kind of sad). But whether I ever read them or not, those books will remain on my shelf. Whenever racism rears its ugly head at me, and sadly that is still all too often in this day and age, I will grab one of his books and remember that beautiful moment in Mr. Dunbar’s class.
Originally published at http://audrarussellwrites.com on February 9, 2020.