E Pluribus Unum

Posted February 21st, 2011 by Albert DeCiccio Ph.D., Provost, Southern Vermont College

Teachers are amazing people, who must negotiate any number of difficult challenges daily—all in an attempt to educate our citizenry for a better democracy.  Yet, as wonderful as teachers are, they may not really understand when their pedagogical stances are at least off-putting and possibly racist. Teachers in America ought to think about what this clause means:  e pluribus unum.

After reviewing Hughes’s poem—a piece which comes from Hughes’ heart and lived experience, a powerful text—we see that Hughes displays pride in his color and hurt at the way his race has been treated.  In so doing, in the first half of the poem, he upbraids the teacher who sees people of color, like Hughes, as having similar experiences as those who are white.  Here, Hughes is taking his teacher to task for asking him to write:

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 the only colored student in my class.

Of course, where there is critique, there is always a hopeful program.  In the second half of the poem, Hughes does concede that, despite the obvious color differences, there are similarities in all Americans—indeed in all human beings:

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.
That's American.
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.

Out of many, one—a difficult concept, to be sure.  Perhaps it is that concept that our country’s teachers should model in their classrooms.  Shouldn’t classrooms be safe places where all can be themselves, engage others freely, and still be American, too.  Confronting racism in the classroom, even as a result of seemingly innocuous assignments, like that of Hughes’s English B professor, is the first step toward transcending race in the classroom.  Taking that first step will make possible the abundant gifts a multicultural and diverse group of learners brings to that enriched community.


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