As a part of our ongoing effort to support writers impacted by COVID-19, Maya Williams reviews Teaching While Black by Matthew E. Henry:
Teaching While Black is a full collection of confessional poetry from black poet and educator Matthew E. Henry available through Main Street Rag Publishing Company. This book showcases the lack of respect Henry, as a Black teacher, often faces in the public school system and the amount of emotional labor he often carries for his students. It’s worth delving into and reading for yourself.
In his poem “my third grade teacher,” Henry recounts the experience of being a student when he was younger. It reminds the reader that before he was stigmatized in the profession he chose, he faced stigmatization as a Black student as well.
Because he is able to reflect on his past perspective as a student, it makes sense how Henry spends some of his time reflecting on the lives of the students he teaches and their struggles.
One may question whether or not he ought to share his students’ stories that involve their experiences around issues such as gender identity, suicide, and trauma. However, it is important for us as readers to learn from his students as Henry the author continues to learn; like a form of “muscle memory,” (Henry’s words) if you will.
In recent years, gun violence in schools has been a topic of conversation in the media. What I appreciate about Henry’s poems about gun violence, is that he not only empathizes with what his students go through, he gives space for himself and how it has affected him. One cannot talk about gun violence without talking about how race plays a huge role in it. When a white man has a gun and causes violence, not just in schools but any building, he is written as “mentally ill” and harmless. Henry does not carry a gun at school, but it doesn’t stop officials from seeing him as a threat as a Black man and turning a gun on him. Officials didn’t think Henry was the one teaching the classroom and keeping students as physically and emotionally safe as he can.
It’s fascinating too that the same white officials, educators, administrators, students even who may see the speaker as a threat also sees him as “uppity” for choosing the profession he chose. It’s a double-edged sword here in “the surprising thing”:
“i’ve only been called ‘nigger’ once by a student—at least
in my presence—and that under his breath. i wonder
if i’m doing something wrong, if it’s my fault it happened
only that one time. i may need to make them more
uncomfortable with my skin or centeredness,
my uppity angry Black man way of calling spades,
pots and kettles exactly what they are.”
I love that Henry bites back in “an imminent nonet” to a predominantly white school board in contrast from “the surprising thing”:
“…. ‘that’s doctor
“uppity nigger” to you,
and don’t mumble into
Another way he bites back is in my absolute favorite poem of the entire collection, “re: your aryan princess in my class,” a letter to parents who try to defend the poor behavior of their student— particularly in complaining about classwork for The House on Mango Street. The type of harm students like this “aryan princess” can cause to marginalized students can be draining to deal with, especially in the ongoing debate about safe spaces in schools, and particularly in the South. And what a beautiful and visceral rant to put on paper as a way to take care of himself: “i’m sorry to report/the white supremacy you have patiently sown,/watered and sunned, has fallen on fallow soil.”
I am not a teacher, but I am someone who works regularly with youth, and I have loved ones who are teachers. This book is not meant for white people to gain. This certainly isn’t to say that white people shouldn’t read for them; it’s to say that this book is a testimony for Black people who continuously carry emotional labor and secondary trauma in their work. It is for Black people who love their jobs for the sake of the people they are serving, and who also crave a space to constructively criticize the job they love. Finally, it is, obviously, for Black teachers simply and not so simply working their asses off for their students harder than any other teachers out there.
Order this book to see what I mean.
Maya Williams (she/they) is a Black and Mixed Race writer currently residing in Portland, ME. Maya has published poems in glitterMOB, The Portland Press Herald, Black Table Arts, Occulum, and more. She has also published essays and poetry book reviews in The Tempest, Black Girl Nerds, The Floor Mag, and more. They are a Best of the Net Nominee and a finalist in Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance’s chapbook contest in 2019. Maya will be starting Randolph College’s low residency MFA virtually in mid-June 2020.