Citation: Latham, I., Waters, C., Qualls, S., & Alko, S. (2018). Can I touch your hair?: Poems of race, mistakes, and friendship. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books.
Through the story of a poetry project where two children, one white and one black, are paired together to write a series of poems, Latham and Waters weave together sixteen pairs of poems on topics relevant to elementary age children (i.e. the beach, the playground, family dinners, going to church, sleepovers, punishment, etc.). Each of these pairs includes on poem from the perspective of the white student and one poem from the perspective of the black student to show how their lives are simultaneously very different and very much the same. It shines a light on racism in today’s youth and their families as well as privilege. The final poem— “Dear Ms. Vanderberg” is written by both students together in a hopeful tone about coming together and understanding each other from an open and empathetic point of view. An author’s note and an illustrator’s note close the book to explain how the book came to be and how to ask questions in a way that promotes understanding rather than judgement and separation.
Spotlight Poem: “Piano Lessons”
“My teacher says
I have piano hands—
long fingers, graceful wrists.
I lift my hands into the air,
and for the first time,
they look like birds
instead of shovels.
She can’t walk by that piano
without touching it,
my grandmother says.
She’s right. Even at night,
I play the piano in my mind,
all those white and black
keys singing together,
then resting side by side.”
This poem focuses on the difference between what we hear or think things should be and the change we experience with a new outlook. For example, Irene sees her own hands as clumsy and unfit for beauty. However, with the kind words from her teacher, she sees her hands as beautiful and capable of creating art. Her musical hands transform an ordinary instrument into something wonderful. It becomes a metaphor for relations between races. It shows the harmony that is possible in the right hands, Irene’s hands if she can begin to see past what she’s been told or what she thinks friendships should look like.
Take 5 Activity:
- Read the poem aloud to the class slowly.
- Give the class time to discuss the symbolism of the piano as they see it.
- Have a class-led discussion of racism and what we can do.
- Read Be Kind by Pat Z. Miller.
- Re-read the poem as a class and talk about kindness, empathy, and listening and how they impact racism.