At the start of our African American Literatures and Cultures Institute, I presented a group of my students with Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass” and offered a single instruction: “Provide a list of some things you can do with this poem.” Folks offered some things. In the future, I’m hoping they offer even more.
Really, the activity was a creativity exercise to see what directions folks’ minds would move in as they developed their lists. Recently, I developed my own list. In the future, as I build my approaches to creativity, I hope to provide an even longer list. For now, I limited myself to 25.
25 Things to do with Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass”
1. Re-read the poem.
2. Memorize it.
3. Recite it.
4. Read the poem alongside other poems about Douglass such as Evie Shockley’s “(mis)takes one to know one,” Dudley Randall’s “Frederick Douglass and the Slave Breaker,” and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Douglass.”
5. Visit the Poetry Foundation web-site and listen to Hayden read the poem (he has a wonderful reading voice).
6. Give one line of the poem to 14 different people; have them read it out loud; record them reading it, and produce a choral reading of the poem.
7. Figure out which words Hayden repeats two or more times in the poem.
8. Imagine what it would be like to have an avatar of Douglass listen to Hayden reading the poem on Second Life.
9. Draw a picture of some of the visual images that the poem recalls or inspires.
10. Consider what the poem means from the perspective of afrofuturism.
11. Read the poem alongside other sonnets you like such as Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” and Allison Joseph’s "Sonnet for a Good Mood."
12. Look over an earlier version of the poem where Hayden used the line “when it belongs at last to our children” instead of his later line “when it belongs at last to all” and try to figure out why he decided to make the change.
13. Ask your facebook friends what they think about the poem.
14. Ask your tweeps what they think about the poem.
15. Imagine what a chronology of Hayden’s life looks like up to the moment he composes the initial and then subsequent drafts of the poem.
16. Tape the poem on the wall in your bedroom so that you can read it before going to sleep.
17. Have one of the illest designers you know produce a visually-stimulating postcard based on Frederick Douglass’s image and the concepts embodied in the Hayden poem. Print and distribute the postcard to over 500 people.
18. Try to imagine what Hayden may have been feeling when he wrote the poem. In other words, consider the poem’s tone.
19. Produce a short write-up about a 150+ year history of poems about slavery by African American poets and mention Hayden’s poem.
20. Encourage folks in a summer reading group to look over the poem before, during, and after reading Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
21. Coordinate a poetry correspondence program between college students and high school students focused on poetry and pinpoint Hayden’s poem as one that’s worth studying.
22. Imagine what an illustrated version of “Frederick Douglass” might look like.
23. Try to figure out some of the reasons why editors of collections of poetry found the poem so appealing and worth reprinting.
24. Look back over your list, identify your recurring patterns, and then produce a game-changing remix to aspects of the list that would even make Lil Wayne proud.
25. Compose a list of 25 things that you can do with the poem.