Friday, February 29, 2008

Review: Miss Crandall's School

for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color. Poems by Elizabeth Alexander & Marilyn Nelson, Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Wordsong, 2007. In 1832 Prudence Crandall, a Quaker schoolteacher and head of The Canterbury Female Boarding School in Canterbury, Connecticut admitted her first Black student. The town's people, who had been very pleased with her running the school up until then, were scandalized. Parents of the white students pulled their daughters out and the school was threatened with closing. Miss Crandall chose to continue to teach African American girls. She recruited students through the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. In the introduction to the book we read
"In the 1830s Connecticut had the most homogeneous population of any state in the Union, mostly white people of British ancestry. Though most blacks were gradually freed from slavery after the American Revolution, the state did not abolish slavery until 1848. In 1830, of the eight hundred African American in Connecticut, twenty-three were still slaves."

Miss Crandall's Black students came from Philadelphia, New York City, Providence, Boston, and throughout Connecticut. Miss Crandall taught them reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, ancient and modern geography and history, natural and moral philosophy, chemistry, and astronomy. The town fought back by refusing to sell food to them, poisoning their well, throwing eggs and rocks at them, and finally smashing windows and burning the school. In 1834 Miss Crandall closed the school saying "I can no longer protect my students." The building is now a museum and a National Historic Landmark.

Elizabeth Alexander teaches African American literature and culture at Yale University. She lives in Connecticut and is the author of four books of poems, including American Sublime, which was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize and named Notable Book of the Year by the ALA. Marilyn Nelson, poet laureate of Connecticut from 2002-2006, is a three-time national Book Award finalist. Her book Carver: A Life in Poems won the Boston Glove-Horn Book Award, a Newbery Honor Award, and a Coretta Scott King Honor Award. She also lives in Connecticut. These two poets got together to study the life of Miss Crandall and her school. Together they have written this haunting and lovely collection of sonnets on the experiences of Miss Crandall and her students of color.

In the author's notes at the back of the book they say,
"The sonnet is a hardy and evolving form. The constraint of fourteen lines forces a poet to be economical but not sparse.The poem must shift its energy in some significant way in order to essentially turn on its light switch, but in contemporary times that "volta," or turn, can happen in new ways and places within the poem."

Several twentieth-century African American poets who wrote sonnets are mentioned, including Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Robert Hayden and Gwendolyn Brooks, as having used the form innovatively. I've got those names on my list of sonnet poets to study further.

I'd like to share with you two of my favorite sonnets from the book today. The book is divided into sections taking us through the two year period when Miss Crandall first enrolled Black girls as students, the time of reaction and harassment by the town's people, the the violent ending of the school. All the poems are passionate, evocative and powerful. These two especially grab me today:


by Elizabeth Alexander

It wasn't as if we knew nothing before.
After all, colored girls must know many
things in order to survive. Not only
could I sew buttons and hems, but I could
make a dress and pantaloons from scratch,
I could milk cows, churn butter, feed chickens,
clean their coops, wring their necks, pluck and cook them,
I cut wood, set fires, and boiled water
to wash the clothes and sheets, then wrung them dry.
And I could read the Bible. Evenings
before the fire, my family tired
from unending work and New England cold,
they'd close their eyes. My favorite was Song of Songs.
They most liked when I read, "In the beginning."

Fire from the Gods

by Marilyn Nelson

I didn't know how much I didn't know.
Like Brer Mosquito on Brer Elephant,
now I know my capacity for awe
is infinite: this thirst is permanent,
the well bottomless, my good fortune vast.
An uneducated mind is a clenched fist
that can open, like a bud, into a flower
whose being reaches, every waking hour,
and who sleeps a fragrant dream of gratitude.
Now it's "illegal," "illegitimate"
to teach brown girls who aren't state residents.
As if teacher's stealing fire from the gods.
As if the Ancestors aren't tickled to death to see
a child they lived toward find her mind's infinity.

Let that settle into silence for a few solid minutes and go back and read them again. Glory.

I'm taking this book over to a fifth grade classroom right now. They are studying sonnets and they need to read these. Put this book on your list of must finds.

More links for further reading:

Wordsong (publisher)
History of Miss Crandall's School at Yale's Guilder Lehrman Center
Article in NYTimes giving background and history
blog review at Please Come Flying
Prudence Crandall Museum site

Another book we have in our collection is a biography of Miss Prudence Crandall and her school: The Forbidden Schoolhouse; The True and Dramatic Story of Prudence Crandall and Her Students by Suzanne Jurmain. Houghton Mifflin Books, 2005.

Poetry Friday is over at Kelly R Fineman's Writing Ruminating go read more poetry!


jama said...

Thank you so much for this fascinating and inspiring post! Both sonnets were so far-reaching and magnificent. Like you said, the collection is a must-read.

Kelly Fineman said...

You probably know I adored this book. It was so powerful, and such excellent use of language and form. I also highly recommend Nelson's earlier book, A Wreath for Emmett Till, which may be too intense for some 5th graders, but is a remarkable accomplishment (both historically and poetically).

Sara said...

I'd heard of this title, and wondered what it was really about. OH. WOW. Now, I MUST find a copy. Immediately. Thank you so much.

Songbird said...

I want to get this for my 7th grader, too. Thanks for the review!

writer2b said...

My favorite part:
"An uneducated mind is a clenched fist
that can open, like a bud, into a flower
whose being reaches, every waking hour,
and who sleeps a fragrant dream of gratitude."

Beautiful. This is a full and rich post... Thank you.

Mary Lee said...

"As if the Ancestors aren't tickled to death to see
a child they lived toward find her mind's infinity."

I did what you told me to do -- this book is on my "must buy" list!

Cloudscome said...

Mary Lee and writer2b you've pulled out my favorite sections. I wanted to bold those lines and resisted in order to let the reader find them. Thank you all for commenting!

jone said...

I may just have to get this book.

Claudia said...

Thank you for posting this - it is going on my TBR list today. I'm not sure how I missed this book! I love Elizabeth Alexander but that poem by Marilyn Nelson really does take your breath away.

Ali said...

I hope the 5th graders enjoyed the book! It looks like a real winner.