This week, my freshman class will begin reading Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street. As an introduction to the reading, I knew I wanted to show how childhood and the culture in which we grow up shapes how we feel about ourselves and how we view the world. I had just heard the news about Don Cornelius’ passing and felt compelled to open our discussion by expressing the impact Don Cornelius’ Soul Train had on me as a child. I shared how I, and probably the whole African American community, got up on Saturday mornings, flipped on the television and watched various African-American artists perform (Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Al Green, Aretha Franklin). I told my students it wasn’t just about the artists, though their performances were powerful; it was also about the dancers, how they moved with grace and rhythm, how they dressed in dashikis, bell-bottom jeans, platform shoes and donned the signature fro–this all was an expression of their “soul.” I told my students how that experience shaped my thoughts about my culture. I thought black people were the best singers, best dancers and the best dressed people in the world.
I then told the kids to free-write on a similar experience in their lives, and tell how they think that experience, whether past or present, will impact them as an adult. One student told about how her family has get-togethers every weekend. They laugh, they dance, and they love each other. She said that in her future, she will always value family and the love she gets from them now will make her love her own family the same. Another student said he used to go to the Boys and Girls Club and play basketball with his brother and other friends. He said it taught him how to compete, and that losing happens, but eventually, with hard work, you win. He will take that lesson with him into adulthood. Another male student said his father put him in football when he was six. At first he wasn’t good, but then he became better, and now football is his love. He said, from that experience, he has learned that he is a leader and a hard worker; he will take that with him as an adult. He also (with some prompting) said that playing football has taught him what it is to be a young man. Be strong, be competitive and be good. Through that discussion, he reflected how those experiences with his dad have also told him what type of relationships fathers and sons have. Another lesson he will take into adulthood.
Thank you Don Cornelius for being the visionary you were, for bringing black artists, their songs and their dance into my childhood living room. I am grateful to you for giving me memories to share with my students so that they could, in turn, reflect on the importance of their own lives, and by extension, realize more of their identity and their culture.