To date, the Composition for Honors class at Howard University in Washington, DC has produced seven widely acclaimed anthologies of prose and verse entitled Faces and Voices. As noted in some earlier reviews, the project has benefited from the overall tutelage of E. R. Braithwaite, the distinguished sage and writer. The anthologies have been published in limited print editions and in electronic form by Howard University Libraries, under the Direction of Mohamed Mekkawi. Like its predecessors, this year’s anthology reflects the wide range of interests, experiences, hopes, and aspirations of freshmen students.
Each anthology is a student production. It is put together by an Editorial Board of students headed by an Editor-in-Chief and a Co-Editor-in-Chief. These, together with seven other members of the editorial staff, are responsible for collecting and screening the articles submitted for publication. Each potential contributor is assigned an editor whose function is to ensure quality control and that submissions are delivered on a timely basis. This applies to the Professor, E. R. Braithwaite, who frequently submits pieces of prose and verse. On an overall basis, strict standards are set and maintained. A student photographer is responsible for headshots of contributors, and another in charge of accounting. The printed edition carries photographs of all contributors. The electronic version is housed in Creativity Zone: a Web Magazine of the Arts published by Howard University Libraries.
Pedagogy and Professor
A few years ago I visited one of Braithwaite’s Composition for Honors classes on the first day of the semester. The luminary asked whether anyone would like to offer an opinion on the three words – Composition for Honors. No one ventured a response. He then proceeded to state: "In this class you will learn to use your language well. Let there be no doubt that you are university students, you are members of a university, you must think and speak like university students. Everything about you must bespeak that. English is your language. A great deal of important men contributed to the language to make this language the living, breathing vital thing it now is. The best respect you can pay the language is to use it well. In the Honors class we work at developing the language in five parts: listening, thinking, speaking, reading, and writing. When you are proficient in all five areas, you will discover a new strength in yourself. By the time you are finished you should master all five."
The first requirement of the class included a small dictionary and notebook, the latter ensuring that the students always make notes. This served Braithwaite well in the writing of his six books. To Sir, With Love (1959); Paid Servant (1962); A Kind of Homecoming (1962); Choice of Straws (1965); Reluctant Neighbors (1972); and Honorary White (1975). After such housekeeping, Braithwaite proceeded to emphasize Composition and its meaning – the artistic arrangement of things. As he intimated, “you are arranging words artistically not casually. We will arrange the words like bouquets–anything you have to write or speak, you will write and say having arranged the words. When honors students speak or write you do it with elegance.” This was also linked to personal worth. He told his students “when you come to class, you bring with you who you are–your strengths, your weaknesses and your shortcomings. We encourage, we listen, and we share. The classroom is a small community of people. No one is better or worse than anyone else. Am I making myself clear?” The resounding “Yes Sir” followed in chorus.
Braithwaite told his Composition for Honors students on the first day of class, “there are twenty-two teachers and twenty-two learners in this classroom.” This philosophy was adumbrated in Faces and Voices 6, as follows:
As mentioned earlier, Braithwaite has been a regular contributor to the anthologies, especially in the form of Conversation Pieces. The idea of conversation or dialogue is central to his own writing and teaching style. In a classroom setting, this implies that students begin to know themselves as beings of inherent worth and self-esteem. At the same time, teachers and educators can begin to learn that students are capable of dialogue despite the straightjacket imposed by the traditional pedagogy or expectation that the teachers know all the answers and should impart knowledge mainly through monologues and rote.
On December 4, 2003, Braithwaite dropped in at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School in Washington, D.C. at the invitation of master teacher Ms. Loretta Kelly and her 12th grade English class. The students had read, analyzed and did vocabulary exercises of the 22 chapters of To Sir, With Love. They wanted to share their findings with the legendary teacher. Braithwaite told the audience of teachers, students, administrators, and members of the press: “I am not here to lecture to you. I don’t lecture at Howard University. I talk with students. We have dialogues. With a lecture, I stand, talk and leave.” Washington Times reporter Denise Barnes covered the visit on December 5, 2003 in ‘Sir’ continues lessons about life. The colloquium touched and inspired all in general, and two students in particular. Mr. Anyanwu was inspired by To Sir, With Love and said he learned an invaluable life lesson. On March 18, 2004 Ms. Johnson a student of Ms. Kelly’s class at Coolidge Senior High won the prose award at The Talent Search for Young Black Writers sponsored by the Links, Inc of the Metropolitan Area. At the awards ceremony held at The Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Ms. Johnson told the audience that she decided to submit a prose offering after hearing Braithwaite tell her class at Calvin Coolidge,”You must know your language, you must own it–make it serve you in every possible way. When you can read and speak well, your life belongs to you.”
Braithwaite’s "Conversation Piece" in Faces and Voices 7 discusses a matter raised during his class on the Writing Workshop about the relationship between reading and writing. He suggests that the first requirement in any workshop is familiarity with the tools and materials associated with the activity. He discusses the tools of dressmakers and carpenters. Braithwaite tells his Writing Workshop that: “a writer’s raw materials are words. Lots and lots of words… That’s why we must read. If we don’t read, we don’t have the words we need when we wish to give expression to all those wonderful ideas running around in our heads, seeking a way out… If you want to write, you must read… The more you read, the more varied your reading, and the more familiar you become with words.”
Students and Their Compositions
There were twenty-two students in the Composition for Honors Class (2002-2003). Last year the class had thirty-three students. A limit was placed on the number of students who registered for the course in order that other Professors could have a quorum. The students come to Howard University located in the nation's capital from across the United States and some foreign countries. Females outnumber males in the classroom—eighteen females and four males. Their majors include Business and Finance (16); Economics (1); Chemistry (1); Biology (1); Psychology (1); Mathematics (1); and English (1). They are all freshmen (first year of tertiary education), and many are away from home for the first time. Their honors and awards include: National Honor Roll, National Honor Society, Howard University Legacy Scholarships, School of Business Executive Leadership Honors Program, Howard University Laureate Scholarship, State awards merit scholarships, National Achievement Scholars, Inroads interns, Presidential Scholarships and several community honors and awards. Mr. Akinola, a student in the class, says that he would “rather not make mention of his accolades as not to affect the perspectives of the readers, for the moment belongs to the art and not the artist.” How very profound!
The Composition for Honors Class in the Department of English forms a small community or temporary venue that meets with their famous professor E. R. Braithwaite three times a week for a total of one hundred and fifty minutes. The course is offered in two semesters. Their textbook is E. R. Braithwaite’s autobiographical tour-de-force To Sir, With Love. Members of this class used a large print edition of the book published in 2002 by Center Point Publishing, Maine, USA. In addition, they read newspapers, journal articles, magazine articles, and so on. They discuss and share information on topics dealing with life in general and campus life in the particular. They are challenged, cajoled, and encouraged in all classroom activities.
Exemplars and Themes
The writings and expressions of the student contributors bear the heavy imprint of the societal problems facing our youth in the new millennium. These are exemplified by very insightful social commentary on the multiplicity of forces affecting the human development potential in this complex world. The broad-based anthology addresses themes in forty-one offerings of verse and twenty-five of prose. Themes include: matters of the heart, love and romance, war, slavery and ancestry, freedom and equality, religious and other spiritual matters, search for identity, childhood memories, journeys to adulthood, Howard University Student matters, friends and friendship, happiness, death by suicide, disease, murder, drug use; and Caribbean culture (voodoo). Through the lens of Faces and Voices 7, the thematic thrust and linguistic skills of the students are highlighted as a means of demonstrating the extent to which they have met the challenge of using words as imaginatively and artistically as their intelligence would allow.
Love and Romance
They are young and in love. Love is in the air. They have expressed their feelings mostly in verse. True love, the end of love, complete love, hoping for love, lost love, love and rejection, eternal love, love misplaced, love for a woman, loving oneself, romantic thoughts of a loved one, a mother’s unconditional love for her son, love that hurts, loving a womanizer and a cheater, love through a lover’s eye, love and tribute for a dead mother, love for Howard University, reminisces of past love, love for a murdered pet and the end of love. Most of the themes are embedded in verse, but there are some poignant vignettes. Akinseye Akinolo’s verse on “Flow” is brilliant – he wants us to know that he writes not for the sake of poetry and prose – for love flows from the depth of his being. Faith Roger’s verse entitled "LOVE" says that her lover’s eyes are: “so captivating, uniquely beautiful, slightly promiscuous, and yet so powerful that they take whole control of my body and soul with a grip that just won’t let go.” Her lover’s eyes have such a strong hold over her that she could never breakaway and be free… Those eyes mean everything to her. Loren Perkins-Johnson opines, “wanting to fall in love is so hard… It’s so frightening: Love” Jamila Blake’s "The Long Wait" and Lauren Chisholm’s "Table for Two" deal with women being stood up by lovers at restaurants. In "Table for Two", after the young man was told on the telephone of the young woman’s pregnancy he decided not to show up at the restaurant. On a positive note, LaKrishna Freeman has “found a friend for life” in "A Friend like You."
Students have discussed war and politics in general, and the US-Iraq war in particular. They have expressed extreme dissatisfaction over the current administration’s handling of the war in both prose and verse. Gabriel Tuck’s "Bombs over Bagdad" concludes that the “US takes Iraq, but at what cost?” In "Tiffani Jones Before and After," she says,” nothing before prepared us for this phantom war.” "The Coin’s Two Faces", "Forced to Serve", "An Ill Wind" and "The Fog of War” all analyzed the war in historical and political terms. Kyree Holmes piece on "An Ill Wind" warns us that, “we must stand our ground.” Ebony DeLeon’s prose offering of The "Coin’s Two Faces" advises that, “ we shed our passive natures and take a determined stand against the dishonorable actions of government.” Akinseye Akinola’s prose piece on "The Fog of War", quotes Desiderius Erasmus in his relentless attack on the Bush administration, that, “War is delightful to those who have had no experience of it.”
Some Songs Weren’t Meant for Singing
One theme (Some Songs Aren’t Meant to Be Sung) centers on an excerpt from Choice of Straws, a novel by E. R. Braithwaite published in 1965 by London’s Bodley Head (See Picture Gallery). Four contributors developed the theme. The plot delineates the unintended deaths resulting from a black-bashing expedition of identical English twin brothers, Jack and Dave Bennett. One evening they tried to accost a black man (a spade) who unexpectedly turned out to be a tough fighter. Dave drew a knife, the man was killed, and Dave was seriously wounded. Later that evening, Dave was killed in a car crash far from the scene of the incident. Choice of Straws is Jack’s own account of the events and weeks that followed. He was grief stricken and tormented by his brother’s death and deeply ashamed about their attack on the black man. His confusion deepened when he met a beautiful black girl, Michelle. Based on this raw material, Braithwaite was able to draw a memorable portrait of a young man who was forced to come to grips with the multi-racial society in which he lived.
An important secondary theme in Choice of Straws concerns the search for identity, freedom and equality, especially by third generation blacks who were born in Britain. Dave and Jack Bennet discussed the lyrics of an American folk song. Dave said THAT the words were okay but the fellow spoiled them by singing. When Dave wondered about the singer’s excitement, because after all, “it was a song,” Jack replied that it was a song, but “some songs were not meant for singing, that people spoiled the music of the words when they tried to sing them”.
Charlene Brown’s verse captures the essence of the excerpt. She expresses her interpretation of the theme in verse:
Randi Bridges paS tribute to a very special song – The National Anthem of the U.S.A. He writes in his prose piece “the words protect, the song does not; the words secure, the song does not; the words touch "America’s heart, the song does not." He said, “ the poem should be honored by holding some national rank in American History but the form of a song is not serving it justice.”
In a brilliant prose offering, Sherry – Ann de Coteau takes us back to slavery, “when all you could do was sing because of the pain and degradation. Sing of the injustices. Sing for the strength to withstand all attempts to break your spirit. Humans were not meant to survive such incivilities. How could we still have the strength to sing?” She ended her piece with some words from Langston Hughes:
Professor Braithwaite returned to his only fictional major work Choice of Straws, for his verse offering to Faces and Voices 7. Braithwaite’s contribution was an updated version entitled "Red Tie" -a short bit of verse written by Dave Bennett a fictional character in Choice of Straws. The readers of Faces and Voices 6 were treated to Braithwaite’s Eventide, another updated verse from Choice of Straws.
The contributors are trying to find their identities both in verse and prose offerings. Roniesha’s Copeland in "A New World“ woke up to find that a life she never thought would change was no longer the same.” Some contributors addressed the childhood innocence of boys and girls. Michelle Boyd’s "Childhood Memories" reminisces on the pleasures of childhood days and then asks: “Why I am growing up and changing those ways?” Sherry – Ann de Coteau’s "Free to be" opines that girls do not have to worry about women things like breast cancer, fibroids and broken hearts. Well Sherry, girls do grow up fast to become women! Chrystial Ramdial’s verse offering "Who am I" searches deep inside, “ for a girl who just wants to be loved and has decided to love herself. She must live, love and laugh." She wonders if she discovers her true self whether she would like what she sees. Kristen Wilson uses the senses to discover her identity "Happiness" feels, hears, sees, tastes, smells and even dances through a variety of experiences. Randi Bridges "When Innocence Says Goodbye" addresses the circumstances under which boys and girls lose their innocence from ages five to thirteen and that the innocence of a child is being lost every day. Sherry – Ann de Coteau Me serves up a delectable "ME" in verse:
Six contributors elaborated on the theme of the University. Nubia Regina Murray, a prestigious Inroads Intern with a full paragraph of accolades sets the stage in her general piece on “Screen it out Commentary.” She warns: “ that computers will never replace the need for teacher-student interaction and should only to be used to supplement the role of the teacher in the classroom.” E R Braithwaite is an exemplar of that philosophy. There is plenty of teacher-student reaction in his classroom. Tiffani Jones in her verse offering entitled "Renaissance" pays tribute to Howard University. Ms.Jones is the Editor-in Chief of Faces and Voices 7. At such a tender age she is already thinking of her legacy. She pays tribute to the “ esteemed, prestigious ranks of Howard alums. - Marshall, Johnson, Wyatt, Drew, Morrison, Hurston, Truth, and Bethune…as they reached out to me I felt their pride, their warmth and my worth” So she is ready and willing to work at “the Capstone, the Mecca, the place of her rebirth.”A very positive, uplifting piece of verse.
Marsh Alexander discusses her hopes and aspirations in "Journeys." After her travels overseas and attending an American school, she felt in “a drift of chaos.” And then had to adjust to high school in the U.S.A. Howard represented another transition. She visited Howard several times before deciding to stay. She saw the institution as a “stepping stone enabling her to grow into a self-reliant, experienced woman.” She intends to excel academically and to participate in the variety of Programs the University offers. She intends to make her stay at Howard worthwhile. She felt in the end she had made the right decision in attending the right institution. Bravo!
In "Me and Howard," Charlene Brown says she is not fond of Howard - to put it lightly. She does not like the way Howard does things and does not care. She writes that “Howard has lied to me, been mean to me and generally mistreated me…Howard seems, extremely self-serving and condescending,” but she has found her “life calling.”
I enjoyed the prose piece "Dance with the Devil" by David Overton. Very creative! Overton receives an invitation from a female to a party on the fifth floor of Drew Hall, a men’s dormitory at Howard University. Two problems exist – Drew Hall has only four floors and the only females who inhabited it, according to Mr. Overton, were of “the rodent and insect persuasion.” He attends the party by way of a stairwell because the elevator only goes to the fourth floor. He is the only man in this party with the most beautiful women. He is warned to refrain from engaging in intimate acts. He ignores the warning and pays the price. He wakes up the next morning expecting to see the fifth floor. It does not exist. Furthermore, the fifth floor has marbled floors, exotic crystal chandeliers and the finest wallpaper contrasted to the dull paint on the other walls in Drew. All he sees are the familiar cobwebs and dull painted walls.
Death and Dying
In Faces and Voices 7 the grim reaper rears his ugly head in verse and prose pieces. The contributors have written at length about death by disease, especially cancer and its effects on the human body and mind. Deaths by murder and drug use are also addressed. One verse offering addresses multiple topics of the dreams and realities of a perfect family-mother, father, son, and daughter. Realities include, the son’s death by abortion, and death of the daughter because of drugs in her veins. The father is a murderer and the mother’s body is riddled with cancer. She thinks she will get away with the murder of her children. A young man pays tribute to his mother two months after she is buried. Savage, a pet poisoned by human savages; a cancer stricken mother gets a second chance from the son she abandoned; and a wife’s anguish against her son’s disapproval of placing his disabled father stricken with cancer in a nursing home. Patrice Mitchell’s prose piece on "A broken family" deals with a cancer-stricken mother who had abandoned her son—a sad piece, which ends on a positive note. She gets a second chance from the boy’s father, and spends her final days with her only child.
The entries of the twenty-three contributors make up a rich balanced assortment of forty-one pieces of verse and twenty-five pieces of prose. Some pieces address multiple themes. Honor students have used their language effectively and efficiently under the watch of their famous professor who continues to engage his students "about it and about" as so stated in The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyan. Professor Braithwaite opens the student anthology Faces and Voices 7 with a bit of verse from The Rubaiyat:
Braithwaite said that "the challenge he faces as a teacher is to engage each student about it and about” that together “we might overcome or avoid the emptiness which threatens every educational activity.”
Sir, the contributors of Faces and Voices 7 have spoken and written about universal and parochial. themes. They have not come out empty. All have “overcome that emptiness which threatens every educational activity.” We close this segment with two tributes: In her tribute to Braithwaite in Faces and Voices 7, Trenile N. Tillman writes "it has truly been my honor and privilege to be part of Professor Braithwaite’s Composition for Honors Class and to be part of this Anthology. Both experiences have been challenging, but yet rewarding and I am truly grateful for the opportunities that were presented to me.” Tiffani JeTaun Jones writes in the Foreword of Faces and Voices 7, “I extend my deepest gratitude, for surely none of this would have been possible without your tutelage, wisdom, and ever-prodding punctilious eye for the highest standard possible.”
E. R. Braithwaite goes To Budapest, With Love on Valentines Day
During the school year, E. R. Braithwaite took a week off from his classroom (his first leave of absence from his classes in six years) to represent the U.S.A. at worldwide Black History month celebrations at the invitation of U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, Nancy Brinker. This tribute to black history started out as a week at the initiative of noted black scholar Carter G. Woodson in 1926 and, due to the richness of material available, was extended to a month fifty years later. The impact evaluation report submitted by the U.S. Embassy in Budapest said that they “wanted to introduce a legendary writer and educator, who has sought to extend formal and routine teaching to ‘education’ in a broader sense of the word. His experiences with ‘difficult’ students in socially disadvantaged environments offered models, techniques, and more importantly, concepts to Hungarian teachers. Many Hungarian teachers are challenged in the classrooms with occasional discrimination against the Roma minority, and other hardships caused by the political and economic changes in Hungary.”
Braithwaite had a very busy and intensive program during his weeklong visit to Budapest. Before arriving in Hungary, Braithwaite stopped over in Austria for a showing of the film To Sir, With Love based on his autobiographical tour-de-force by the same name. Discussions and dialogues followed. His stay in Budapest began with an invitational showing of the film-classic To Sir, With Love. Braithwaite told the Budapest Sun that the film was more the director’s idea of what his book should have been about. He said that the film was restricted to the classroom, but that was but a small part of the book. Further, the film irritated him a bit. During a reception, hosted by the Ambassador, about 250 people had a chance to meet the legendary guest, and to talk to him about his life and the picture to follow. Invited guests included seven Ambassadors (In the sixties Braithwaite represented Guyana as Ambassador to the United Nations and later as Ambassador to Venezuela); cultural officers of diplomatic missions in Hungary; representatives of the Ministry of Education and other government institutions; rectors and university professors; teachers of high schools and primary schools from all over Hungary; educators; students; Fulbright scholars; representatives of the media (Hungarian Radio, Duna TV, MTV (both public television), Budapest Sun (one of Hungary’s English language weekly), and Magyar Hirlap national daily did special interviews with him; members of the civil society (including President of the Soros Foundation) and researchers (including members of the National Institute for Public Education).
In summarizing the results of this successful trip,the impact evaluation report emphasized that over the course of seven program events, Braithwaite engaged broad audiences from almost all walks of Hungary’s cultural and social life. Magyar Hirlap and Budapest Sun Weekly interviewed him. Braithwaite told the Budapest Sun Weekly that, “Any society which does not encourage its members to participate in shaping its history is losing something. It is not enough for me to have an American passport. I want to believe that without my contribution the US would not look, as it should. I consider my responsibility to contribute.” Hungarian Public Television invited Braithwaite to participate in the recording of a popular English Language program (English 4 U), which was aired on Sunday February 16, 2003. Braithwaite talked to students about his own lessons learned as an internationally recognized academic. His trip helped the Hungarians to revisit some of the burning issues such as equal opportunity, discrimination and the reform of teacher training. Sir told me he was “treated like royalty.”
I would like to thank Mr. Mohamed ‘Mod’ Mekkawi, Director of Howard University Libraries and Executive Editor of Creativity Zone for his support over the years not only to Faces and Voices, but also for the encouragement he has given to the Composition for Honors classes over the years. He has visited the class and encouraged students. I would also like to thank Ms. Rose Mekkawi, for the web support of Faces and Voices. My thanks also go out to the Editor-in Chief, of this year’s anthology, Ms. Tiffani JeTaun Jones for her high degree of professionalism and providing a well-edited printed edition. She has graciously thanked Ms.Randi Bridges and Ms.Michelle Boyd for final editing in the Foreword. My thanks to Ms. Christine A. Elder, Cultural Affairs Officer (CAO) at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest and her staff for the Department of State official impact evaluation report on E. R. Braithwaite - Black History Month Speaker, 2003, translated media documents, photographs and videocassette recordings of media reports. In closing, from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:
*Peggy Ann David is still working on a biography of E. R. Braithwaite. Email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2004Peggy Ann David