Project Outline – Social Justice Poetry
- To create an informative, accessible, and innovative visual project that exhibits the development of our study of the genre over the course of the semester.
- To define social justice poetry and the criteria of the broad genre; to perform in-depth research of biographical and stylistic information about social justice poets; and to analyze several outstanding social justice poems.
- To learn more about blogging as a multimedia method of communication; to become adept blog-writers with the knowledge of the ins-and-outs of creating a website.
The form we have chosen for our project is a blog. A blog, or “weblog,” is a website that “maintains an ongoing chronicle of information” (wordpress.com). Blog-writing has an informal, diary-like style, so while our group will write professionally, posts will not have a purely academic, essay tone.
The reason this form is most suitable for us is because it is a unique visual medium that each of us can access on our own time from our own location, yet our information will be compiled into one coherent project. In addition, the completed project will chart the development of our thought-process through its archives. We will be able to look back to where we started and see how far we have come. Finally, blogging is relevant to our topic, because social justice poetry is an ongoing, evolving genre, and our blog will reflect that. It will allow use to link to pertinent additional material such as articles, audio, video, images, and more.
Outline / Schedule:
Week 1 (10/28)
- Visit the Design Lab (10/24)
- Make and customize blog account on wordpress.com
Week 2 (11/4)
- Write 1st individual posts: what is social justice poetry?
- Title the blog
Week 3 (11/11)
- 2nd post: biographical information on individual authors
Week 4 (11/18)
- Project Outline due
- 3rd post: 1 of 2 poetry analyses
Week 5 (11/25)
- 4th post: 2 of 2 poetry analyses
Week 6 (12/2)
- 5th post: conclusion post (individual and compiled)
- Plan presentation
Week 7 (12/9)
- Project deadline and presentation
The primary challenge we face in order for our project to succeed is to stick to the above schedule. Our blog will not function if we do not post entries weekly, because it would defeat the purpose to post multiple entries at once near the end of the semester. However, since we are able to access the project in our free time from wherever, we should be able to overcome this challenge. A second challenge we face is to become familiarized with the new territory of the “blog-sphere.” We have to test-drive the website and learn about blogging as we create our project. Sometimes technology can be difficult, but with patience and willingness to learn we will be fine, and the overall result and knowledge gained will surely be worth the challenge.
The poet I will be studying in-depth is Robert Hayden. He was born Asa Bundy Sheffey on August 4th, 1913 and was raised by poor and uneducated foster parents. His extreme nearsightedness limited his participation in athletics, so he turned to literature. Family relationships during his childhood were difficult due to the tension that he was not his adoptive parents’ real son, and that his artistic desires challenged their view of his masculinity. Later, as an adult and a poet, Hayden would reflect on how these experiences shaped his life.
Hayden enjoyed, studied, and was inspired by Countee Cullen, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Langston Hughes, as well as other aspiring poets of the time. He studied under the direction of W. H. Auden while pursuing his master’s degree. Hayden often wrote in poetic form, yet managed to remain original. He employed many voices, such as “black folk speech” and sparse yet brash diction, for an overall chilling effect. His poetry is not considered confessional because it explores the larger implications of his personal events. Hayden was a professor of creative writing and English literature at Fisk University (Nashville, Tennessee) for 23 years, and then taught at the University of Michigan for 11 years.
Robert Hayden began associating with social justice writers in the late 1930s; during this time, he also began in-depth research on American and black history. Even though most of his poetry relates to or draws from African American history and the black experience, Hayden distanced himself from the label of a “black poet,” which led to accusations that he was rejecting his racial heritage during the tumultuous 1960s. Hayden “became convinced that he could not work easily within the confines of labels” (Hatcher 13). He fiercely believed that “the work of black writers must be judged wholly in the context of the literary tradition in English, rather than within the confines of the ethnocentrism that is common in contemporary literature written by blacks” (Poetry Foundation). Hayden felt that the label of “black poet” confined his poetry and limited his identity.
I will analyze the following Robert Hayden poems: “Night, Death, Mississippi;” “Words in the Mourning Time;” and “Frederick Douglass.”
My part of the project is focused closely on Slam and spoken word as an expression of Social Justice Poetry. By looking at this particular genre, I intend to show how Social Justice/Action poetry influences the present-day culture of poetics. Because of this intent, I have picked two contrasting figures who are still living and who both present different aspects of current poetical practice: Patrick Rosal and Sarah Kay. Patrick Rosal is the son of Pilipino immigrants and a native of New Jersey. His poetry pays close attention to identity and culture and how that shapes a person’s experience. This is evident in the poem “About the White Boys Who Drove By a Second Time to Throw a Bucket of Water on Me.” To contrast this background, I am also paying close attention to Sarah Kay, founder and co-president of Project VOICE, an attempt to reconnect poetry with youth. A New Yorker, Sarah Kay brings a diverse background into discussion; her mother holds to Buddhist traditions and her father is Jewish. This unique heritage appears in her poetry and shapes the way in which topics are approached. Kay also grew up in the 1990’s, and learned about writing from her experiences listening to other poets present their work. In a sense, Kay is a direct result of Slam poetry and offers insight into how Slam as an identity affirming form that deals with social issues has fed into the everyday spoken word of poetry. While not every poem of Kay’s can be classified as social justice exactly, her reachability and assertions of womanhood provide a social action context to her approach to poetry. This is certainly visible in the poem “Type.” In the end, it is important to not separate the poems from the way in which they are presented: orally. Thus, my contribution to the project will focus more on the oral presentation of social justice poems and how slam and spoken word serve as an outlet for these expressions, but also how these forms of presentation have changed the meaning of social justice/action poetry.
My part of the project will focus mainly on the early and influential social justice poetry of Langston Hughes. He was born on February 1st, 1902 in the town of Joplin, Missouri. As he grew up Hughes moved to through a number of towns in the Midwest. His father divorced his mother and made for a country where racism was less prominent. The move left his mother searching for work and Hughes in the care of his maternal grandmother, a proud woman said to influence him deeply. Following her death in 1915, Hughes moved about with his mother again before settling in Cleveland, Ohio. After attending Central High School, Hughes went to Mexico for a summer then, with his father’s consent, enrolled at Columbia University in 1921. He found that he disliked the classes, campus, and students of Colombia and dropped out after finals. When he hadn’t been in class though he had been taking in the city and collecting material for the poems we would come to recognize, like “The Weary Blues” a poem penned in 1923 that would become the title of his first anthology. Many important events in the life of Langston Hughes followed this, like his first poetry prize in 1925 and the publication of his first anthology “The Weary Blues,” but it was the summer of 1927, when he met many writers he would eventually lead the Harlem Renaissance with and when he published the poem “Mulatto”, that his words against social injustices were heard by a large audience. As he grew older and moved to other places, Hughes further tied his literature to racial justice, as seen in the controversial poem “Christ in Alabama”, published in 1931. Going on to write many short stories, plays, and poetry, Hughes stepped onto the world stage, shouting for all who couldn’t help but listen against social justice and for the possibility of a brighter future.
The literature he wrote was based on experiences he had as a world traveler, lower and middle class citizen, and African American in a period of racial discrimination. Most of his poetry seem simple to read, but the style, often defined as “jazz poetry” pushed the boundaries of socially accepted literature into an exciting new modern beat. His works may seem easy to understand, but the conflicts of the racially prejudiced African American population and the way each was seeded and grown in his literature pushed a generation to rise against a flawed system.
I will be focusing on the poems “The Ballad of the Landlord”, “Christ in Alabama”, “The South”, “I, Too”, “Consider Me” and “Freedom Train”.