Article for Teachers

Sticks and Stones and Words as Weapons

What African American poetry teaches us.

The extraordinary difficulty of childhood, as I recall it, is making sense of an often contradictory and unpredictable world handed down by adults. Adults offer children maxims meant to buffer and protect, but sometimes these maxims do not help, leaving children with nowhere to vent their frustrations, voice their fears, or solicit other help to decipher an incongruent world. This condition of the child in some ways seems to parallel the experience of African people in the diaspora: that of a people taught one set of rules that often does not apply to them, or are made to pledge allegiance to a country that has repeatedly discriminated and alienated them. Because of this there are chants and charms, mantras and prayers to help others regain their balance and move forward. African American poetry disproves the notion that words can’t hurt us. While some words hurt and maim and disfigure, other words heal, nourish the soul, salve the will, and strengthen the determination.

When I was a child my mother often told me the saying, “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” In truth, however, words often cut me to the bone, caused me to falter, to doubt myself, prompted tears, and left me bruised and wounded. I remember particularly one incident in which my friend Trevor and I had a quarrel over some marbles and he shouted at me, “Is bad-mind, you bad-mind ’cause you don’t have any father.” Because my parents were divorced before I was five, I saw my father infrequently, mostly during the summer months. Before I could rejoin, “Of course I have a father even though he doesn’t live with me,” tears blinded my eyes and smothered my voice. When my mother told me that Trevor did not know what he was talking about, it did not console me. Had Trevor hit me and tried to grab the marbles I had won from him, we would have fought, but then I think we would have resumed our friendship fairly quickly. However, I never felt I could quite trust him after that and so our friendship had a quick death. I never again allowed him close, not knowing what other words he would hurl at me.

Perhaps that is why I was instantly drawn to Countee Cullen’s “Incident” the first time I read it, not only because the poem is so well crafted but because of the incident with Trevor. Cullen’s poem, as well as other writings by many African American authors, eliminates the fluff and gets right to the heart of the matter:

                                            For Eric Walrond

                                    Once riding in old Baltimore, 
                                    Heart-filled, head-filled with glee. 
                                    I saw a Baltimorean
                                    Keep looking straight at me.

                                    Now I was eight and very small, 
                                    And he was no whit bigger, 
                                    And so I smiled, but he poked out 
                                    His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

                                    I saw the whole of Baltimore 
                                    From May until December; 
                                    Of all the things that happened there 
                                    That’s all that I remember.

Especially with poetry, my approach to teaching is visceral. I never teach what I don’t like. I teach what I love, what I believe to be good writing, but mostly, I teach pieces that have integrity, that speak from a place of intimacy, pieces that provide another point of view, and even offer a path that others might travel. Of course, I mention that the poets are African American and that the poems refer to a specific social era, but I also stress that a good poem transcends the boundaries of a set historical time-frame.

I began one of my residencies with the tenth grade students from Oakland High School Visual Arts Academy and their teacher Judi Yeager, by writing in bold letters on the board, “STICKS AND STONES MAY BREAK YOUR BONES, BUT WORDS CAN NEVER HURT YOU!” The students were predominately Asian, with some African Americans, Chicanos, Latinos, and Euro-Americans. The students were familiar with the maxim, but like me, most did not believe it. Many had anecdotes to illustrate just the opposite. They all agreed that words hurt, and we went around the room identifying words such as death, ugly, and stupid that did in fact hurt people very badly. Next, I gave them all a xeroxed sheet of Cullen’s poem “Incident” and asked for a volunteer to read it aloud. Afterwards we analyzed it line by line to discern how Cullen develops the poem, and how the poem affects the reader. The narrator of the poem never says he is hurt, but his sadness is evident. Then, I had students reflect back to when they were between six and ten years old, to see if they could recall a memory of when someone said something that hurt them. For most of them, the hurtful words were from strangers, so they identified very strongly with the boy in the Cullen poem. After discussing the poem, we read Langston Hughes’s “Dream Deferred” and “Freedom.” I discussed how Hughes uses rhetorical form to begin and close “Dream Deferred,” and how that makes the poem open-ended, yet conclusive. Although the first and last lines of the poem are phrased as questions, the inference is that the answers are obvious. Therefore the questions turn in on themselves and can (and should be) read as statements. The accessibility of the poem provides me with the opportunity to discuss the use of concrete, specific language such as, “Does it stink like rotten meat?” that is graphic. All the students could relate to this poem; some of the Southeast Asian students talked about how for some of their families, the American dream seemed elusive, if not totally impossible.

From the Langston Hughes poems, I moved to the piercing irony of Frank Marshall Davis’s succinct poems, “Giles Johnson, Ph.D.” and “Robert Whitmore”:

                                    Giles Johnson, Ph.D.

                                    Giles Johnson
                                    had four college degrees
                                    knew the whyfore of this
                                    the wherefore of that
                                    could orate in Latin
                                    or cuss in Greek
                                    and, having learned such things
                                    he dies of starvation
                                    because he wouldn’t teach
                                    and he couldn’t porter.

                                    Robert Whitmore

                                    Having attained success in business
                                    possessing three cars
                                    one wife and two mistresses
                                    a home and furniture
                                    talked of by the town
                                    and thrice ruler of the local Elks
                                    Robert Whitmore
                                    dies of apoplexy
                                    when a stranger from Georgia
                                    mistook him
                                    for a former Macon waiter.

After two students read the poems aloud, I asked the group to consider the poems’ titles. Why the personal names? What did Davis want to impress upon the reader? The students replied astutely that these poems were about real people, and that by titling them by the name, pseudonyms notwithstanding, Marshall heightened the poem’s credibility. I detected that much of the irony was lost on the students, even the African American students, who failed to discern that Frank Marshall Davis was not necessarily writing from a place of sympathy. Davis’s simple use of “because” in the second to last line of “Giles Johnson, Ph.D.” is a jab at the ludicrousness of this educated man, whose education led to his downfall because he somehow believed that education would be a buffer against racism. Similarly, Robert Whitmore died of apoplexy because his success did not distinguish him above the status of a Macon waiter. Here Davis is revealing how some successful African Americans lose touch with the fact that regardless of their success, they are still living in a very color-conscious society. The students had no trouble understanding this phenomenon.

Finally, we turned to Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” which celebrates resilience. The students very much enjoyed the poem, especially the refrain, “I rise.” This gave us yet another opportunity to discuss poetic techniques, such as repetition. In this case “I rise” is an affirmation that the narrator of the poem will indeed rise, and at the close of the poem, the truth of the refrain is confirmed. This poem is also a good example of how to use metaphor and to incorporate cultural and familial history into a poem. We also discussed rhyme and free verse. I cautioned students to refrain from rhyming if the content of the poem would suffer to accommodate a rhyme pattern.

After we read and discussed all the poems, the students reread them, selected the ones they related to most strongly, and wrote poems of their own, employing one or more of the poetic techniques we had discussed. The range of response was wide; below are six poems from that class.

                                    In Mind

                                  In the mind of a soul, and the weakness of death
                                    The truth of a secret could be swept.
                                    In a hidden sea, down deeply in the ocean,
                                    no treasures keep, or the tides in motion.

                                    In the mind of a soul, and the darkness of light,
                                    the lies of a devil, and the hell of the night.
                                    In a hollow cave, rough rocks and stones,
                                    no hungry bears, nor the sound of tones.

                                    In the mind of a soul, and the brightness of green,
                                    Empty of seeds, which bare cannot be seen. 
                                    In a shivering cold, and the breeze of ice,
                                    no motherhood that could bear us life.
                                              —Jessie Lu

                                    I Am Strong

                                    I sit in my room and stare into space
                                    I think to myself, I’m not going anyplace
                                    As I hear footsteps coming from behind my back
                                    I know that this will be an attack
                                    I am strong
                                    I am strong

                                    As I look up to her, I can see through her eyes 
                                    That all she thinks of me are sorrows and cries 
                                    But still I would not let her see the weak side of me 
                                    I am strong, I have power, that’s what I want to be
                                    I am strong 
                                    I am strong

                                    She repeatedly brings me down
                                    I know it will not work because I will turn it all around
                                    I will pull up, way up high
                                    Show her that I’m not what she thinks
                                    I’m someone that’s strong, a big and great power
                                    I’m someone with bright light, a strong high tower
                                    I am strong
                                    I am strong
                                              —Cuc Hui

                                    Left in the Cold

                                    In my mind,
                                    You were willing to set me free,
                                    I thought you were going to be there for me
                                    Because I was only three.
                                    You left Mom with sorrow,
                                    And me with pain,
                                    Why did you have to go?
                                    Can you please explain?
                                    Now I’m fifteen,
                                    Do you understand why?
                                    Are you an angel?
                                    Will you ever say good-bye?
                                              —Mae Chi

                                    China Boy

                                    I am a Chinese Boy
                                    Growing up in such a weird country,
                                    A land with many races
                                    And a language that sounds funny.

                                    A land where people can vote 
                                    And kids can go to school, 
                                    Living in houses instead of boats 
                                    And yet to us, the culture is new.

                                    In America I have the right to get an education
                                    And be all I can be,
                                    To the laws I pay attention
                                    My future belongs to me!

                                    Trying to fit in and act like Americans.
                                    Taking on American names like Floyd or Troy,
                                    But I will never forget my native language, culture, and religion
                                    I am a Chinese Boy.
                                              —Kuong Lu


                                    Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
                                    Does it stand side by side?
                                    Or can you reach it
                                    From the distance of the sky?
                                    It can be reached by your heart.
                                    Stars are hard to find.
                                    Stars are bright.
                                    Stars are shining.
                                    Stars are here, so hold them tight.
                                              —Tim Nanphosy

                                    Don’t Try to Get Me Down

                                    Don’t try to get me down! 
                                    Because ... 
                                    The harder you push 
                                    the harder I’ll stand. 
                                    Strong like a diamond. 
                                    I’ll never fall!

                                    Don’t try to get me down!
                                    Because ...
                                    I’m solid like a rock
                                    and strong like Mike Tyson.

                                    Don’t try to get me down! 
                                    Soon I’ll get tired
                                    of being pushed around, 
                                    and before you know it 
                                    you’ll be knocked out.
                                              —Blanca Barnes

Interestingly, the students didn’t seem to care whether or not the poems were by African Americans. Those who were not African American were surprised at how applicable the poems were to their own lives.

Later, I used the same poems with a combination fifth-sixth grade class at Burckhalter Elementary School. Many of the Burckhalter students live in a low-income area in Oakland that is plagued by violence. The students were predominantly African American; about a quarter were Southeast Asian. The idea of losing sight of one’s dreams and vivid memories of numerous “incidents” dominated our discussion. We spent a long time discussing the Countee Cullen poem. Most chose to write about painful feelings and images that they had not shared with anyone. When I had students read their poems to the class, it was evident that these feelings had left an indelible mark on them. I can only hope that the opportunity to write about such traumas helped these young people to put some closure to their memories. However, as evident from several of the poems, not all of the major incidents in their young lives were negative; birth, for instance, continues to be a source of great joy and optimism for these children and their families.


                                    I saw my sister get run over. 
                                    She flew in the air and hit 
                                    the ground.

                                    I saw the ambulance 
                                    come and take her 
                                    away to the hospital.

                                    The car was blue 
                                    the street was red 
                                    but she wasn’t dead.
                                              —Lakesha Lacole Mackel

                                    That Special Day

                                    Qiana Crawford 
                                    was born in 
                                    1984. It was 
                                    a glorious day.

                                    When they had 
                                    me I was the 
                                    prettiest thing on my
                                    block. When

                                    I walked down 
                                    the street people 
                                    said, “Ow wee 
                                    your baby is

                                    so pretty.” Now 
                                    I’m grown 
                                    and they still 
                                    to this day 
                                    say, “Ow wee 
                                    you are so pretty!”
                                              —Qiana Denice Crawford

                                    A Time

                                    There’s a time for fun, a time to
                                    play, every time, every day. Having a time
                                    to see and watch TV, a time for basketball.

                                    There’s a time to kick it, a time to 
                                    just chill. There’s a time for every 
                                    thing. There’s a time for a party.

                                    A time to be hardy, a time 
                                    to buy, a time to sigh. There’s a 
                                    time to have fun, a time to play in the 
                                    sun and there’s a time to rest.
                                              —Robert Ellis

                                    Baby Sister

                                    On April 1983 
                                    all my attention went away. 
                                    My baby sister was born. 
                                    Next thing I knew I lost 
                                    my room I share with that 
                                    brat today.

                                    The next thing I knew 
                                    I had to share that 
                                    room forever and ever.

                                    After a few years my 
                                    attention came back 
                                    and everything was 
                                    better. But something 
                                    weird has happened now. 
                                    I love my baby sister.
                                              —Tammie Clark

                                    Getting in a Fight

                                    Getting in a fight 
                                    using all my might 
                                    also all my sight.

                                    Getting home at night 
                                    saying it’s alright 
                                    keeping myself warm.

                                    Signing a form 
                                    at school in the 
                                    morning. Getting home at night

                                    Keeping myself all tight 
                                    going to sleep and 
                                    not hearing a beep.
                                              —Toan Bao Phu

                                    The Special Day

                                    On a very cold night 
                                    a person entered our 
                                    world for the very 
                                    first time. This person 
                                    is special because she 
                                    is related to me.

                                    My whole family was 
                                    happy in the USA and 
                                    across the Pacific.

                                    She is my cousin 
                                    a beautiful baby and 
                                    a special day.
                                              —John Gallon

                                    I Wonder If She’s Going to Die

                                    I wonder if she’s going to die.
                                    My Auntie is very hurt.
                                    She got shot three times,
                                    once in her neck,
                                    once in her arm,
                                    and once in her stomach.
                                    I wonder if she’s going to die.
                                    I had a dream that the devil
                                    had taken her away
                                    and I cried and cried
                                    and then I woke up.
                                    On Mother’s Day she had
                                    a high temperature.
                                    It was one hundred and four.
                                    I started to cry.
                                    I said to myself
                                    I wonder if she’s going
                                    to die.
                                              —Qwanisha Stokes

                                    Being Somebody

                                    Don’t let your life just drift away 
                                    standing on the corners 
                                    and drinking all day.

                                    You want to be somebody 
                                    but do nothing to help. 
                                    You get put in jail 
                                    and wonder why all is hell.

                                    All these people getting Ph.D.’s 
                                    while you’re just chillin’ 
                                    feelin the nice breeze.

                                    You need to do something 
                                    with your life, thinking you’re 
                                    all cool. Get an education and 
                                    go to school.
                                              —Chaner Jones

As a writer and teacher, I use African American literature with students at all levels, elementary through college, to explore their pains and joys without apology. It is an occasion to come together and share, spill guts, write, and help to cleanse the soul.

Sticks and stones and words cause pain for people who must constantly navigate through societies rife with contradictions. African American poets have taken the pain, simmered it, and transformed it into balm. That, it seems to me, is the greatest lesson that African American poetry teaches: how to heal.

Opal Palmer Adisa, "Sticks and Stones and Words as Weapons: What African American Poetry Teaches Us" from Sing the Sun Up: Creative Writing Ideas from African American Literature.  Copyright © 1998 by Opal Palmer Adisa.  Reprinted by permission of Teachers & Writers Collaborative.
Originally Published: August 12th, 2016

Jamaican poet and writer Opal Palmer Adisa was born in Kingston. After a childhood education in British colonialist writers, Adisa came to the United States at the age of 15 and attended high school in New York City, where she encountered the work of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks as...