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Pastel of Langston Hughes by Winold Reiss.

Theme for English B

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you–
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me–we two–you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me–who?

Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Joplin, Missouri.
He was a poet, novelist, playwright, columnist
and one of the artists during the Harlem Renaissance
in the 1920s and 1930s.

Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records–Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white–
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me–
although you’re older–and white–
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.
……………………………………………….
by Langston Hughes

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Pastel of Langston Hughes by Winold Reiss.

Theme for English B

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you–
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me–we two–you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me–who?

Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Joplin, Missouri.
He was a poet, novelist, playwright, columnist
and one of the artists during the Harlem Renaissance
in the 1920s and 1930s.

Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records–Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white–
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me–
although you’re older–and white–
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.
……………………………………………….
by Langston Hughes

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Elie Wiesel (born 1928) was born in Sighet, Romania
and is the author of more than 57 books.
He is a Holocaust survivor and was a prisoner
in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration
camps in 1944 and 1945. He won the Nobel
Peace Prize in 1986.

When I asked my students the other night how many faces were in the classroom, they hesitated to answer. One man said, “Do you mean we wear one face for the world but carry many other faces inside us?” I said that was a good answer but not what I was looking for. Then an Oh of understanding came from the back of the room, and a student pointed to the posters on the wall.

Here’s an excerpt from Wiesel’s novel The Time of the Uprooted, published in 2005.

I’m four years old, or maybe five. It’s a Sabbath afternoon. Mother is lying down in the next room. I’d asked her to read to me from the book she had by her side, but she has one of her frequent headaches. So I ask my father to tell me a story, but just then there’s a knock at the door. “Go see who it is,” says my father, reluctantly glancing up from the journal he’s keeping. A stranger is at the door.
“May I come in,” he asks. A big bearded man, broad across the shoulders, with sad eyes — there’s something disturbing about him. His gaze seems heavy with secrets, and glows with a pale and holy fire.
“Who’s there?” my father asks, and I reply, “I don’t know.”
“Call me a wanderer,” the stranger says, “a wandering man who’s worn-out and hungry.”
“Who do you want to see?” I ask, and he says to me, “You.”

Wiesel at age 15, just before deportation.

Who is it, a beggar?” my father asks. “Tell him to come in.” No matter what the hour, my father would never deny his home to a stranger seeking a meal or a night’s shelter, and certainly not on the Sabbath.
The stranger comes in at a slow but unhesitating pace. Father stands to greet him and leads him to the kitchen. He shows the stranger where to wash his hands before reciting the usual prayer, offers him a seat, and sets before him a plate of cholent and hallah [stew and bread]. But the stranger doesn’t touch it. “You’re not hungry?” my father says.
“Oh yes, I’m hungry, and I’m thirsty, but not for food.”
“Then what is it you want?”
“I want words and I want faces,” says the stranger. “I travel the world and look for people’s stories.” I’m enchanted by a stranger’s voice. It is the storyteller: It envelops my soul. He continues: “I came here today to put you to the test, to measure your hospitality. And I can tell you that what I’ve seen pleases me.” With that, he gets to his feet and strides to the door.
“Don’t tell me you are the prophet Elijah,” says my father.
“No, I’m not a prophet.” The stranger smiles down at me. “I told you, I’m just a wanderer. A crazy wanderer.”

Photo taken at Buchenwald liberation. Wiesel is in the
second row of bunks, seventh from the
left, next to the vertical beam.

Ever since that encounter, I’ve loved vagabonds with their sacks full of tales of princes who became what they are for love of freedom and solitude. I delight in madmen. I love to see their crazed, melancholy faces and to hear their bewitching voices, which arouse in me forbidden images and desires. Or rather, it’s not the madness itself I love, but those it possesses, those whose souls it claims, as if to show them the limits of their possibilities — and then makes them determined to go further, to push themselves beyond those limits. It’s second nature with me. Some collect paintings; other love horses. Me, I’m attracted to madmen. Some fear them, and so put them away where no one can hear them cry out. I find some madmen entertaining, but others do indeed frighten me, as if they know that a man is just the restless and mysterious shadow of a dream, and that dream may be God’s. I have to confess that I enjoy their company, I want to see through their eyes the world die each night, only to be reborn with dawn, to pursue their thoughts as if they were wild horses, to hear them laugh and make others laugh, to intoxicate myself without wine, and to dream with my eyes open.

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Toni Morrison (born 1931) was the first African
American woman to win the Nobel Prize.
She won the Nobel Prize in 1993 and
the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988.
Her birth name is Chloe Wofford. 

In my English Comp class tonight, I will ask my students how many faces are in the classroom. The class size ranges from 15 to 20, but I am referring to the faces of the poet and fiction writers on the classroom posters. As the semester winds down, I will introduce my students to the faces on the wall.

Toni Morrison is best known for her novels The Bluest Eye, published in 1970; Song of Solomon, published in 1977; and Beloved published in 1987. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction of her novel Song of Solomon:

I have long despised artists’ chatter about muses — “voices” that speak to them and enable a vision, the source of which they could not otherwise name. I thought of muses as inventions to protect one’s insight, to avoid questions like “Where do your ideas come from?” Or to escape inquiry into the fuzzy area between autobiography and fiction. I regarded the “mystery” of creativity as a shield erected by artists to avoid articulating, analyzing, or even knowing the details of their creative process — for fear it would fade away.

Writing Song of Solomon destroyed all that. I had no access to what I planned to write about until my father died. In the unmanageable sadness that followed, there was none of the sibling wrangling, guilt or missed opportunities, or fights for this or that memento. Each of his four children was convinced that he loved her or him best. He had sacrificed greatly for one, risking his house and his job; he took another to baseball games over whole summers where they lay in the grass listening to a portable radio, talking, evaluating the players on the field. In the company of one, his firstborn, he always beamed and preferred her cooking over everyone else’s, including his wife’s. He carried a letter from me in his coat pocket for years and years, and drove through blinding snow-storms to help me. Most important, he talked to each of us in language cut to our different understandings. He had a flattering view of me as someone interesting, capable, witty, smart, high-spirited. I did not share that view of myself, and wondered why he held it. But it was the death of that girl — the one who lived in his head — that I mourned when he died. Even more than I mourned him, I suffered the loss of the person he thought I was. I think it was because I felt closer to him than to myself that, after his death, I deliberately sought his advice for writing the novel that continued to elude me. “What are the men you have known really like?”

He answered.

What it is called — muse, insight, inspiration, “the dark finger that guides,” “bright angel” — it exists and, in many forms, I have trusted it ever since.

The challenge of Song of Solomon was to manage what was for me a radical shift in imagination from a female locus to a male one. To get out of the house, to de-domesticate the landscape that had so far been the sit of my work. To travel. To fly. In such an overtly, stereotypically male narrative, I thought that straightforward chronology would be more suitable than the kind of play with sequence and time I had employed in my previous novels. A journey, then, with the accomplishment of flight, the triumphant end of a trip through earth, to its surface, on into water, and finally into air. All very saga-like. Old-school heroic, but with other meanings. Opening with the suicidal leap of the insurance agent, ending it with the protagonist’s confrontational soar into danger, was meant to enclose the mystical but problematic one taking by the Solomon of the title.

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