Don't eat the fish

This past weekend several friends and I walked along the Housatonic River in downtown Great Barrington, Massachusetts: a short, shady stroll that is popular with local dog walkers and baby strollers. In sunny spots we saw butterfly weed and wild bergamot blooming, and in shady spots we could watch the slow-moving waters flow below us.

Butterfly weed

Gazing at the placid flow of the Housatonic River, it’s easy to forget its waters are polluted, not pristine. The Housatonic carries PCBs and other industrial chemicals from the long-closed General Electric plant in nearby Pittsfield. Signs along the river warn fishermen not to eat their catch, and environmental activists refer to the river as the “Housatoxic.”

W.E.B. Du Bois advocate for rivers

I knew that the author, thinker, and civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois was born along the Housatonic River in Great Barrington, and I knew there is a garden and historical sign marking a site near his childhood home. What surprised me when we found that marker, however, is that it focused on Du Bois’ environmental advocacy as much as his civil rights work.

Wild bergamot

Even during Du Bois’ lifetime, the Housatonic River was sullied by industrial runoff. When Du Bois returned to Great Barrington in 1930 to address a gathering of his high school alumni, he beseeched the citizens of Great Barrington to clean the river that courses through their backyard:

The town, the whole valley, has turned its back upon the river. They have sought to get away from it. They have neglected it. They have used it as a sewer, a drain, a place for throwing their waste and their offal. Mills, homes, and farms have poured their dirt and refuse into it; outhouses and dung heaps have lined its banks. Almost as if by miracle some beauty still remains in places where the river for a moment free of its enemies and tormentors, dark and exhausted under its tall trees, has sunk back to vestiges of its former charm, in great, slow, breathless curves and still murmurs. But for the most part the Housatonic has been transformed into an ugly disgraceful thing

Butterfly weed

It’s obvious that even after Du Bois left Great Barrington to become a writer, scholar, and outspoken proponent for racial justice, he never forgot the river in his hometown. Du Bois’ fondness for the Housatonic reminded me of the Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which traces the way heritage is tied to geography, not just genealogy:

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

Wild bergamot

Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” when he was only eighteen, and in it he describes his African-American heritage as running through both his bloodstream and the rivers of his ancestral homelands. In the ecological version of muscle-memory, Hughes’ soul recalls the landscapes where his people come from. Who you are as a person, he suggests, is irrevocably connected with the places you and your people come from.

Welcome to the Berkshires

Du Bois was so moved by Hughes’ poem, he published it in the July 1921 edition of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. Today, we know environmental degradation often occurs in places populated by the poor and people of color: it’s not the rich white citizens of Flint, Michigan who are drinking lead-tainted water. “Environmental racism” refers to the way the privileged and powerful often dump their toxic byproducts downstream in someone else’s backyard, and it’s a phenomenon Du Bois decried, even if he didn’t call it out by name.

Wild bergamot

Du Bois suggested the way we treat our rivers reflects our values as a society, reminding his audience that “we are judged by what we neglect.” Do we see rivers and the folks who live alongside them as rubbish heaps or sewers, places where we dump and disregard the effluvia we don’t want polluting our own neighborhoods?

If we choose to neglect a river, we can also choose to care for it, and this is what Du Bois ultimately advocated, urging the citizens of Great Barrington to “rescue the Housatonic and clean it as we have never in all the years thought before of cleaning it, and seek to restore its ancient beauty.” A community who cares for its rivers will care for the people and other living creatures that live alongside them, environmental justice rolling down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Green pokeweed berries

Today I met with a new class of first-year writing students. As one of our first-day exercises, I asked my students to read Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B,” which I’d included as the final page of the course syllabus. My students and I had spent part of our class time meandering around our classroom interviewing one another, trying to learn one interesting thing about each person present (myself included), so the poem Hughes’ speaker offers in response to his teacher’s prompt to write a page about himself seemed to be an apt way to conclude class. Given the opportunity to describe yourself in a single page, which details would you include, and which details would you omit?


Before our next class, my students’ homework is to take the instructions in the poem and write their own page:

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I’ve taught this particular course–Intro to College Composition–before, but only online, never face-to-face. Although I’ve read “Theme for English B” with first-year writers in the past, I’ve never asked them to try out the poem for themselves, writing a page that is “true” because it “come(s) out of you.”

Pink and red

This is, in other words, an experimental assignment: something I’ve never tried with a real live classroom of students, and it’s a writing prompt I’ve never even tried myself. Faced with the seemingly simple instructions in Hughes’ poem, what would I write? I’m not sure–I’m both excited and intimidated by the prospect of the blank page this assignment assumes–and this is why I chose to start the semester with it. Sometimes it’s interesting to try something completely new–something you’re not sure will work–something that actually frightens you a little.

Pink stems

I remember one of my own college instructors once making a distinction between “real” and “fake” questions. When a teacher asks you something she already knows, that’s not a real question: it’s a fake question, something designed to test your knowledge or even trick you. When a teacher asks you what you thought of Hughes’ poem, for instance, is she honestly asking what YOU thought of it, which she can’t possibly know unless you tell her? That’s a real question, because there’s no predicting how you might respond. But if a teacher asks you what you thought of Hughes’ poem while secretly expecting you to interpret the poem the same way she did, that’s a fake question. That teacher isn’t asking for something she doesn’t know; she’s asking for corroboration of what she already assumes to be true.

Insect damage

I honestly don’t know what kind of pages my students will bring to class on Thursday: this assignment is, in other words, a Real Question. Will my students bring poems? Lists? Song lyrics? Will anyone bring a resume? A personal ad? An ode or epitaph? Like any first-year writers on the first day of class, my students spent a lot of time today trying to figure out “what I want” from this and future assignments: how much do page lengths really matter? How much do I care about document format? How many points will I deduct for This, and how many points will I give for That?

As a teacher, I need to care about official course outcomes, policies, and other formal requirements, but as a writer, I want to say, “Surprise me.” Where’s the fun in reading a pile of papers that all give me what I want, as if I could describe exactly what that would look like? If I were given an assignment like the one I gave my students today, I’d be both terrified and a bit exhilarated, wondering just how creative my teacher wants me to be. Having given this assignment to my students today, I’m more than a bit excited, wondering just how creative they dare to be.