Unearthing Challenging History: Teaching Persona Poems in the Classroom

Author Thomas Wolfe once wrote, "You can't go home again." Ironically, I have always agreed with his sentiment. However, in 2012, it was necessary for me to do just that—return to my hometown, even though I vowed that I never would. My mother became ill, and I went home to become her caretaker.

Growing up, I found Greenville, South Carolina, a difficult place to live because of the racial tensions there. After living in Tacoma, Washington; Aviano, Italy; and Burlington, New Jersey, due to my father’s Air Force trek, we ended up in South Carolina in the 1970s when I was 13 years old. I felt as if the Civil Rights Movement did not exist there due to the racial tension and the cultural divide. So, even when duty called many years later when I was in my 40s, I still felt conflicted about South Carolina and its weighted history.

Still, going home turned out to be richly creative for me. I began to poetically investigate South Carolina from an adult perspective. Living with my mom allowed us to forge a precious bond. She told me stories about her life growing up in the South that I had never heard, and I started to understand the South contextually.

Why I Started Writing in Persona

At the same time, the Peace Center for the Performing Arts made me its Poet-in-Residence. Instead of traveling as a poet and teaching artist nationally, I could work directly with schools, teachers, and the community where I grew up. This included curating a literary program called Peace Voices. I began to embrace South Carolina’s bitter and sweet history by writing persona poems. I began to take on voices of African Americans whom I had not learned about in school.

Photo: Poet Glenis Redmond in a K-12 classroom.

Two men I have been writing about extensively are Clayton Bates and David Drake. My mother introduced me to Clayton Bates through her stories. Clayton Bates (nicknamed "Peg Leg" Bates) taught her and my father at Fountain Inn Negro High School. He became a famous one-legged tap dancer. Mom said he would come and perform assemblies and give motivational speeches. As a poet and teaching artist, I turned my gaze to African American history that needed to be unearthed. It allowed me to come back to Greenville and uplift local and regional history. Learning about Peg Leg Bates filled me with a sense of pride, and it also strengthened my ties of belonging to Greenville.

At the same time, I discovered David Drake through one of my colleagues, Dr. P. Gabrielle Foreman. She told me that I should write about him. David Drake was an enslaved potter and poet from Edgefield, South Carolina. Edgefield is approximately 50 minutes from where I grew up. His story attracted me because he was an outlier of his time. He became an artisan and also learned to read and write at a time when it was against the law for a black person to do so. I came home to take care of my mother, but I felt like I was the one being taken care of creatively. 

Photo: Pots by David Drake. (Courtesy of Glenis Redmond)

I began relating to South Carolina differently. I teach and perform the work that I unearth of our little-known history. Consequently, area teachers began teaching about Peg Leg Bates and David Drake. My work is published in literary journals across America. Persona poetry gave me a lens to look at the weighted history of South Carolina as well as celebrate its beauty. While writing persona, I learned that going home was a necessity for me to look at where I come from with new eyes. My goal is to have students, teachers, and writers alike do the same with their own histories.

What Is a Persona Poem?

The word persona is derived from the Latin word for mask. The writer is putting on a mask of a person, place, or object and writes from that perspective. Writing in persona encourages empathy, as a student must walk in someone else’s shoes; they must see the world differently. When writing in persona, subject matter, grammar, form, imagery, and point of view must all be considered.

Persona poetry can be used in many subject areas: history, social studies, drama, visual arts, music, and English. Having students create a poem in persona allows them to research the person in depth. Here are a few tips to teach students how to write a persona poem.

How to Write a Persona Poem

  1. Find a person to write about by making a list of family members, contemporary leaders, and people in history.
  2. Choose the person most compelling to you on the list.
  3. Create lists specific to the chosen person. Brainstorm, research, and dream. The more ideas to choose from when writing the poem, the greater potential for creative resonance.
  4. Obtain quotes. If it is a family member, make a list of quotes from that person, for example. If there is no such body of work, create two or three imagined quotes. See the poems below for reference.
  5. Pay attention to the world of the character. Include those observations in the poem.
  6. Write in the time, region, and era of the person. Use dialect or colloquial speech if appropriate.
  7. Locate and incorporate the mood, tone, and feeling of the person.
  8. Tell highlights and lowlights of the person’s story. Remember that it is not necessary to tell the whole story.

Persona Poem Examples

Here are two poems written about Clayton Bates and David Drake, two important South Carolina sons. Also below, find student persona poem examples written about David Drake.

  
  

Student Examples: 

  
   

Additional Resources About Clayton Bates and David Drake:

  • I Made This Jar: The Life and Works of the Enslaved African-American Potter, Dave. Edited by Jill Beute Koverman, 1998.
  • Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave. By Laban Carrick Hill, 2010.
  • Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet. By Andrea Cheng, 2013.
  • Knockin’ on Wood: Starring Peg Leg Bates. By Lynne Barasch, 2004.

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Learn more about the Literacy@Work web series featuring Glenis Redmond, an HMH effort to not only help students grow as readers and writers but also show them the lifelong role literacy plays in their lives.

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