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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Reader Response: Keith Gilyard and Mourning Dove Session Author and Literary Works: Keith Gilyard

Keith Gilyard

Author Bio

Keith Gilyard was born in 1952 in New York and is currently a professor of English at Penn State University. Gilyard has written and lectured extensively on language and literacy for over 30 years. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including Voices of the Self, for which he received an American Book Award in 1992.

Gilyard is especially interested in language education for African Americans and other people of color. In his poetry and the books of essays he has edited, and particularly in his work Voices of the Self, he reflects on the rhetoric of race and on his personal history. Having grown up “a Native Black English speaker in an urban public school environment” who acquired not only strong Standard English language skills, but the “socio-linguistic competence” to be successful in a variety of settings, Gilyard explores the question of the place of culture, race, and language in the classroom.

Voices of the Self alternates chapters about Gilyard’s own life and education with chapters examining scholarship on language acquisition and linguistic development. One of the key ideas underlying both sections is Gilyard’s belief that the language and experiences of children must have a legitimate place in the classroom. He writes: “A pedagogy is successful only if it makes knowledge or skills achievable while at the same time allowing students to maintain their own sense of identity.” As his own story illustrates, young African American boys can feel that there is no way to truly be themselves and also succeed in school. Gilyard writes that “a failure to learn Standard English is more accurately termed an act of resistance: Black students affirming, through Black English, their sense of self in the face of a school system and society that deny the same.”

Gilyard cites several writers and books that influenced him and echoed some of his own experiences and beliefs. Richard Wright’s Black Boy is, for him, as for many male African American writers of his generation, “always at the top of the list.” Other memoirs that were particularly resonant include Richard Rodriquez’s Hunger of Memory and John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers. The work of Jonathan Kozol and Herbert Kohl in teaching groups of inner-city children showed him ways to honor students’ out-of-school language and experiences. And as a poet, Gilyard remembers Haki Madhubuti’s We Walk the Way of the World as the “single most influential volume of poetry I read as a teenager.” As a mature poet, he has been influenced deeply by Nikki Giovanni, Quincy Troupe, Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, and Aimé Césaire.

"Poemographies" by Keith Gilyard: Synopsis

Described by Nikky Finney as “the story of what it is to live Black and refuse all painkillers,” Poemographies is Gilyard’s second volume of poems. Beginning with his 24-part work “anyone heard from manuel?” in which he remembers a New York City youth almost derailed by drugs and petty crime, Gilyard’s poems are nostalgic “word pictures” of home, family, and the complications of being African American in America. Though his subjects range from New Zealand and Amadou Diallo to his grandmother’s death and his lifelong attachment to fellow poet Lorenzo Thomas, Gilyard evokes the music and speech of an urban environment and sensibility in the details and rhythm of each. In “the hatmaker,” for instance, the poem he read for the students in teacher Alfredo Lujan’s class, he describes his mother: “swept North / brown Georgia girl / fingers molding material / into hats to sit atop / empty heads of ladies who could never / have her grace.” In this poem, his mother spends her youth making hats in “this cold metal big puzzle town” of New York City, as the machine-like line “hats since 1947” rhythmically repeats over and over.

Gilyard says he never responded well to formal writing instruction in poetry himself, but found his voice in “the engagement” of being in tune with “certain musicalities, speech, rhythm, sounds around me.” To give Lujan’s students a sense of how he works, he took them outside to observe the world around them. As he explains it, he wanted to show them how to “take advantage, open up the senses … and really pay attention to the surrounding environment. And then get it down sort of as a reporter.”

Before the students met Gilyard, Lujan invited them to discuss what the title Poemographies might mean. They speculated that it might connect to everything from autobiography to photography to geography. Gilyard points out that what they were doing was classic reader response, and he tells the students that hearing the constructions they put on the text was “vital and vibrant and … more important to me than writing sitting in a tower somewhere.” He reminds them, “It’s not really a poem until it’s evoked in some sense.” And though New Mexico is a very different place than New York City, Lujan and his class connect easily with the poems. Gilyard reflects that the poet who is able to convey the particular in resonant detail becomes universal. Poets who can do that, he says, show students “the power of the word to transcend and connect.”

Keith Gilyard Audio Clip

How does a cultural background play into poetry? It informs it. I can’t be anything other than what I am. I came from a certain time and place and culture — now, not to say you’re shaped by that totally, because then everybody [who] comes from the same background would be doing the same thing, and they would write the same poems — obviously they don’t. But it’s a big influence — being from New York, being African American, having parents from the South, being first-generation New Yorker. It’s like those questions — I saw questions back at the school on the wall like the Who am I, Where do I fit into the world question — you have all those arrows, the country and the state of New Mexico, then Santa Fe, the school, and so on, that’s true, you’re located in time and space relative to all that, and all that will have something to do with what you produce. But at the same time, you speak back out to the world. There’s something that you can say that no one else will say quite the same way. So the cultural background is a big part of it, but it’s not the whole thing. Because even as a member of any culture, you’re also an individual at the same time. That’s the tension in life. You’re part of culture, but you’re also an individual. So your poetry is going to reflect, to some extent, your cultural background, or it’s going to reflect some decision you have made about your cultural background, it’s going to reflect that, and it’s also going to reflect you as an individual.

Q & A with Keith Gilyard

Q & A with Keith Gilyard
What inspired you to write?
It’s hard to say because I’ve been working with these words and sort of playing with language as far back as I can remember. I’ve always enjoyed language play, and the rhythms of sounds and language. So there are different levels of inspiration. I’m inspired at some level that I can’t really recall fully, and then at another level — Why am I inspired to pursue it as a grown man? That just comes out of having a sense of thinking you can say something to the world. I think Carlos Fuentes once said that a novel means the world is not finished. So, in other words, we’ve heard from all these human precincts, in a sense, but we haven’t heard from you. That’s part of what the pen in your hand does: It says, “Okay, I’m going to weigh in on this human story, this whole collective human story.” So that’s part of what inspires me too. I’m inspired by that notion that, hey, you folks haven’t heard the whole human story because you haven’t heard my version. There are all different ways of putting a creative imprint on the world. It’s the sign, it’s the evidence you were here.

What writers have influenced you?
Influence is always a hard thing because you are sort of always constructing that story as you go along. Influences could be subliminal, and you can be influenced conceptually by someone and not necessarily stylistically. If you look at [my book] Voices of the Self, for example, one of the reviewers caught it: In the memoir sections of that book, he noted, “Richard Wright was sitting on this shoulder.” Because when I was stuck for technique, I was reading Black Boyand I said, “Okay, that’s how he got from here to here, and that’s how he moved the conversation into dialogue alone.” Black Boy was an entry text to so many African American men, in particular, who went on to become writers. So Richard Wright is always at the top of the list — his power in language and imagery. Even in his prose, the imagery is powerful.

Richard, and then the poets: all of the poets from the ’60s, what we call the Black Arts crowd. Haki Madhubuti, for sure. Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez — I couldn’t even name all the different poets. Langston Hughes, of course. And then, I think during my college years I discovered Quincy Troupe. Then it was Quincy who introduced me to Pablo Neruda, [who] was a big influence. The power of the imagery. And then Aimé Césaire is a big poet for me. [Césaire] also gave me a sense, of the mission, too, about poetry, “My freedom is the freedom of those freedoms which break down in the prison cell of despair” [from his poem “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal”]. I just always felt that, as a poet, in some sense I was not just representing myself, but I was trying to speak for an experience that was shared by others who don’t have the power of the word, who actually can’t say ideas and enter public discourse. Lots of others. But as I go back, Césaire, Neruda, and then Quincy Troupe and other Black Arts poets, and then Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. But also Yeats, even T.S. Eliot to some extent. Not necessarily the politics — [Eliot] tended a little bit toward the fascistic — but because in something like The Wasteland, you see that modernist experimentation with language.

What else has influenced your writing?
Music. Don’t forget the music. And Shakespeare too. I remember Redman [the rap artist] said at a conference on black poetry … he had two Bills who were a tremendous influence on him: Bill Shakespeare and Bill “Smokey” Robinson. I feel that way, too. So that’s part of the influence also. Definitely the music and the jazz, and the free jazz at that period. It wasn’t just poets or just writers, but it was also the musicians and other folks — the spoken word [artists], The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, and stuff they were doing. So a lot of stuff goes into the mix.

Why do you think students in New Mexico — from such a different environment — connected so easily with your experiences in urban New York City?
We talk about universality, in a sense, and some people think that by universality you mean sort of a bland articulation of some reality that everybody shares. And to me, you never say anything universal. I always say [one should] explore the particularity as well as you can, and then those sets of particularities will be the universal, you see. And that’s how you get the universality: by bringing different people into the club, so to speak, and exploring those experiences in depth.

Information About Key References

The Great Migration
The Great Migration refers to the historic mass movement of African Americans from the American South to the cities of the North (1910 – 1930). African Americans migrated in search of greater financial opportunity and to escape repressive Jim Crow laws. As Gilyard’s poems testify, many who migrated faced a different but no less oppressive racism in the North. Several of Gilyard’s poems explore his family history in relation to the Great Migration.

African American Popular Culture
Gilyard references and plays with images in contemporary and historic African American popular culture to reflect on society and human relations. For example, in “Memo to Shaft,” he immortalizes this “Blaxploitation” film hero played by Richard Roundtree and projects him into new scenarios. In other poems, he references popular African American music overtly and structurally.

Police Brutality
Gilyard’s work frequently references and describes racial profiling and police brutality. In “harry diallo,” Gilyard plays with the image of white supercops like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry to explore the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo by four white policemen in New York City; in doing so, Gilyard demonstrates how the power differential between the unarmed Diallo and a racist system led to such a killing.

Black Arts Movement
Often described as the aesthetic counterpart to the Black Power movement of the late 1960s, the Black Arts movement signaled a break from the traditional African American literature of protest and petition. Writers and other artists began to focus primarily on “social engagement,” attacking assimilationist views, promoting Black pride, and encouraging independent publishing. The Black Arts movement saw the birth of many literary institutions such as the Harlem Writers Guild, The New Lafayette Theatre, and the Umbra literary group. Writers and poets associated with the movement include Ishmael Reed , Amiri Baraka, and The Last Poets .

Suggestions for Applying Other Theories to "Poemographies"

Keith Gilyard’s language and musicality in Poemographies make it a perfect book to examine from many perspectives. In addition to the reader-response approach outlined in this program, teachers can have their students conduct an inquiry into the many historic, geographic, or popular culture references. For example, students might take the poem about Shaft and do an inquiry into the Blaxploitation film era. They can explore the films on their own at home and then read the poem to understand the characteristics Gilyard is highlighting about the character. They will also need to research some of the historic and contemporary events referenced in the poem in light of the film.

While such an intertextual reading is closely related to cultural studies, students can move into the cultural studies area more formally by exploring the many structural references to African American popular culture that slide in and out of the poetry. Students should be able to identify the references and then research them to understand how they contribute to the overall expression in the poetry.

Finally, a critical reading of Gilyard’s poetry can take students into an exploration of the shattered hopes of African Americans who migrated North in an effort to escape Jim Crow laws, only to find similar oppression. Students might build a Web site addressing false or skewed information in history texts about the era of the Great Migration.

Author and Literary Works

Works by the Author

Gilyard, Keith. American 40. New York: Marie Brown Associates, 1993.
American 40 is Gilyard’s first book of poetry.

—-. Let’s Flip the Script: An African American Discourse on Language, Literature, and Learning. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996.
This collection of 11 essays is Gilyard’s attempt to shift the discourse, or “flip the script,” on how language resonates politically in the classroom, particularly in English and writing instruction. Essays on the work of Lisa Delpit and on Hernstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve are included along with autobiographical reflections on the author’s career as a teacher and learner.

—. Poemographies. Camden, New Jersey: Whirlwind Press, 2001.

—-. Voices of the Self: A Study of Language Competence. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.
By alternating chapters of vivid stories from his own childhood and education with chapters that examine sociolinguistic research, Gilyard explores the language experience of African American children in public schools, and the tension between “Black English” and Standard English as it plays out in classrooms.

—- (ed). Spirit and Flame: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997.
With more than 200 pieces by new and established black voices, this anthology contains works on a wide range of African American experiences, from slavery to the Million Man March.


Works about the Author

Andrews, W. (ed), et al. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
This reference book is a source of information about black writers and their literature.

Dwyer D.J. “Let’s Flip the Script: An African American Discourse on Language, Literature, and Learning by Gilyard, K.” Modern Language Journal, 82:3 (Fall 1998): 421-422.
This article focuses on Keith Gilyard’s scholarship.

Reginald, Martin. “Current Thought in African-American Literary Criticism: An Introduction.” College English, 52:7 (November 1990): 727-731.
This article focuses on Keith Gilyard’s scholarship.

Soliday, Mary. “Translating Self and Difference Through Literacy Narratives.” College English , 56:5 (September 1994): 511-526.
This article focuses on Keith Gilyard’s scholarship.

Tinberg, H. “Race, Rhetoric, and Composition by Gilyard, K.” College English, 63:3 (January 2001): 353-360.
This article focuses on Keith Gilyard’s scholarship.

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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


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