Monday, January 14, 2013

Harlem: a poem by Walter Dean Myers, pictures by Christopher Myers

Harlem is a multicultural poem written by Walter Dean Myers in 1997, with pictures by Christopher Myers.  The poem describes the history and uniqueness of Harlem within New York City.  The neighborhood of Harlem possesses great personality with its people, sights, art, music, spirituality, and more (Myers, 1997).  Harlem would be classified under the genre of poetry, which has been formatted in a free-verse style that does not possess rhyming (Galda, Cullinan, Sipe, 2010).  The poem also uses strong evocative language that conveys the experiences Myers had within Harlem.  The illustrations of people and the community are brought to life through detailed pictures and a vibrant combination of colors.  The illustrations even appear textured and as though the reader could touch and feel characteristics of each picture.

Harlem is a poem that could be read at a 4th-6th grade level.  Though the content would be interesting for the intended readers, it may be difficult for students to understand the message due to the word choice and structure of several verses, as well as various names and locations discussed (Galda et al., 2010).  Within the poem, individuals such as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, and James Baldwin are discussed, and locations such as Lenox Avenue and “the villages of Ghana/Mali/Senegal are mentioned;” an educator may need to research vocabulary, locations, and names prior to presenting the poem to the class to ensure understanding (Myers, 1997).  The pictures, however, correspond significantly with the verses, allowing readers to establish meaning. 

Harlem also contains poetic devices that enhance the overall meaning of the poem as well (Galda et al., 2010).  To begin with, a metaphor can be found in the statement “Harlem was a promise;” one knows that Harlem is not actually a promise, but Myers (1997) compares these two unlike things to strengthen his feelings about the neighborhood.  Personification can be found in the verse “Colors loud enough to be heard,” as a thing or inanimate object such as colors is given a quality such as being loud (Myers, 1997).  Also, Myers (1997) incorporates a simile when he states, “Heavy hearted tambourine rhythms Loosed in the hard city Like a scream torn from the throat Of an ancient clarinet”.  In this passage, the author is comparing a tambourine’s rhythm and a scream, though unlike things. Lastly, the way that the poem is structured helps readers to comprehend the subject of Harlem, as one can almost hear the poem being read with a blues band keeping a beat in the background. 

I really enjoyed reading Harlem, and would definitely suggest for this poem to be read in 4th-6th grade classrooms.  To be honest, I read through the poem several times to be sure that I understood the meanings on each page, as several pages required the reader to dig deeper than just the words on the page.  I fell in love with the illustrations of Harlem, and was touched to discover that the illustrator, Christopher Myers, is the son of the author, Walter Dean Myers (Myers, n.d.).  The book is also dedicated to Myer’s foster parents who raised Myers in Harlem; though he loved the neighborhood, his teen years were difficult, so writing was a form of escape.  Myers has written many more books, several of which include Monster, Harlem Summer, and Somewhere in the Darkness (Myers, n.d.). 

Below are 2 motivational activities and reader response questions that would be beneficial for students within the classroom:

  1. The 1st activity would be a form of “Community Share,” where the whole class would interact and discuss the poem together (Galda et al., 2010, p. 350).  Due to the difficulty that students may have understanding Harlem, I feel that it would be important for the poem to be read as a class, and then to have a class discussion following the reading.  Prior to reading, I would like to discuss “Poetic Techniques” that students may find while reading poetry; these may include alliteration, metaphor, and personification (p. 147).  While reading, I will encourage questions and will reread pages that are difficult for students to understand.  After the poem is read and clarified, I would have students write about what they had heard.  This quick writing activity would help promote unique ideas, which would then be discussed as a class/community.  I would also like to discuss the many meanings of the word multicultural, and discuss why Myers would write “Harlem was a promise Of a better life, of a place where a man didn’t Have to know his place Simply because he was Black” (Myers, 1997). 
  2. The 2nd activity would begin as an individual task in which students would write a short poem about his or her neighborhood.  Students will be required to use several poetic devices, to choose an appropriate name/title for the neighborhood/poem and to write about the people, sounds, smells, and anything else that is distinguishing and unique about the neighborhood.  When work time is complete, students will partner up and share poems with one another.  If time, students will also be able to illustrate one picture to go along with the poem. 

Both of the above motivational activities align with the Saint Leo Core Value of Respect (Saint Leo University, 1889).  Respect involves valuing others and being aware of another’s worth.  We should admire “all individuals’ unique talents,” and appreciate the contributions, efforts, and ideas of others (Saint Leo University, 1889).  With the above activities, students will be learning about the Harlem culture, and will also learn to value a way of life other than his or her own.  Providing for a book reading and open discussion with the class (as in activity 1), clarifications can be made so that students will not hold misjudgments or stereotypes about another’s culture.  By writing about one’s own neighborhood (as in activity 2), students will learn about diversity within his or her class, as well as within the city; with this, students will learn how multicultural the United states is, as even one city holds great uniqueness.  Overall, and through the many differences, beings are able to live together harmoniously, no matter one’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, education level, and so on.

Reader Response Questions:

  1. What connections are there between the poem and your life?
  2. Is there anything that you didn’t know, that you do know now after reading the poem?
  3. What do you think the author’s purpose was for writing this poem?


Galda, L., Cullinan, B.E., Sipe, L. R. (2010).  Literature and the Child (7th ed.).  Belmont, CA: 

Wadsworth, Inc.

Myers, W.D. (1997).  Harlem.  New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.

Myers, W.D. (n.d.).  Walter Dean Myers: Biography.  Retrieved from

Saint Leo University. (1889).  Saint Leo University: Mission & Values. Retrieved from

Scholastic. (c. 1997).  “Harlem.”  [online image]. Retrieved from

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