226. Flag Salute: Esther Poper

Esther Popel Shaw

My wife was preparing her unit on the Harlem Renaissance and I came up short–I could only name about three artists involved.  Now, I can’t name that many writers from most literary movements, but when I called up Wikipedia I was at a loss to even recognize names beyond Hughes or Hurston (so, really, two names).

I am sure I’m not alone.

Tonight, I spent a bit of time looking up the bios and poems of a few.  Ms. Poper stood out because she self published a chapbook of poems as a teen titled, “Thoughtless Thinks by a Thinkless Thoughter”.  Great title.  I stuck with her because she is blunt.  Go to this link and check out “Blasphemy–American Style“, where i also got “Flag Salute.”

Why?  Although “Flag Salute” is more “appropriate” than “Blashphemy–American Style” I’m not sure that it is.  I’d probably get fewer parents asking questions with the former, but I get no letters doing a bit of Whitman.  What, then, is the point of poems?  Of art?  How do you honor someone like Poper if not to read and discuss her work in class.

I am a white teacher teaching, mostly, white kids.  What business is it of mine to bring the “n-word” into the classroom with as much force and meaning as Poper gives it?  Am I using it right?  Can I?  I’m not sure.  But I also not using it–of not giving Poper her voice seems wrong, too.  So, do I not use “Blashpehmy–American Style” and stick with “Flag Salute”?  Perhaps just stick to Hughes’ “America” or “A Dream Deferred”?  Perhaps stick to the Fireside Poets?

So many worms in that can.

Fun fact: Poper was a teacher for most of her life.  That made me think, perhaps, that she understood that these poems are difficult to hear, but essential.

My suggestion is to discuss with students what is uncomfortable for them to talk about?  What are the taboos.  Then, talk about why society sets those in place.  For some topics, there is a good reason.  Sometimes its the words used, or the argument made, but the topic is one worth exploring more.  Create a list.  Then, next steps.

Flag Salute
Esther Poper

“I pledge allegiance to the flag”–
“They dragged him naked
“Through the muddy streets,
“A feeble-minded black boy!
“And the charge? Supposed assault
“Upon an aged woman!
“”Of the United States of America”–
“One mile they dragged him
“Like a sack of meal,
“A rope around his neck,
“A bloody ear
“Left dangling by the patriotic hand
“Of Nordic youth! (A boy of seventeen!)
“”And to the Republic for which it stands”–
“And then they hanged his body to a tree,
“Below the window of the county judge
“Whose pleadings for that battered human flesh
“Were stifled by the brutish, raucous howls
“Of men, and boys, and women with their babes,
“Brought out to see the bloody spectacle
“Of murder in the style of ’33!
” (Three thousand strong, they were!)
“One Nation, Indivisible”–
To make the tale complete
They built a fire–
What matters that the stuff they burned
Was flesh–and bone–and hair–
And reeking gasoline!
“With Liberty–and Justice”–
They cut the rope in bits
And passed them out,
For souvenirs, among the men and boys!
The teeth no doubt, on golden chains
Will hang
About the favored necks of sweethearts, wives,
And daughters, mothers, sisters, babies, too!
“For ALL!”


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