Finding Identity & Voice Through History and Art

Debra Finger
Who are you? Who are we? Who am I? In Jeff Addis’s interdisciplinary Grade 11 Honors American Studies History course, students grapple with these questions as they look at, notice, observe, and study five different themes throughout the school year. Then using history, visuals, and art as their vehicle, they learn about the construction of American identity, figuring out who they are and finding their voice along the way.

One such way of doing this is by using visual culture and art to work on writing and voice. For the recent Emancipation Poetry Project, Mr. Addis was inspired by a video from the Metropolitan Museum of Art about Wendy Walters, an American poet who was talking about her process of creating her poem, “A Poet’s Response to Carpeaux’s Why Born Enslaved!”. In this work, Walters takes on the perspective of a Black woman in the statue, “Why Born Enslaved,” that is being looked at by a group of white people in a museum. Addis wanted to take a similar approach to a piece of writing using a problematic statue, “The Emancipation Memorial,” that would then give voice to the person being memorialized, and in turn give the students a chance to find and use their voice. 

First, students read Frederick Douglass’ speech that partially praises and is also critical of Lincoln’s slow approach to civil rights. Then, as part of the Greater Reconstruction approach, which attempted to promote and center Black agency in the face of numerous challenges, they turned to parts of  the W.E.B. DuBois book, The Souls of Black Folk, as DuBois’s writing is both more poetic, and because Mr. Addis wanted to focus on a Black leader who confronted the injustices he saw. 

From there, students were asked to highlight phrases and words they wanted to incorporate into their poems. Mr. Addis provided examples including one he wrote, so that students would have a clear idea where they were to go with their writing.

Throughout the course, Mr. Addis tries to make history real for students, helping them find where their identity and lived experiences overlap with the things they are learning. While this was a minor assignment, it emphasized positive confrontation, those who fought back against injustice, and provided students another opportunity to find and form identity while promoting their voice in written form.

Here are a sampling of student voices (green text represents words and phrases from :
What is this? 
Is this freedom? 
A familiar stranger it may well be.
My bondage yet broken 
  still holds fast to my mind, My soul!
It is split. Two parts, interlinked
Obscuring one of my selves with a veil
Under the surface of my own skin, it hides   
   stroking the cords of my thoughts.
Unseen, this gaze, judges oneself in the eyes of  
Keeping him in a little cell, cells.
—by Joshua Pryor

We struggled to reach our place.
Climbing to our destination inch by inch,
where many a foot or two had slipped.
Our tainted sight presents a future ever dark,
Canaan lies always dim and far away.

Slowly we learned,
There may be no Canaan,
No resting-place.
We stopped our journey,
Created empty time
For reflection and self-examination.
We realized what we saw, how we saw.
 —by Matteo Malabuyo

Was it God who brought our liberty
Or was it the long suffering, 
the tireless faith in the seemingly impossible.
My pain, my scars, 
  did they disappear with my chains? 
Did the newly implored freedom take away the history?
 —by Kayla Rosenbaum

Why does the white man break me into two?
I am not two warring ideals in one dark body 
I will not bleach my soul in a flood of white Americanism
I am curled beneath you yet I wish to spread my Negro blood’s message through your world.
It is simply impossible for me to  
be both a Negro and an American
 —by Ananda Leahy
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.