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Creative Voices: African American Poetry in WWII

During WWII African American writers and poets expressed their patriotism and willingness to serve their country as well as their frustration and bitterness about the discriminatory treatment their country often gave them. Using pens as their weapons, these creative men and women left a primary record of their innermost thoughts and feeling, often echoing the mindset of the larger African American community.

By reading and analyzing two poems written by African American women during WWII, students will gain an understanding of the attitudes and outlooks of African Americans toward racial discrimination during the war.

Grade Level: 7-12

History Thinking Standard 2—the student appreciates historical perspectives through the eyes of those who were there, as revealed through their literature. Historical Thinking Standard 5—the student identifies issues and problems in the past and analyzes the interests, values, perspectives, and points of view of those involved in the situation.

Content Era 8 (1929-1945) Standard 3C—the student evaluates how minorities organized to gain access to wartime jobs and how they confronted discrimination.

Time Requirement: One class period

Download a printable pdf version of this lesson plan

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1. Present a brief lesson on the African American experience during WWII. The Fact Sheet on African Americans in WWII may be helpful. Students can read the Fact Sheet aloud or it can be passed out for them to read on their own.

2. Pass out copies of the two poems. Have students read the poems to themselves and then choose a student to read them aloud to the class.

3. Pass out worksheet questions for students to complete. Tell students to include specific words or phrases from each poem to justify their answers. Remind them that some questions have no right or wrong answers—only their informed opinions.

4. Hold a class discussion about the poems using these questions and the students’ answers.

5. Have each student write his or her own poem about the African American experience during WWII.

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Components for assessment include the worksheet, class discussion, and poem.

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Have each student write a poem about a current social issue that concerns him or her. This poem can be about youth violence, drug use, the environment, prejudice, local issues, etc. Students may read their poems to the class.

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African American Poetry in WWII

Read these two poems written by African American women and published in The Crisis, an African American periodical popular during World War II. Answer the questions that follow.

Civil Service

My desk sits facing yours across the floor,
Yet your fair head is stiffly held aloof
From my own darker one, though ‘neath our roof
With one accord we do a job. For war
Has linked us as no pleading could before.
Yet, seemingly, you wait for further proof
That we are spun the same…the warp and woof
Of new, strong fabric, draped at Freedom’s door…
For you are still reluctant to obey
The impulse that would bring you to my side;
You send your memos on a metal tray,
And coldly killed each overture I’ve tried.
Why hope to rid charred continents of gloom
‘Till we have learned to smile across a room?

--Constance C. Nichols, The Crisis, April 1945.

Only in America

ONLY, IN AMERICA— Can a child
Sit and Dream:
Golden Dreams.
that are aggrandized;
And then awake one morning,
To find them

Can a person
start from scratch;
Scummy Scratch,
Scrawny Scratch,
Barrenly imbued—
And shed Scratch like a motley’d shell;

Can a mother
tell her Son
You’ll be the President!
Leader of the Mass!
And before Age tints with silver tones,
This thing
has come to pass.

Can a Man
boldly say;
He doesn’t like the government
Or the men who run the state:
Here the laws are FOR THE PEOPLE:
This does not alternate.

Is a whole Nation Free;
Free to vote,
To enterprise,
With impartiality;
And Opportunity lends to ALL
A Free and Equal hand…
Did I say ALL?
Well, that is ALL except the Negro Man.

--Rhoza A. Walker, The Crisis, February 1945.

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Questions to Discuss

Directions: After reading the two poems, answer the following questions. If you use quotes, be sure to put quotation marks around them.

1. In Civil Service, what does the speaker mean when she says, “With one accord we do our job”?

2. And what does she mean when she says, “For war has linked us as no pleading could before”? Who was doing the earlier pleading?

3. Describe in your own words the scene the poet writes about.

4. How does the poet feel about her workmate?

5. What lesson does the poet want the reader to think about at the end of the poem?

6. What are some of the freedoms and opportunities the speaker writes about in Only in America?

7. Does the poet have a positive or negative view of the United States?

8. Why does the poet wait until the very end to make her point about racial discrimination?

9. List some of the emotions you hear expressed in these two poems (ex. frustration).

10. As a political statement, how effective do you think these poems and other writings like them were during WWII?

11. What other types of political statements are available to people in the United States? Are some more effective than others? Why?

12. Which poem do you like better, and why?

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Download a printable pdf version of this lesson plan

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