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'Teaching While Black': a poet explores racism in the classroom

Matthew E. Henry, PhD, gives an unflinching portrayal of teaching while black in his debut poetry collection of the same name.

Find the full transcript after the Episode Notes.

Episode notes

Writing with unflinching honesty, Dr. Matthew E. Henry's debut poetry collection, "Teaching While Black," confronts racism in the classroom. Henry earned a PhD in Educational Studies: Educational Leadership from Lesley in 2017.

Read our profile of Dr. Henry

Dr. Matthew E. Henry's website

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  • Transcript


    Georgia Sparling: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode, we bring you conversations with authors, from the Lesley community to talk about books writing and the writing life.

    Hi, my name is Georgia Sparling. Today I'm speaking with Boston native, Dr. Matthew E. Henry, an alumnus of our Ph.D. in Education program, a teacher and poet, who is the author of a recent book of poetry titled Teaching While Black. Thanks for joining me today, Matthew.

    Matthew Henry: Thanks for having me.

    Georgia: You're a long time teacher and as I said you have a Ph.D. in Education from Lesley but also a degree in Theology and obviously, you're a poet. There's lots to talk about but I wanted to start with asking you when did you write your first poem?

    Matthew: Wow, my very first poem, probably back in first grade and they introduced us all to poetry and told us the right something. I do remember a poem that I wrote that my mom kept, it's about like conservation because it's, reduce, recycle, and reuse back in the 80s. I read it recently and thought, wow, this is better than some of the stuff I've written since so, little humbling.

    Georgia: Nice, nice. What drew you to poetry? I mean, did you keep writing poetry from first grade on?

    Matthew: Oddly, no. I was a short story writer for majority of my life, it feels like. I wrote short stories constantly through high school and the beginning of college. Then when I took my first official creative writing class, I was all excited. I was going to be writing short stories but the first half of the semester was poetry and I groaned and then realized that poetry was my life. From then on out, it allowed--

    I'm ADHD as will probably come out evidently. It was a way to get the story out of myself quicker, more succinct, and not having to worry about character development and scenery, just getting to the punch really quickly and trying to do it in a creative way with metaphors and similes. I only started writing short stories again within the past two years or so.

    Georgia: Could you describe your poetry? I've read some of it and definitely, there's a range of topics that definitely seem to align with your areas of study and just life in general. But how do you describe your work?

    Matthew: I think often, my poetry tends to be the things that people don't discuss in polite conversation. Whether that's race or religion, philosophy, theology, relationships, like all the things that you know around the thanksgiving dinner table, you hope that uncle isn't going to bring up, it's going to start a fight. I tend to focus on those things because those are both the most poignant and also the most, the places where people are the most honest. Once the facade start coming down, people can talk about those issues and reveal who they are and who they are in relationship to others.

    A lot of my poetry, whether it's looking at race relations or looking at theological ideas, it's trying to deconstruct the masks that people put up around certain issues and then really getting to the root of what do we believe? What do we think about other people, what do we think about ourselves and how do we express those things?

    Georgia: When you started writing poetry again, was that immediately, were those the topics that you wanted to cover or did you ease into it?

    Matthew: No, I pretty much jumped straight into those. I think a lot of my early poetry was theologically and philosophically focused. I was a Philosophy minor at the time and even though I was an Education and an English major, the religion department at my college was courting me heavily. Those were the thoughts that were in my mind a lot. I was really focused there but then also being one of the only Black faces around what along in my major also the issues of race came up quite a bit also.

    Georgia: Where did you go? Where was your undergrad?

    Matthew: Eastern Nazarene College.

    Georgia: That's in Massachusetts, I think.

    Matthew: In Quincy, yes.

    Georgia: Quincy, yes. How did people interact with your poetry early on?

    Matthew: I guess earlier, my poetry was very solitary. Like it was all about me. No one else really saw it. I wasn't telling people that I was a poet. I didn't consider myself a poet even while I was getting things published. People didn't often know I was publishing and so a few friends would see things like out there in the world or I'd show it to them. They were always more impressed than I was, like I always just had that imposter syndrome like this isn't real, they just took this poem because they needed a Black voice or something.

    Like one of the first poems that I had published that received actual money, I didn't like the poem at all and a friend of mine actually had to sit me down and walk me through it and explain why it was impactful for her. And that really shaped from then on how I viewed myself as a writer, but also how I viewed how my work was having impacts on other people that I wasn't thinking about. I was just trying to get it out of myself and then realizing, oh, other people are reading this and it's influencing how they look at various things in the world.

    Georgia: That seems like a big shift even just having that one person's opinion or that impact, changes how you can see yourself.

    Matthew: Definitely

    Georgia: From what I read, many of your poems seem autobiographical, correct me if I'm wrong there.

    Matthew: They are largely autobiographical. It was interesting like reading my book at or reading selections of my book at the school I currently work at because there are poems in there that are a hundred percent accurate to things that have taken place in that building. But names have been changed or left out that sort of thing, but they're also poems that stretch the -- so tomorrow will be the end of my 18th year of teaching. There are poems that stretch back to the beginning of my very first year of teaching. There are also poems that are a combination of different things from different people in different situations and a couple that are actually other people's stories.

    They're largely autobiographical but I'm usually very cagey about which poem is me or versus it being somebody else because it protects other people. It also keeps me out of a little bit more trouble than I probably get into otherwise.

    Georgia: I mean, the title of your book is Teaching While Black. I'm assuming anybody who reads that and knows you is maybe going to expect to recognize some things happening in those poems.

    Matthew: One would hope because if they didn't realize that like, "Oh, I wonder if the author is Black who is writing Teaching While Black?"  [laughing]. That could be a bit of a problem.

    Georgia: What prompted you to assemble this body of poems now? It was published earlier this year, is that correct?

    Matthew: Yes, dropped in February. I really started putting it together about a year ago, that was probably built around this time last year. I guess what prompted it was at the end of every year, I have, after my seniors are gone and I have my sophomores left from high school I teach at, I decided I'm going to open it up for any questions that they want to ask me about anything in the world. I had a couple of students ask why don't I have a book of poetry published yet, he knew I'd been publishing. They're like, "why don't you have a book?" I was like "I don't have an answer to that question."

    I had other books that I had shopped out a little bit, but I'd put them back on the shelf. With this one, Teaching While Black, I just sort sat down over the summer and said, all right, I'm going to look at what I have published already and things that I've had in the works and see if I can put a collection together and this just coalesced rather quickly. It was picked up a lot faster than I thought it was going to be.

    Georgia: Why do you think that is? Do you think? I mean, because that's even before some of, I mean it's since Black Lives Matter has already obviously been going on for a few years, but I don't know. It just feels like the timing of this book seems very prescient. Why do you think that there was an audience now?

    Matthew: I'm an idealist which makes me a cynic. I want to believe that it was, is because like, Black Lives Matter is not just because it's trending, but because people are actually caring and paying attention now and that the editors and the readers said this is a voice that needs to be out there and doing something. But also, it could very well be it's like Black Lives Matter is trending right now, so this will get sales. Probably somewhere in between those two extremes.

    Georgia: Does that bother you at all or you're just happy to have your stuff out there?

    Matthew: No.Six of this, half dozen of the other, both that being an idealist and a cynic at the same time. It's like being Black, I know I've been hired at certain places at times because I was Black and like had people say that to me after I got hired and my whole thing in my career has been, if you're going to hire me because I'm the Black person, fine. If you try to treat me like you hired me because I'm the Black person while I'm there, then we're going to have issues.

    Similarly, if the reason was completely cynical, they just got the book because they're like, "Hey, get a Black voice out there and we'll make some money," fine in that I know the responses that I've gotten from both students and friends around the country who have used the book in their classrooms and the conversations that I know that they've had with their own students, with their friends, with wives, with spouses. I have friends who were writing other books and other genres who have talked about how this book has impacted their writing.

    A friend of mine is writing a book, a philosophy textbook and he was telling me how reading certain things in my poems was influencing how he was going to revise his book of philosophy. If it was just a, "Hey we're going to get that Black voice out there and make some money," it's having a wider impact, so I'll take it.

    Georgia: Are there particular poems that people repeat to you or that have been used by your friends and colleagues and just that's gotten back to you that they do really resonate in the classroom? 

    Matthew: Yes. Two in particular. One's entitled When Asked Why 'All Lives' Don't Matter. That's been used like that's actually been reprinted a couple of times online by a couple different journals. Actually, it was weird. My department had sent that out to all of the English teachers where I work and so everyone in my building read it, which was interesting but she didn't put my name on it. It was also fun to hear a student's feedback on the poem not knowing the author was Black, that put a whole new spin on things for me.

    The other poem is called An Open Letter to the School Resource Officer Who Almost Shot Me in My Class, that also has been reprinted in different places online and in different journals. I know people have been using that in talking about it.

    Georgia: Would you mind reading those poems?

    Matthew: Sure.

    When Asked Why 'All Lives' Don't Matter. "After a deep breath, I attempted to explain. My aunt had breast cancer despite a healthy dose of science and scripture, prayers and prescriptions, the shadow never dimmed. We celebrated her life, mourned the hole her grave dug in ours. We lauded her loving kindness,

    questioned the natural shocks flesh is heir to-- why this disease would claim a wife, a co-worker, a friend, an aunt.

    At the repast heads turned to the future: saving other sons and daughters, ourselves. a collection was taken to fund breast cancer research. a medical scholarship for oncology study discussed. a proposal for new from the back of the church hall, a woman no one recognized screamed, 'What about ovarian cancer, and prostate cancer? Why aren't you all talking about these? All cancers matter.'

    Most of my students nodded into the ensuing silence but some blank stares and my job description doomed me to be more didactic: to explain appropriate time, place, and manner, intent versus impact. The guilt and shame required to derail communal grief and hijack a narrative to make oneself more comfortable. I explained the human duty to choose. Enter the room willing to bare bodies on our shoulders or arms empty, leave, and silently stand outside. I said, 'Replace cancer with lives,' and waited."

    Georgia: This is an experience I'm assuming you had.

    Matthew: The conversation with the class that's completely accurate. My aunt, she didn't pass away so that part is invented. She is still alive and is in remission stillwe’re happy for that.

    Georgia: Does she like you killing her off in your poems? [laughing]

    Matthew: [laughing] I haven't gotten that note yet in the mail being like, "Hey I'm pretty sure that that's about me. What's up," but actually the interesting thing about this poem was having some students who came back and like, "We were in the room for that conversation. We remember that time."

    Georgia: As a Black literature teacher in the Boston area, are you often having to enter into these conversations and do you feel like this is a role that you take on willingly?

    Matthew: Sorry, we're not on video so you can't see the laughter I'm holding back. Actually, some poems in the book are about this very issue. I am working in a predominantly white institution, which I have for my entire career. There are many race problems there. I say very openly, actually just had a poem entitled this: This is the most racist place I've ever worked. One of the reasons it is is because when conversations come up, often concepts of white fragility just jump out.

    Some people are just very hesitant to talk about issues around race. I don't have that problem. My kids hear from me on issues pretty bluntly and pretty so succinctly. We have open conversations about things. There are various units that we do that the only twist between what I'll do and what another teacher will do sometimes is all right now, let's dig deep and have this conversation about how race plays a role in these characters lives.

    I tried to do the same thing with gender and sexuality and age in class. I have a little less, I don't play the devil's advocate, shall we say as much, when it comes around issues of race because I won't hold hands with my own oppressors. Students that I have had come to Jesus conversation sometimes around things that have been said or done in the district or in the building. I've been in a position quite a few times especially when reading things like Things Fall Apart or the Dew Breaker.

    Even actually when we were reading A Tale of Two Cities, and watching them. Reading A Tale of Two Cities this year was interesting, we're like watching them always side at first with the French rebels and they're overthrowing the government and then I stop and say, "You guys realized that would be you who was being overthrown. You literally are the 1%," and then we come into a time like this where there's "protests and riots" in the streets.

    It's like, "Well the same conduct you were okay within this literary sense in a historical sense, you could understand where they were coming from then in French history. What about now? The people who were in the streets who look like me and some of your classmates. Some of you will be very happy to hold hands with us and be marching, others of you suddenly aren't as okay with things as you were for the poor French." We have those conversations quite starkly and I haven't been fired yet. That's knock on wood, it's working out.

    Georgia: How has your classroom or teaching, how has it been affected or what have you done during the pandemic? Like how have you been able to continue these kinds of conversations?

    Matthew: Zoom is both a wonderful and horrible tool but you work with what you got.

    Georgia: I think that's a universal opinion [laughs].

    Matthew: Our district got on board rather early. A lot of districts shut down for almost a month or like three weeks before they got back into educating. We were probably out for a week and a half before we were back working with kids. Between Zoom and Google Classroom, lots of emails and just trying to find ways that we can continue conversations instead of just, here's an assignment fill it out and turn it in. I wanted to have conversations with them if not every day, every other day just to keep one, the conversations going but also to keep them sane because a lot of my kids just needed human contact even if it's across the screen.

    Georgia: Have they been open or willing to talk about race issues and things that are going on right now? Because we're recording this in June. Well into a lot of chaos in the country.

    Matthew: Yes, some have, and some haven't. There are kids who have sent me emails. I'm not going to lie. My students probably did a better job of reaching out to me than some of my coworkers and friends who I've known for years and that was both humbling and beautiful like just getting emails from kids who were like, "Hey you don't have to respond to this. Just know that you're appreciated and loved," and that's it. I'm like "I'm not going to cryI’m fine. I’m fine, it’s okay."

    Georgia: Nobody can see me crying but I'm not crying. [laughing]

    Matthew: My eyes are just leaking, it's okay [laughing]. Watching the kids who helped set up protests in the town and I actually just got an email a couple of days ago from two of my former students, I don't even have them this year, who are crafting a letter to administration for our school, but also for the middle school and for the elementary schools into the district, into the superintendent about how everything in terms of curriculum needs to change so that they can actually be anti-racist.

    One is Asian, one is White. I'm reading through this stuff that they wrote and I was like, "This is a better statement than what we're putting together as a faculty. I am so proud of you guys right now." Yes, there have been students who have really stepped up and said that they're not okay with the things that they've seen in the school, the things they've seen in the district, things that they've seen in the country and they're out for kicking butt and taking names right now. I'm so proud.

    Georgia: Could you talk a little bit about the other poem that you mentioned about the school resources officer?

    Matthew: Yes.

    Georgia: Because that one sounded like it has a good story with it or an interesting story, I shouldn't say good, but--

    Matthew: It's called An Open Letter to the School Resource Officer Who Almost Shot Me in My Class.

    Georgia: For those who are not that familiar with how a lot of schools work these days, a school resource officer is a police officer.

    Matthew: Yes, a police officer who's assigned to the building, walks around, does checks of things. In our district, it's more of just walking around, get to know the kids. Yay, community face. Cops are okay. In other places, it's more, "Hey, that Brown child was acting out. Let's put them in cuffs and throw them out of their desk." This is a poem that is not based off of reality. It's more 20% real than 100% real.

    It was a daydream that I had after conversations with a class of seniors last year and one of our Black students, actually the same one who told me that I need to talk with my doctor, he was talking about his interaction with a school resource officer. He had been followed down the hallway, into the bathroom, up to the urinal and before he got to the urinal part, there were students in a class, White students who were like, "We have school resource officers?" They're completely oblivious to the fact.

    All the Black and Brown kids and the potheads were all like, "Yes, no there are cops in the building." When he started explaining that the cop followed him all the way into the bathroom and started talking to him while he's using the urinal, all of the males in the room, White, Black, Indian, all stopped and were like, "That's messed up. Wait a minute." It was a click for them and most of the girls were like, "What? Is that a breaking of social norms?" We're like, "Yes, yes, yes." We had to explain how urinals work and you don't ever do that [laughs].

    For some of the kids, it was really like, for the White boys. It was really their first time clicking in their heads, "That's racist," and I was like, "Oh my goodness, there's hope. It took someone violating a social norm of men for you to realize that there's racism." Then all of the Black and Brown kids in the class had some story like that. The next day, I was just sitting in my room before school starts. I write poetry and I was just reflecting on that conversation.

    I was just journaling and I saw a different officer just walking down the hallway 5 or 10 minutes before. The poem came out of that was picturing what it was like if he had walked by my classroom and saw me teaching and not knowing that I am a teacher and seeing the quote from the poem, "Wasn't my Brown arms gesturing wildly or my beard long and unkept which obscured thick lips rehearsing a language you could not easily decipher."

    I'm a very animated teacher. I'm sometimes standing on top of desks or jumping off of desks, one or two times falling between desks and getting stuck [laughing]. It's good times. This officer just walks by and sees, "There's a Black man gesturing wildly. What's in his hands?" What potentially could happen? As fantasy full as it is, as you said, we're in June right now, where we've seen, over the past couple of years and the past couple of days, the number of unarmed Black men who have been shot.

    Was it two years ago that a social worker who was shot while lying down on the ground with his hands in the air while talking to police about not shooting his mentally challenged student? That resonates also in the back of my mind when I was writing this poem, the guy is lying on his stomach with his hands in the air talking to you about not shooting his student and you shoot him. When he gets shot, he asks you, "Why did you shoot me?" The cop who shot him said, "I don't know."

    Those are the things that are going through my mind as I was composing this poem and I hope it never happens. I prefer not to get shot. It's not on my list of priorities in life, but there's just a weird thing in the back of my head. I'm actually writing a poem right now about that of for certain students who don't believe the current moment, who don't believe the past, I don't know, 600 years that racism still exists, what would it take?

    I've posed this question to some of them, if something happened to me, would you also say, "Oh, where was he? What was he wearing? Did he have a gun on him?" If it was one of their friends who's Black, what would they say then? Would it take the death or harm of someone they know and care about personally for them to start believing that Black Lives Matter? This poem was trying to capture all of that in 18 lines.

    Georgia: How is all of this stuff affecting your writing right now? I think I saw on your website that you'd recently published a poem related to some of the protests and some of the current events but how is it affecting you in your work?

    Matthew: It's affecting my writing in that I have gotten some good rage poems out. That's been nice. I think that probably the one that you're referring to which title we can't say probably and I don't generally swear in real life. That's actually what made that poem.

    Georgia: Oh, really, because there's a lot of swearing in your poem [laughs]

    Matthew: Actually, I don't really swear in real life, but I do swear in--


    Georgia: You save it for the page. [chuckles]

    Matthew: Pretty much, yes. In my MFA program, I had a former nun telling me that "maybe you need to swear more in your writing" and it's worked. I've been channeling it just into my writing. I'm already writing about race and life and how people interact with each other and seeing this utter breakdown of civility. I can only watch so many videos of someone dying and not say something.

    My poetry has been taking a more, I don't want to say violent turn, but it's definitely more Malcolm than Martin right now, I guess would be how I'm looking at things. Been reading a lot of Langston Hughes recently and remembering, "Oh no, no, he was mad. He was very angry at times," but we don't tend to teach the angry Langston Hughes poems in school.

    Georgia: It's hard not to be angry right now.

    Matthew: Yes, was it Baldwin's quote, which I read again today that To be Black and conscious in the United States is to be in a state of rage almost constantly, and it's what you do with that rage. I try to channel it into my writing. I'm trying to channel it recently into giving real allies things to say. When people who are looking to be anti-racist and to work with their own students, work with their family or the churches that they work with then they ask me, "What are words that I can say to this person or to address this issue?" I'm trying to be a resource while at the same time, not be completely burned out by being a resource all the time to folks, but it's better than, I guess, alternatives.

    Georgia: Yes. What do you do to recover from that or to rest? Is there any rest at the moment?

    Matthew: There's an existential question to break my brain, thank you. This [crosstalk] what I do to my students. [laughs]

    Georgia: Tables are turned.


    Matthew: They literally refer to my class as an existential crisis one and two.


    Matthew: I don't know if there is any rest right now. Watching a lot of TV, I try to just watch things that turn my brain off for a little while, but largely, I can't be uninformed. I recently got on Twitter, which was a bad life choice. I'm still [laughs]-- 


    Georgia: I can't do that when things are calmer. [laughs]

    Matthew: Exactly, but this is a perfect time to have my feed constantly being refreshed with horror, but also, there are funny things there and it's nice that the people who are channeling their anger and their rage through comedy is wonderful, like just even being on Netflix and watching comedians who are talking about things or YouTube watching people who are talking about things or the memes that some people come up with to completely destroy the other side in an argument. I'm like, "That's hilarious and it's right. Thank you for that." That's wonderful.

    Georgia: Yes. [laughs] I wanted to pivot a little bit and talk about your faith background and you have a degree in theology and just that comes through in a lot of your poems as well. What role does faith play in your work now?

    Matthew: It's all over the place. I mean, everything I do, but also everything I write is in some way faith-informed. Like one of the other, I am working on another book right now. That's like I'm shopping out. That is all a collection of sonnets that are all theological sonnets and there has been more recently, there's been a melding, like it previously had been like my theological writing is my theological writing, my race writing is my race writing. There've been some overlaps recently especially after I read, The Cross and The Lynching Tree.

    I've written a couple of poems that are bridging that gap and it's something I'm meaning to do a little bit more but that's just going to take a lot of emotional work that I'm not like I don't know if I'm there yet to deal with, like I can call it racism within the church, universal easily. That's not a problem but it's another thing [inaudible 00:31:10]

    Georgia: Those are easy pickings.

    Matthew: It's easy pickings. [laughs] Finding the inroad to channel that into my poetry is a little bit harder. I mean, like I have one poem that is looking at how the blues or like a form of spiritual lament but also like that there could be seen as like an apocalyptic part of the Bible, trying to like put together that idea of people who are mourning, but also looking for something better spiritually in the future. The future supposed to start now, like the seeds of what will happen later are rooted in the now and the things that are getting in the way of that.

    I don't want my poetry to ever be like, White people are bad or Christians are bad, but if you're propping up a system of White supremacy, it doesn't matter how nice of a person you are. You are still propping up something that's evil and when that gets entangled with faith, it gets so much more complicated to tease out. How do you say this thing or find the right metaphor to express this thing that people will be able to hear and not just be so bombastic or explosive that the message gets lost.

    Georgia: Do you write some poems that are just for you, like writing for yourself where you don't have to be quite as guarded? Do you always try to think about the person who's going to read it or the people who might read it?

    Matthew: I would say 90% of the time, I'm writing just for me. I'm just writing it, I get it out, it's there and then it's the process where I'll go back and say, you can't say that. Not that way. That's not going to work. My mother might read this one day and like, although she didn't kill me for the book that is published, so that's great but there are, it's usually the revision process. Then I'll go back and say, I need to change that wording. This was just me getting something off my chest, but if someone else is going to read it, I might have to tweak this. That's where it becomes fun because it's all right, I need to still get that level of like [grunts], but it's just more palatable. A little bit more palatable.

    Georgia: You've got your first book out. You've got other books to shop and you're still working on lots of poetry. Where else are you going from here?

    Matthew: I know that I want to keep teaching. I love teaching high school. It's a lot of fun. I love teaching English literature. There's in the back of my mind, I would also love to, I used to teach philosophy, at the high school level. I'd love to teach philosophy or theology either at the high school level or the college level again, something like that, but I mean, largely, I just want to keep writing and keep working with my kids regardless of what age they are. My kids have been older than me and my kids have been younger than me. That's pretty much what I do.


    Georgia: Well, I think that's a good place to end the podcast. Thanks so much for coming on today. I really enjoyed this conversation.

    Matthew: Same. Thank you for inviting me.

    Georgia: Thank you for listening to why we write. If you enjoyed this conversation and want to know more about Dr. Matthew E. Henry, his debut poetry collections, Teaching While Black and read some of his poems, check out the links in our show notes. You can also find Why We Write's full archives with show notes and transcripts for every episode at lesley.edu/podcast.