America, in Poetry

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On the first day of my course, "American Voices," I give the students two poems called "America." Walt Whitman, a nineteenth-century white poet, describes America as,

"Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
...Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love."

Yet, Claude McKay, a Harlem Renaissance poet, writes about America:

"She feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,
Stealing my breath of life."

As a class, we explore the way writers see our country through the lens of their experience. We focus on the importance of lifting all American voices. Afterwards, students create posters that express their own views of America.


What would be on my poster? I came to the U.S. from Russia at the age of 12, when Russia was struggling to preserve its fledgling democracy. Despite not knowing who Madonna was or how to play softball, I knew that I was welcome at my San Francisco public school. Since then, as an immigrant, I have not encountered any adversity and was even able to become an English teacher.

But this year, my 12-year-old daughter, whose name is recognizably Russian, hesitates to reveal at school that she is a child of Russian immigrants. On the one hand, she senses, Trump's policies are anti-immigrant; on the other, Bay Area liberals criticize Russia because of its interference in the presidential election.

Knowing that my daughter's immigrant family pride is waning, I realize that my view of America has shifted. Lines from Beat poet Allen Ginsberg's poem resonate with me. Initially, he is sarcastic:

"America its them bad Russians.
...The Russia's power mad."

But he concludes with,

"America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I'd better get right down to the job."

For me, this job is about preserving the acceptance and encouragement I have felt as an immigrant.

With a Perspective, I am Jane Shamaeva.

Jane Shamaeva is a high school English teacher. She lives in Oakland.