The following article was originally published in print by Teachers & Writers Magazine.
By Ilise Benun
Perusing the stacks of the local public library one day, I came upon Black Misery, the last book Langston Hughes wrote before he died in 1967. In this little gem of a book, Hughes uses perfectly tuned one-liners to shine a spotlight on twenty-seven humiliating moments of childhood. They are universal moments, some racially universal, some humanly universal, many rooted in the 1960s and the civil rights movement.
As writer-in-residence at the Edenwald-Gun Hill Neighborhood Center, a settlement house in the Bronx, I’ve had the opportunity to use Black Misery with almost every age group: elementary school children in the after-school program, adults studying literacy, senior citizens learning computers, and teachers and administrators in a staff development workshop. I’ve also used the text at other sites, such as with a group of high school kids in a Summer Youth Employment Program in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Despite its official categorization as a children’s picture book (with illustrations by the artist Arouni), Black Misery is ideal for use with adolescents and adults, who are able to look back and laugh at situations that, at one time, seemed awful.
Though Black Misery is a picture book, it is not a straightforward book to teach with. Each page consists of a one-sentence caption and an accompanying black and white illustration that raise complex issues and can inspire engaging discussions. So you need to decide beforehand what to focus on, maybe even choose in advance which captions to read, and anticipate what questions might come up and how you’ll respond to them.
I’ve learned from experience that it doesn’t hurt to brush up on African American history. When my first class of fifth graders came upon Misery is when the teacher asked you who was the Father of our Country and you said, “Booker T. Washington,” I asked if the students got the reference, and was surprised when most answered, “No.” Suddenly it was up to me to explain, and I couldn’t. I knew who the Father of our Country was but, like many of the kids, I confused Booker T. with George Washington Carver. Lack of preparation made for a missed teaching opportunity.
Be aware that some of the captions need some updating; for example, Misery is when your pals see Harry Belafonte walking down the street and they holler, “Look there’s Sidney Poitier.” Despite the fact that these two actors are alive and well, most children today have never heard of them. I substituted: Misery is when your pals see Denzel Washington on TV and yell, “Look, there’s Martin.” They got that, no problem.
Reading of Text and Discussion
My first goal with any class is to get a lively discussion going, which is usually a challenge, but with Black Misery it’s easy. In fact, using this exercise as an introductory assignment is a good way to get to know a new group of students.
The first question I ask is “Who is Langston Hughes?” Most know his name; some even know him as the Poet Laureate of Black America or the Shakespeare of Harlem, but in my experience, few students—adults and children alike—can say much more. So, to put Black Misery in context, some background on Hughes is necessary.
It’s not easy to keep this brief because, according to Faith Berry, author of Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem, he was “one of the most prolific and versatile American writers of his generation, who gained an international reputation and sustained it, at great odds, over four decades.” Hughes was a poet, translator, essayist, novelist, dramatist, librettist, folklorist, short story writer, journalist, and world traveler. I list all of these words on the board to show the range of possibilities. Sometimes I read aloud a few of his famous poems and a few not-so-famous ones, as well as a selection from Hughes’s series of books centered around his archetypal African American, Jesse B. Simple.
Black Misery includes an introduction by Jesse Jackson and an afterword by Professor Robert G. O’Meally, both of which offer concise and interesting biographical material to choose from. O’Meally writes, for example, that “not only did Hughes know the territory of black America, but his work at its best turned on his genius for . . . the perfectly turned line.” The lines in Black Misery are examples of this genius.
Berry’s biography offers much more material, including the story (in Hughes’s own words) of how, at the age of fourteen, Hughes was elected Class Poet, despite the fact that he had never written a poem. “Up to that time I had never thought about being a poet and was rather surprised at being elected Class Poet. In fact, I hadn’t expected it. But I guess the youngsters in my class felt I had some rhythm to give a poem. The teacher told us a poem had to have rhythm. And so suddenly a boy called out my name, Langston Hughes, and the whole class said, ‘Ay,’ unanimously—and that’s the way I became a poet.”
This inspiring story provides a smooth segue to the first caption: Misery is when you heard on the radio that the neighborhood you live in is a slum but you always thought it was home.
Often, there’s an immediate groan; someone’s eyes light up. I ask: “What is misery?” A hand shoots up, a definition is shouted out, and the discussion begins. Misery is sadness. Misery is madness. Most know well what misery is, although some don’t know it by that name. “What else?” I ask, because I want to show them that it’s not just one thing, that it’s different for everyone, but also the same for everyone. They call out words, associations, opinions—pain, suffering, hurt. On the board, I make a list of all the things that misery is, which will be available for them to use when they begin writing.
At Hoboken High, the discussion went very deep, very fast; from the definitions, we quickly moved into a debate about whether one controls one’s own happiness and whether people are miserable on purpose. (Most agreed that it is within our power to be happy!) That evolved into an exploration of prejudice, stereotypes, and the impulse to categorize people. Questions flew around the room: “Does stereotyping make life easier for the stereotyper?” “Yes, but it also limits you because then you don’t see people as individuals.” “What does it do to the stereotyper?” We agreed that everyone can be prejudiced, not only about race, but friends, intelligence, language, hobbies—and we agreed that many traits can be used as an excuse to slap on a label and assume you know a person. It was one of those discussions teachers dream of: everyone is engaged, listening, and responding, and the students speaking with passion about issues that are important to them.
The captions in Black Misery work because they’re true and they teach emotional truths; there’s no faking misery. By noticing which captions elicit the loudest groans, I can show students how to find these truths. We continue reading and talking. “Do you get it?” “I get it!” “What do you get?” The students often relate the Hughes captions to their own experience and sometimes, if I’m lucky, some will spontaneously start making up their own captions. One way to encourage them is for me to start making up my own. Here are two that are inevitably appropriate:
Misery is when the teacher asks you a question and you’re thinking about the answer and you’re just about to say it when someone else chimes in.
Misery is when you’re finally involved in an interesting discussion and the teacher says, “Okay, now it’s time to write.”
Lots of groans with that one. But we’re close now; they’re almost ready to write. They understand misery, they’re making it personal, some of them are already making up their own captions. But before I say “Go!” I give them a last little splash of inspiration by reading aloud what some of my other students have written.
So as not to create a lot of anxiety, I set some parameters. I give the students a manageable amount of time, usually ten to fifteen minutes, and I ask them to write a minimum of five captions, no maximum. Then I sit down and write along with them. It is extremely important to set the example, to “model the behavior,” as the academics say. The students usually go right to work and once they get going, most of them don’t want to stop. In fact, one boy in Hoboken kept writing all the way to the end of class.
The “Read-Aloud” and More Discussion
In this final part of the Black Misery exercise, I have the students read their work aloud, and most are eager to do so. I like to hear all of their captions, more than once if time allows. Some don’t comment on their own captions; in these cases I ask which are their favorites. Or I’ll ask the others which they liked best, and why. Before we move on to the next reader, I make sure to comment on at least one or two of each student’s captions, pointing out why one works especially well or how another might be improved.
The first time out, many students often write very general captions, so this assignment provides the perfect opportunity to teach the importance and power of specifics. Usually the caption the class considers the best, the one that everyone groans at, is the one most laden with specifics. In Hoboken, it was by Latasha Davis:
Misery is when you’re waiting for the bus and it takes too long so you call a cab and as it drives away you see your bus coming.
Some students, however, don’t get it on the first try. One fourth grader’s experience beautifully illustrates the process of learning to use more detail. First time around, she wrote this:
Mad is when you are terrified.
Love is when you feel good with somebody.
Scared is when you are very afraid.
Excited is when you are very, very, very happy.
I pointed out to Latisha that Langston Hughes begins all or most of his captions with the words: Misery is when . . . and then he describes a moment in life that we can visualize. I asked her to replace her adjectives with scenes or situations that included as many concrete details as possible. Here is Latisha’s revision:
Misery is when people sing at your birthday and you say “Don’t sing” and they keep singing.
Happiness is when you see someone special to you, like your ex-boyfriend, and you still love him.
Angry is when your mother blames you for nothing.
Misery is when your mother kisses you in front of your best friends.
Misery is when your teacher said you’re not so tall, you’re so small.
Latisha was much more eager to read her revised captions, and she got lots of groans.
Why Black Misery Works
Misery is concise. The shorter the text, the easier it is to engage students quickly. Black Misery works because the captions are concise. Everyone appreciates this.
Misery is flexible. No matter what you do with Black Misery, it works. It allows plenty of room for improvisation. For example, some students substitute other words for Misery, such as Joy, Happiness, or even Responsibility. Here’s what sixth grader Ashante Diggs came up with:
Happiness is when you’re having a sleepover and none of your friends fight.
Cool is when you’re not too hot or you’re not too cold, you’re just right.
Being a child is when you have no worries, you can play all day and sleep all night and you don’t have to pay bills.
Being a friend is when you care for someone, but not in that way.
Misery is fun. One of the challenges of teaching in an after-school program is getting the students involved. To do that, writing can’t feel like work; it has to be fun. Hughes makes it fun. He helps us to laugh at our misery, to put it in context—and in turn, he shows us we’re not alone.
Misery is universal. Because the text deals so openly with racism, this assignment provides a much-needed opportunity to talk about what really happens and the troubles people have, to tell the stories that are not always welcome in regular conversation. It offers a safe haven for all of us to discuss our experiences, not only as victims of racial discrimination, but also as perpetrators, blinded by our own prejudices. That’s the beauty of this exercise: the racism is right there, out in the open. Hughes’s captions show how we use someone’s skin color to decide who he or she is, before a word is exchanged. Here are a few of my favorite captions from Black Misery that do this:
Misery is when you start to help an old white lady across the street and she thinks you’re trying to snatch her purse.
Misery is when you first realize so many things bad have black in them, like black cats, black arts, blackball.
Misery is when you find out Golden Glow Hair Curler won’t curl your hair at all.
Misery is when the taxi cab won’t stop for your mother and she says a bad word.
Misery is when you can see all the other kids in the dark but they claim they can’t see you.
Misery is when you learn that you are not supposed to like watermelon but you do.
Ivan Croft, Program Director at Edenwald, looked at race from the perspective of joy:
Joy is when blacks were portrayed as coons and monkeys for years, and yet the #1 recognizable face in the world is Michael Jordan’s.
Joy is finally getting to see Waiting to Exhale and finding it as awful as you thought (a man’s perspective).
Joy is when people have accused blacks of being inferior and we invented the traffic light, blood plasma, filament in the light bulb, and more.
Joy is when Hank Aaron beat Babe Ruth’s record.
Joy is when you appreciate opera, and black and white people look at you oddly.
Despite a lively discussion about prejudice, most of the captions written by my students don’t focus on racism. Segregation isn’t as overt in the 90s as it was when Hughes’s book was published, so racism is now just one of many things that contribute to the misery of my students. Many of their captions have to do with the misery of being poor.
What I love most about the work inspired by Black Misery is how much gets revealed in a single sentence. Here’s what is making kids of the 90s miserable:
Misery is when a mouse is on your face, arm, and bed.
Misery is when a boy don’t want to talk because his mother died.
Misery is why do little boys and girls have to eat from the garbage.
Misery is when you are in the class and you think of jumping out the window.
Misery is when you try to help someone but they think you want something in return.
Misery is when they change your baby at birth and you find out twenty years later.
Misery is when you meet the man of your dreams, then you meet his nice husband.
And here’s what makes adults in the 90s miserable:
Misery is when you see an old friend high on crack.
Misery is watching a child cry for a parent that is not there.
Misery is when you go to the hospital to see your brother who used to call you funny names and now he can’t speak to you at all.
Misery is thinking you’re educated, but you still can’t do the crossword puzzle.
The material is so rich, so simple, and so important that I could do an entire ten-week residency using this book and no one would get bored. There are many other related activities that can evolve from this exercise. One class gave me a great idea when they started making up captions for the students who were absent that day. Another idea is to have the students update the references in the Hughes text. As for art, an obvious idea is to have the students create their own line drawings or illustrations to go along with the captions. In fact, a group can work backwards; in other words, draw illustrations and then write captions for them. From there, it’s a very short step toward making their own versions of Black Misery.
- Hughes, Langston. Black Misery. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Ilise Benun teaches creative writing in the WritersCorp program and at the Edenwald-Gun Hill Neighborhood Center in the Bronx. In 1994, she received a prose fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.