Teaching While Black, by Matthew E. Henry
Review by Risa Denenberg
We teachers of color can feel so torn, so defeated, so at a loss to reach some of our children and parents that we sometimes forget why we decided to teach in the first place […].
Teaching While Black: A New Voice on Race and Education in New York City —Pamela Lewis
After reading Matthew E. Henry’s poetry chapbook, Teaching While Black, I came across a number of articles and essays by Black educators regarding the experiences, longings, and burdens they confront working in public education in America. The problems are vast, exacerbated by poverty, racism and cultural ignorance; by undervaluing and underpaying educators; by underfunding public schools and diverting educational dollars to private schools; by abandoning arts education; and by being forced to “teach to the test” rather than being freed to teach students how to think and problem-solve for themselves. In the quote above by Pamela Lewis, she answers the question of “why we decided to teach” with these words,
[ . . . ] to uplift the people of our communities, to make students who feel invisible feel visible again, and to give them the confidence they need in order to want to achieve.
While Lewis is advocating on behalf of children of color in classrooms in New York City, she also speaks for teachers’ highest aspirations for all students in classrooms everywhere.
Henry is an educator with such aspirations, who also feels deeply the frustrations incumbent upon being a Black teacher working in schools with a majority of white educators and students. God bless him for that, and even more so, for the frank, humorous, and compassionate poems in his memorable chapbook, Teaching While Black.
The preface poem, “my third grade teacher,” places the daily experience of a Black child front and center. This is where invisibility begins, Henry tells us, as a teacher “explained skin” to him by stating that his face “lacked / the ability to bruise or blush.”
Growing from child to teacher in the classroom, Henry wonders how it is possible that he has “only been called “nigger” once by a student—at least / in my presence—and that under his breath.” He wonders facetiously “if I’m doing something wrong” if “I may need to make them more / uncomfortable with my skin.” The poem ends with this musing:
so it was surprising, struck me as odd,
that it only happened when I told a while boy to put his phone away—
the straw that broke his fragile back. deferred his dreams.
The second section of the book is mainly devoted to a dissection of sexism by a compassionate and knowing witness of the pervasive sexual abuse experienced by girls. Overheard in the classroom, someone says: “I don’t understand why a woman would wait / 36 years to say something.”
In “little red,” Henry portrays how futile are parents’ warnings, and simultaneously, how this works to stifle girls’ curiosity without protecting them. We can only nod and sigh, as “little red,”
rides through her hood
her mama’s words in mind:
keep to familiar, well-lit roads
and don’t talk to strangers,
wolves wear any disguise that fits—
a badge, a stiff white collar.
While teaching Roethke’s “Waltz” to his class, exploring the tension between two possible views of the drunk papa, Henry notices a student who is silent in the classroom. He reports,
Katherine’s stillness split my heart.
Later she explained her stepfather’s demand
of a demon’s dowry: how she nightly endured
his endless gropes and gasps, in a silence
which left her sister untouched.
The poems in Teaching While Black are brim-full of compassion for students’ palpable tragedies, despite their often ignorant and arrogant ways. One girl recounts how she mops up after her drunk mama in “happy birthday for Ashley,” while another girl’s “cotton sleeves conceal hash marks of silence” in “show, don’t tell.” A boy,
his father’s body
just where the old man left it
note pinned to the coat
hung limp around his shoulders,
final spasms timed
for an after school arrival
In the final section, there are more harrowing narratives including the time “the school resource officer […] almost shot me in my class.” The final poem in the chapbook, resets the clock from teacher back to childhood, in “when asked what I learned in in elementary school being bussed from Mattapan to Wellesley.” Among the lessons learned, Henry recounts:
what they think is appropriate: to treat Black hair
like a pregnant woman’s belly,
how to be a chameleon: to code-switch;
to bite my tongue instead of theirs;
to make excuses for them
to endure the cultural appropriation of slang.
I applaud Henry’s humanity, his decision and dedication to teaching; and his ability to write about these experiences so forcefully and with so much grace.
TEACHING WHILE BLACK
Matthew E. Henry
Mainstreet Rag Publishing Company, 2020
Matthew E. Henry (MEH) is a multiple Pushcart and Best of the Net nominated poet and short story writer. His works have appeared in various publications including The Anglican Theological Review, Kweli Journal, Poetry East, The Radical Teacher, Rhino, Spillway, and 3Elements Literary Review. MEH received his MFA from Seattle Pacific University yet continued to spend money he didn’t have completing an MA in theology and a PhD in education. An educator who has taught at the high school, college, and graduate levels, he will most likely die in a classroom. This is his first collection of poetry.