Grimes/Hughes-Bronx Masquerade

Nikki Grimes is an author, poet, lecturer and educator who was born and
raised in New York City. As the author of more than two dozen books for children, she has
described writing as her first love and poetry as her greatest pleasure.
She has said that, "The word, both written and spoken, has always held a special
fascination for me. It seemed uncanny that words, spread across a page just so, had the
power to transport me to another time and place."
Throughout her career, Grimes has become known for her strong African American
voice as well as her universal themes of friendship, and family and community relationships.
Several of her books have been cited as Notable Books by the
American Library Association, including Come Sunday, a picture book in verse,
Something on My Mind and Meet Danitra Brown, which also received a Coretta
Scott King Honor. Her recent books are At the Break of Day, Aneesa Lee and the
Weaver's Gift, Hopscotch Love: A Family Treasury, A Dime a Dozen and
Jasmine's Notebook.
Book reviews
"This is almost like a play for 18 voices, as Grimes...moves her narration among a group of high school students in
the Bronx. The English teacher, Mr. Ward, accepts a set of poems from Wesley, his response to a month of reading
poetry from the Harlem Renaissance. Soon there's an open-mike poetry reading, sponsored by Mr. Ward, every
month, and then later, every week. The chapters in the students' voices alternate with the poem read by that
student, defiant, shy, terrified. All of them, black, Latino, white, male, and female, talk about the unease and
alienation endemic to their ages, and they do it in fresh and appealing voices...Beyond those capsules are rich and
complex teens, and their tentative reaching out to each other increases as though the poems they also find more of
themselves." Kirkus, starred review
"A poet herself, author Grimes creates a montage of voices whose commonality rests in their sense of isolation and
yearning to belong. Whether their poems...are in rap, free verse, or conscious rhyme, these kids surprise one
another in part with how much they are alike. In shared pain and need, they all become poets; as readers, we want
to believe their individual poetic gifts, even as we hear Grimes's considerable talent behind theirs...the
book...succeeds because it makes us want the best for these voices so clearly heard." Horn Book
"A flowing, rhythmic portrait of the diversity and individuality of teen characters in a classroom in Anywhere,
U.S.A...Readers meet Tyrone, an aspiring songwriter who sees no use for school; Lupe, who thinks that becoming
a mother would give her the love she lacks in her life; and Janelle, who is struggling with her body
image...Competent and reluctant readers alike will recognize and empathize with these teens. As always, Grimes
gives young people exactly what they're looking for—real characters who show them they are not alone." School
Library Journal
2003 Coretta Scott King Author Award
Best Book for Young Adults
Children's Literature Choice
Quick Pick for Young Adult Reluctant Readers
Junior Library Guild Selection
New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
I’ve led so many lives, sometimes I feel as though I’m a dozen different people,
all rolled into one. I’ve lived in Tanzania and Sweden. I’ve made my home in New York,
New Jersey, Washington, and California. I’ve worked as an administrative assistant,
financial aid officer, documentary photographer, proofreader, translator, literary
consultant, and library assistant. I’ve freelanced for newspapers and magazines, edited
books, sung backup for a gospel singer, toured Sweden with my own band, and coproduced radio shows here and abroad. Is it any wonder I’m comfortable creating books
in multiple voices? One such book was Bronx Masquerade.
Bronx Masquerade is a novel written in 18 voices. It follows a classroom of
high school students over the course of a year, exploring who they are behind the masks
they wear, and using poetry to do it.
Bronx has no single main character, in the traditional sense, but there is one
character whose point of view is represented throughout: Tyrone Bittings. Tyrone serves
as Greek chorus, commenting on every character in the book. He helps the reader
connect the dots from character to character and from one subplot to the next. Each
character has his own story to tell, but Tyrone is privy to them all.
Here’s a good place to answer one of the most common questions I
get about this book: which of the characters am I most like? Of all the
characters, I am most like Sterling, whose faith is central to his life. And
Gloria, as I was a single mom in college. And Janelle, as I, too, struggled with poor
self-image, though unlike Janelle, my problem was being too skinny. Like Amy, I was estranged
from my parent. Like Diondra, I struggled to earn my parent’s respect for my art. Like Raul, I
enjoyed the support of at least one family member, namely my sister. Like Lupe, I thought having a
baby would fill me up emotionally. Like Lesley, I was moved around a lot and knew how lonely that
could be. In other words, I connect with every character in the book. I either shared some aspect of
their experience, or I have known someone who did.
I knew people like Raynard, and Sheila, and all the rest. The characters in Bronx
Masquerade are my peeps! So, while these characters are all fictional, they come from someplace
real. (There is one real person in the book, though: Mr. Ward. That character is based on a teacher
and poet I am honored to call my friend.)
The plot of Bronx is as tricky to pin down as the main protagonist, but the core plot is
the genesis and development of a poetry movement at a high school.
As far as the main theme, once again, Bronx leaves the reader scratching his head. There
are many themes: friendship has power, don’t judge a book by its cover, believe in yourself, the
grass is not always greener, and more. Each small story has its own theme, or core idea.
However, the overriding theme of the novel is poetry has power, specifically the power
of poetry as a means of self-expression, as a strategy for shaping community, and as a tool for
teaching us that we are all alike beneath the skin. We all bleed when cut, and when everything else is
stripped away, the greatest common denominator is the human heart. That’s what Bronx
Masquerade is all about.
Bronx is not meant to be an easy book to categorize. When I wrote it, my intent was to
create something new, something different. I like coloring outside the lines. I always have!
Combining prose and poetry to create a novel was one way to do that.
I’ve been asked about the difficulty of writing in multiple voices. It is something I’ve
done a great deal, and plan to do in the future. I love the challenge of it, although it is not as difficult
to differentiate the voices as one might imagine.
Think of the people in your family. Now think of five or ten people you know outside of
the home. When one of those people calls your name, or rings you up on the telephone, can you
recognize his or her voice? Can you identify the person after hearing a word or two? Generally, the
answer is yes. Your subconscious has committed that voice to memory. Granted, you may
occasionally get two voices mixed up and you may have to let the person talk for a minute or two
before you can positively identify the speaker, but in the end, you’re able to distinguish one person
from another by the color, pitch, and rhythm of the voice.
Endings are tough, especially when your editor isn’t easily satisfied. Mine made me
rewrite the stinking ending three times before she was happy! Believe it or not, we’re still friends.
Just kidding!
So, now you have the story behind the story of Bronx Masquerade. I hope this helps to
make your reading experience that much richer!
The poetry of Langston Hughes is mentioned in the
opening chapters of Bronx Masquerade. The following slides give
a brief historical background and examples of Hughes’ poetry.
Take notes on Hughes’ life and summarize who he was in a
paragraph. (Due tomorrow as a graded assignment!)
“Walkers with the Dawn”
Being walkers with the dawn and morning,
Walkers with the sun and morning,
We are not afraid of night,
Nor days of gloom,
Nor darkness
Being walkers with the sun and morning.
“Quiet Girl”
I would liken you
To a night without stars
Were it not for your eyes.
I would liken you
To a sleep without dreams
Were it not for your songs.
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Mo., in 1902. During his high school
years, he began writing poetry. He moved to Harlem, New York, in November 1924 and his
first book of poetry, "The Weary Blues," was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1926. Three
years later he finished his college education.
Hughes is known for his portrayals of black life in America, and his art reflects a
strong jazz influence. His writing is an important contribution to the body of work
produced during the Harlem Renaissance. He was also the author of numerous novels, short
stories and plays. Langston Hughes died in 1967.
"Langston Hughes belongs to whoever is listening. A possession in common, like the sights
and sounds of a street corner hangout, or the barbershop debate over pretty girls' legs, and baseball
players: Open your ears and your heart if you've got one; Langston will walk right in and do the rest.
His thoughts…conceived in the open, are only at home in the public domain. Free, without charge, like
water, like air -- like salted peanuts at a Harlem rent party. Come in, have one on me -- that's
Langston's style; a great host; a perfect bartender; dishing it up, iambic pentameter, on the rocks and
on the house, fresh wrote this morning. Dead now, but still alive. Ol' Langston in the corners of my
mind." -- Ossie Davis.
For Hughes, writing for children
was important. Starting with the successful
Popo and Fifina (1932), a tale set in Haiti and
written with Arna Bontemps, he eventually
published a dozen children's books, on
subjects such as jazz, Africa, and the West
Proud of his versatility, he also
wrote a commissioned history of the NAACP
and the text of a much praised pictorial
history of black America. His text in The
Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), where he
explicated photographs of Harlem by Roy
DeCarava, was judged masterful by
reviewers, and confirmed Hughes's
reputation for an unrivaled command of the
nuances of black urban culture.
Sweet flypaper of life
Ray DeCarava, and
Langston Hughes’ Sweet
flypaper of life illustrates, with
picture and with dialog, the
positive side of life in Harlem.
Though times were difficult,
Harlem was not without
beauty. Family, friendship, and
religion were areas of
strength, Roy DeCarava
captures these moments of
intimacy and warmth in his
photographs of Harlem.
Langston Hughes details a
less known side of people and
everyday life in Harlem.
His popular comic character Jesse B. Semple, or "Simple,"
appeared in columns for the Chicago Defender and the New York Post.
Hughes had met the prototype of the character in a bar. The ironic
comments of the street-wise Harlem dweller were first collected into
SIMPLE SPEAKS HIS MIND (1950). In the last Simple collection,
SIMPLE'S UNCLE SAM (1965), Hughes wrote: "My mama should have
named me Job instead of Jesse B. Semple. I have been underfed,
underpaid, undernourished, and everything but undertaken - yet I am
still here. The only thing I am afraid of now - is that I will die before my
U.S. Postal Service Celebrates 25th
Anniversary of Black Heritage Stamp Series
NEW YORK, N.Y. - Langston Hughes - known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in
America from the twenties through the sixties - will soon receive one of the nation's highest honors when
the U.S. Postal Service issues a new commemorative postage stamp in his honor.
The stamp commemorates both the centennial of Hughes' birth and the 25th anniversary of the Black
Heritage series. The Black Heritage series began in 1978 with the issuance of the Harriet Tubman
commemorative stamp. The Hughes stamp will be issued February 1, 2002, at the Schomburg Center for
Research in Black Culture, New York, N.Y.
The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has dark moons of weariness
Beneath his eyes
Where the smoldering memory
Of slave ships
Blazed to the crack of whips
About his thighs.
The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has a head of vibrant hair
Tamed down,
Patent-leathered now
Until it gleams
Like jetWere jet a crown.
“The poem reminds me of walking by a night
club and looking through the open door. In the
light from inside, I'm able to see the clear
image of the trumpet player. There is no
mistaking the voice of this poem has been many
times at this and other clubs. He is sharing his
direct experience with us. He is as much a part
of the scene as the trumpet player. They know
each other.”
The music
From the trumpet at his lips
Is honey
Mixed with liquid fire.
The rhythm
From the trumpet at his lips
Is ectasy
Distilled from old desire...
But softly
As the tune comes from his throat
Mellows to a golden note.
(Selected Poems, p. 112)
Henry "Red" Allen and his band played jazz
to Langston Hughes's poetry.
“Dream Deferred”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world
and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathe in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans,* and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
*Lincoln's determination to end slavery was said to have started when,
as a young man, he visited New Orleans for the first time.
(In the style of…L Hughes)
With apologies to Langston Hughes
I’ve known desks, wooden desks, steel desks,
L-shaped computer work centers,
My soul has grown deep as the
Scratches, scars and dents on the desks.
I laid my heart upon the desk when I was young
I built my life upon making others more than myself
I heard the slapping of high fives when hearing became
understanding and knowledge became joy.
I’ve known desks, wooden desks, steel desks,
L-shaped computer work centers.
My soul has grown deep as the
Scratches, scars and dents on the desks.
Anita Clay