Wisdom from the author Nikki Grimes

Nikki Grimes Uses Poetry to Connect Students to the Harlem Renaissance, Identity and Dreams

In her book, One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance, award-winning, Harlem-born author Nikki Grimes features poetry by Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Clara Ann Thompson and other influential writers of the Harlem Renaissance. The book is a conversation between Grimes and the writers featured as she employs the Golden Shovel poetry form. As described by Grimes in the book, “The idea of a Golden Shovel poem is to take a short poem in its entirety or a line from that poem (called a striking line), and create a new poem, using the words from the original…you arrange that line word by word in the right margin.”

The sixth-grade scholars in Mr. McCoy’s four Black History classes at Eagle Academy II in BedStuy, Brooklyn hit the ground running this fall as they immediately delved into One Last Word and researched the writers featured in the book. In preparation for Nikki’s visit the scholars wrote letters introducing themselves, their passions and interests to her.

Once some writing was underway, Behind the Book’s Teaching Artist, Candice, facilitated a workshop in which scholars created a mural inspired by Romare Bearden’s: The Block. The Block is a tribute to Bearden’s street in Harlem and the scholars each re-created a section of their own block showing barbershops, stores, churches, grocery stores and other symbols of their communities. Candice hung the scholar’s artwork all together so that Nikki was able to visualize the important elements of their neighborhoods. 


Scholars begin writing their own Golden Shovel poems using the first line of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s poem: Calling Dreams. 

The​ ​right​ ​to​ ​make​ ​my​ ​dreams​ ​come​ ​true

I ask, nay, I demand of life,
Nor shall fate’s deadly contraband
Impede my steps nor countermand.

Too long my heart against the ground
Has beat the dusty years around,
And now, at length I rise, I wake!
And stride into the morning-break!

The scholars wrote about their dreams and explored having to support family, going to college, jobs and different careers. Each scholar’s poem was embedded with their passion, interests and courage to share fears and obstacles. Mr. McCoy assisted the scholars in their writing process and once everyone had a first draft completed, Behind the Book volunteers came into their classrooms to serve as Writing Coaches. The scholars were thrilled to meet the volunteers and hear about their work and interests, while also sharing about themselves. The Writing Coaches helped get scholars from a first or second draft to nearly their final draft by assisting them to find creative word choices and to help in deepening certain concepts and narratives.

The weeks of work culminated in Nikki Grimes Day held at Eagle Academy II on October 23rd. Grimes spent one hour in a large group setting talking to the scholars about her life, work and influences.  Grimes was very open in talking about the way in which racism, poverty and homelessness had made her young life painful in many ways, but that the role of poetry in her life helped her navigate difficult moments. Grimes shared, “Nothing is more healing than poetry.”

Grimes read selections from several of her books, including One Last Word and Garvey’s Choice. The latter is a book written in verse about a young boy whose own aspirations and interests conflict with his distant father’s interests, and the way in which music allows him to overcome the pain of bullying and not being understood by family. Several scholars wrote about how they are viewed on the outside (“thug” or “troublemaker”) versus who they really are (“lover of family” or “scientist”) in their Golden Shovel poems, making Garvey’s Choice particularly relevant to their lived experiences.

After the larger assembly setting, scholars were divided into several smaller groups with some of them being chosen to share their original Golden Shovel poems with Grimes and their peers. This was also an opportunity for them to ask her questions in a smaller and more intimate setting. The questions asked were thoughtful with some scholars asking where she went to college and what inspires her to write and others asking about how she would summarize her life in three sentences and how did she cope and succeed in spite of having “a target on her back” (something she referenced during her talk about the struggle of being black in America). 

As is the case with all Behind the Book programs, every scholar received their own copy of One Last Word that was autographed by Grimes herself. The scholars were enthused to have met Nikki Grimes and hear her speak about her work. The program not only gave them this opportunity to connect with an author, but also a chance to explore their own identity and aspirations through writing poetry.