10 History and Poetry – Educational Seminar

Authors: Shameka Cunningham, McKinley E. Melton, Adrienne Danyelle Oliver, Carmin Wong

Target Group: for Readers and Writers of All Ages


Community center (with computer lab) or library

  • Could align with Black History Month programming
  • Another option: community college non-credit, open to the public course

Learning Goals

  • Invite participants to consider how you can learn about history through poetry and learn about the importance of historical context in shaping your understanding of poetry
  • Develop/strengthen skills in information literacy (research skills and resource assessment)
  • Develop/strengthen understanding of poetic allusion (in relation to memory, myth, and history)

Background Readings (for facilitator, or provided to participants if possible)

  • Jon Woodson – “Consciousness, Myth, and Transcendence: Symbolic Action in Three Poems on the Slave Trade” (The Furious Flowering 1999, pp. 154-168)
  • Eugenia Collier – “Message to the Generations: The Mythic Hero in Sterling Brown’s Poetry” (Furious Flowering 1999, pp. 25-37)
  • Frank X Walker – “Memory, Research, Imagination, and the Mining of Historical Poetry” (Furious Flower 2019, pp. 406-409)

Potential Videos

Poems for the Workshop

  • Rita Dove – “Claudette Colvin Goes to Work;” “Rosa;” and “The Enactment” (Furious Flower 2004, pp. 193-196)

Seminar Structure

Open with a five-minute brainstorm in response to the following writing prompts:

  • Who are the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement?
  • How did you come to learn about these heroes?

Shift into a discussion about the Civil Rights Movement as a widely discussed and, unfortunately, widely misunderstood moment in our history.

  • What shapes historical understanding?
  • Where do we mostly get our information?

Shift to discussion of poetry:

  • Have we ever considered using poetry as a useful source to better understand this historical moment? And the people within this moment?
  • What are the strengths of poetry in this regard? What are its limitations?
  • How can we look at poetry alongside other resources to shape a fuller understanding?


  • How many have heard of Rosa Parks? How many have heard of Claudette Colvin?
  • Let’s look at Rita Dove’s “Claudette Colvin Goes to Work;” “Rosa;” and “The Enactment.”
  • Divide students into small groups; consider each poem individually
  • Some potential questions:
    • What does Rita Dove accomplish by providing the focus on these women in this way?
    • How does Dove’s poetry recreate an understanding of this “moment?”
    • What does the poetry “teach” us? What do we know now that we didn’t know before? How does that knowledge shape our understanding of this historical event?
    • What allusions do we need to look up? Lead into a discussion of which sources provide useful information, and how we evaluate sources.
    • How do we look at “poetry” and “history” as different methods of relaying a narrative? How do these methods overlap? What does it mean to consider them together?

Following small group discussion, bring everyone together to talk about the three poems in conversation with one another:

  • What is gained by considering these poems as a “trio,” instead of individually?
  • What picture comes into focus as a result?
  • What other types of sources would be useful in framing these poems?

Exercise: guide students through the creation of a “Rosa Parks” reading list:

  • Review types of sources to be included
  • Consider how poetry coexists with other types of sources (secondary scholarship, primary journalism, etc.)
    • For junior students: provide a brief discussion about the “hows” and “whys” of their reading list
    • For more advanced students or adult learners (in more formal learning environments): create an annotated bibliography


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The Furious Flower Syllabus Project: Opening the World of Black Poetry Copyright © 2024 by Anastacia-Reneé; allia abdullah-matta; Ariana Benson; Mary Beth Cancienne; Teri Ellen Cross Davis; Shameka Cunningham; Hayes Davis; Tyree Daye; Angel C. Dye; Brian Hannon; T.J. Hendrix; DaMaris B. Hill; Meta DuEwa Jones; Shauna M. Morgan; Adrienne Danyelle Oliver; Leona Sevick; James Smethurst; Dana A. Williams; L. Lamar Wilson; Carmin Wong; Dave Wooley; and Joanne V. Gabbin (preface) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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