Recently, our friend Kwame Alexander visited our LitWorld Girls Club in Accra, Ghana. We are so pleased to share his beautiful entry about his experience there. Read on below:
On Ghana, Poetry, and the LitWorld Ghana Girls Club
A woman on the tour tells me I should let her take my picture in front of The Door of No Return. Really? I think. She says I should have proof that I was here. I have read books on slavery, taught countless students about it, listened to my parents and grandparents talk about it. But before today, I could only articulate it. That is not the case anymore. If I am in need of proof that I was here today at Cape Coast Slave Castle—the complex, sinister, and hearthating holding place for Africans captured for the Transatlantic Slave Trade—then, I need look no further than the stream of tears that began in the dungeon below the slave traders church, and will continue to run long after I leave this hell. My soul looks back and is unprepared to handle this level of ache. There is no way you don’t come back from this, whole. Well, maybe there is one way…
Beautiful are the stars
Beautiful are the eyes of my people
My suitcase is stuffed with books—poetry and picture books—that have traveled across the Atlantic with me. It is heavy even for me, yet the brown and blue unformed black girl takes it from me. She aims to carry it up the stairs to the classroom where her girls club is meeting. Since, I’ve been here, this is the kind of kindness I have encountered. It is something we can learn from in the states. She doesn’t seem to care that it weighs 60 pounds. She is all smiles. The classroom is filled with beautiful tum tum faces, members of the LitWorld Ghana Girls Club. Emefa, their coordinator, introduces me, and their applause is louder than the drumming that woke me up earlier in the morning.
As I do in all my school visits in the states, I share a poem immediately. One called “Ebony Images.” I’ve done this poem thousands of times, but never have I gotten interrupted before I have finished with a standing ovation, laughter, and thunderous cheers. I suppose they liked it. Of course, the boys want to know what all the excitement is over, and so they bum rush the room. Instead of ten girls, we now have more than 25 boys and girls, all gathered around to hear and write poetry. Together. I move on to talk about what makes a poem good, and how poetry can be a bridge to an appreciation and eventual mastery of language and literature.
They know what a simile is, but are unsure of a metaphor. I write snow on the board, and ask them to describe it, and even though they’ve never seen it, they know it is white and cold. I tell them that in some places in America the snow can come up to your neck. They laugh. I tell them that the snow in America can be as cold as the heat in Ghana. I then ask them to compare the snow to something completely different. They scream out things like cotton, teeth, socks, clouds.
And then I read a poem by Jackie Early.
I got up this morning
Feeling good and black
Thinking black thoughts
Did black things
Played all my black records
and minded my own black business.
Put on my best black clothes
Walked out my black do’
and Lord have mercy
The boy who has been filming (with my iPhone) screams out, “You talking about white people?” And that is how we learn about metaphors.
When they appear to be getting a little restless—as all 12 and 13 year olds will—I speak in Twi, or the few words I’ve learned during the week: Baako (one), Abien (two), etc. Wo ho yefe, I say to one little girl, and the students clap again. The girl says Medasi, trying not to blush at being called beautiful, and failing.
The girls know “Phenomenal Woman,” by Maya Angelou, which they have read and discussed in their weekly Girls Clubs meetings with the beautiful Emefa. When I ask the boys to name a famous African American, someone yells out “Lil’ Wayne,” and we all laugh.
Phenomenal Woman Emefa, the Girls LitClub Facilitator in Ghana
An hour has gone by so fast. Finally, I must transition to actually teaching the children something. Something significant. Something that they will all leave here with. I must teach them a poem. And, while there are many poets to teach in this circumstance (e.g. Angelou's Still I Rise or Nikki Giovanni's Nikki Rosa or even Haki Madhubuti’s We Walk The Way of the New World-any of these would suffice), there is really only one poem to teach, only one that speaks to this very moment: My People.
And so, with fifteen minutes left, we talk about the Black Bard, Mr. Langston Hughes. I tell them where he was born (Kansas), where he lived (Harlem), where he travelled (Russia, Africa). And, then I write the following line on the chalkboard—the same kind we used to have in first grade; the one that has been replaced by smart boards:
Beautiful is the night
Beautiful are the _____ of my people
I leave one word blank and ask them to fill it in. As if they’ve read this poem before—later I would find out that Emefa has taught them this poem as well. She’s a dynamo—several girls and a few boys scream out “faces.” Leave it to the beautiful faces of these students to get the blues off me. Alas, I am renewed by the kindness, hope, and potential of each one these beautiful, brilliant souls.
Thank you Pam for this opportunity to come back. Whole.
Kwame Alexander is a poet, teacher, and children's author. He is also the Founding Director of Book-in-a-Day (BID), a program that teaches and empowers teenagers to write and publish their own books.