Black is Beautiful / by Michelle Nicola

I taught parts of Kara Hinderlie’s Black is Beautiful lesson in Coyolillo, and again in two towns outside of Pinotepa Nacional, Oaxaca: the town of José María Morelos and the town of Lagunillas.

It took a lot of preparation to get all of the materials I needed to teach this lesson, and I am so grateful to two of the best librarians in the world, my friends Ross Betzer and Emily-Jane Dawson. Thanks to their efforts, I was able to use a YouTube video of students in Seattle reading Ann McGovern’s book, Black is Beautiful, and borrow a digital copy of My People, Langston Hughes’ poem coupled with stellar photography. 

Both books are in English, and I knew students would need my help understanding the words, so I typed up a translation of each and had copies on hand, just in case. What I really wanted students to focus on were the images, so if they didn’t get all the words, I was ok with that.  

To start the lesson, I asked students to think of all the things they could think of when they thought about the color black. As students called out answers, another student wrote the answers on the board. In Coyolillo the list was primarily objects- clothes, phones, pens, until at one point Jesús called out, “People!” and the class laughed. “Jesús is right,” I said, “people can be Black too.” In both Morelos and Lagunillas, students readily shared that people are Black, and there was no laughter in the comment.

We looked at the list. What did they notice? Were these things beautiful? 

In Coyolillo and Morelos, I used my laptop and a projector to show McGovern’s book. As we looked at each image, I asked students, “What do you notice? What colors do you see? Are there fancy things or everyday things in the photos?” 

“Why did Señora McGovern write this book?”

”Because she likes the color black?” came a response.  

“It’s possible. Any other ideas? What is she trying to get us to think about?” 

”That Black is beautiful?”  

“Great, yes, but why is that an important message?” 

”Maybe some people don’t think it’s beautiful?” came a tentative reply. 

Next, I introduced them to Langston Hughes. I told them about how at one point in time, in lots of places in the States, Black people and white people couldn’t eat in the same restaurants, couldn’t use the same bathrooms, couldn’t marry each other. As I spoke, I noticed students’ eyes growing wide and the room growing quiet. 

“The thing about oppression,” I said, “is that it doesn’t fit with who we are. We were born to be free. And when we are not free, we will fight until we get back to our natural state of freedom.” I talked about the civil rights era, and how everyone used their talents to fight for freedom. Langston Hughes’ talent was his poetry. He wanted everyone to see his people as beautiful. 

Before we read My People, I asked students if they knew what a metaphor was. Most didn’t, so I gave them an example. I then asked them to turn to their partner and try giving their partner an example. 

We read My People the first time for meaning. I helped students translate words they couldn’t get collectively. The second time, I asked them to look at the images. Why that image? What does it say? The third time, we found the metaphor.  

Next, we tried to write a few verses as a class about the town where the students lived. Breaking down how to teach metaphor has always been hard for me, but by the time I taught the lesson in Langunillas, I had something that worked. I ask students, “How would you describe the people in your town?” Then, we wrote all the adjectives they shouted out up on the board. From there, I said, “OK, so people in your town are happy. What plants, animals, objects represent happy?” Students made a list, and from there we used Hughes’ poem as a sentence frame to write our own verses. With more time, I would have them break out of the sentence frame and into their own creativity, but I used the time and the resources I had on hand.

The final piece of Hinderlie’s lesson that I taught had to do with hair. In Hinderlie’s lesson, she uses the book Hair Dance by Dinah Johnson; for my lesson I thought of Sandra Cisneros’ book The House on Mango Street. There’s a chapter in the book where the main character Esperanza describes each person in her family based on their hair. A quick Google search provided me with a pdf of the Spanish version. 

I asked a few students to read the text out loud. Then, I drew 5 smiling, bald faces on the board. I invited students to come up as artists and draw each family member as I read each one. So much laughter! I asked, “What do we know about each person’s personality, just based on a description of their hair? Does Esperanza love her mother? How do you know?” 

Next, students drew their own families. I asked them to write words that described the hair for each member. What did it look like? What did it smell like? How could their hair be a metaphor for their personality?

Students worked together on their family portraits. The energy in the room was jovial, despite this being my last lesson with them. I asked students to share their portraits with a small group, and then, just like that, my time was finished teaching in Coyolillo. We didn’t get to the final part of Hinderlie’s lesson, in which students choose a Black historical figure to write about. And it’s really, really hard to know the impact this lesson had on students. Did it change their perspective? Did it reinforce a sense of pride they already possessed? Did it plant a seed for future insight?  

My next steps with this lesson will be to adapt it for students who are learning Spanish. I will be posting on that at some point! 

My homebase was Xalapa, in the state of Veracruz. I taught in Coyolillo 2-3 times per week.

My homebase was Xalapa, in the state of Veracruz. I taught in Coyolillo 2-3 times per week.

I visited two towns in Oaxaca (Lagunillas and Morelos) toward the end of my Fulbright where I taught the Black is Beautiful lesson.

I visited two towns in Oaxaca (Lagunillas and Morelos) toward the end of my Fulbright where I taught the Black is Beautiful lesson.

Here are a few of the “Pelos” family portraits by the students in Coyolillo.