MCC Daily Tribune
President's Wednesday Message
Back in the day, I used to teach a special topics writing course called "Writing about Education." One of the works my students read and responded to was an extraordinary poem written by Langston Hughes in the latter part of his career: "Theme for English B" (1951).
Theme for English B
By Langston Hughes
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?
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.
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.
In class discussions, I had to update the references (who is Bessie? students would ask), and navigate some diction that resonated painfully in a part of the country where these words carried historical and current weight. However, to a person, my students felt this poem: they knew the assignment given this student was not simple or easy. And, as a significant number of my students were Hispanic in a state that frequently put forward "English First" ballot initiatives, they voiced the challenges in being seen as "American."
This poem came flooding back to me at this week's Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) annual National Legislative Summit in DC. ACCT released a report on how community colleges can and must increase the success of male students of color: Continuing Progress: How Urban Community Colleges are Improving Outcomes for Minority Men. Nearly seven decades after Hughes's poem, the report is unstinting in its assessment of the challenges that still face minority male students seeking to climb the college hill that Hughes puts in front of his protagonist: "America deals with a longstanding challenge of educational disparities between white Americans and minority communities" (p. 4). The authors go on to observe that "Barriers to postsecondary education for minority males begin early, often due to biases leading to disproportional disciplinary action and assignment to special education" (p. 6). The hill remains high and the climb, perilous.
Yet, the report holds out two examples of community colleges in which intentional and intrusive programming for students is making a difference: the community colleges of the City University of New York and Tarrant County Community College (Fort Worth, TX). It was heartening to see that one of the key drivers in improving success is connecting students to mentors and building a community of support. This is exactly the thinking behind MCC's Men of Excellence initiative, led by Milladge Griffin (Financial Aid). The Men of Excellence program reinforces the connection that makes us a part of each other's struggles and successes: the mentors in this program learn from and with their mentees. But, as the report documents, this connection needs to extend out from the direct mentoring to classrooms and college services.
On March 13, MCC's annual Essential Discussions will focus on "Inclusive Higher Education: Inspiring Change from Within." The day's theme could be drawn--slightly less poetically--from that which Hughes sets out for English B: "As educators, how we bridge differences and deliver on the promise of higher education depends on understanding the potential obstacles facing today's students and developing strategies that will help students succeed academically and in life." I hope you take time to read the ACCT report and register for this important MCC gathering.
Please share your thoughts on the blog.
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