Matthew Lippman’s “Shut Up and Be Black” is the first essay in section two of the anthology and opens with questions across race and teaching, and the ways we affect each other through poetry.
How the hell am I supposed to teach Black Literature to high school students? I’m a white dude. Secular Jew from New York City, circa 1965. What do I know about Etheridge Knight, Patricia Smith, Ralph Ellison? Couple of poets. All poets, really.
I know this: I love their language. That’s the collision. Language love slamming up against experience. I barely know what it means to be a White, dude Jew from New York City, circa 1965, so how can I go into a classroom, tack up Knight’s “The Idea of Ancestry” or Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead” and even sound like I know what I’m talking about? I can’t. That’s my problem. I gotta try, right? I guess so.
I brought Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man into the curriculum, 11th grade English, at a small independent school outside of Boston proper, in 2011. What I know: I am not Black. What I know: Invisible Man has been my favorite novel since I first read it in college. Also, I know this: I am a Jew. The space between myself and the Black Man is huge.