Written by: Ntozake Shange
Illustrated by: Kadie Nelson
Published by: Simon & Schuster for young readers
Social Justice Element IV
Ellington Was Not a Street is a poem about a little girl's experiences with some of the most influential figures of the African-American cultural revolution in the United States. The cultural figures in this book encapsulate some of the greatest creative minds of a generation, including influential figures like Duke Ellington, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Dizzy Gillespie and many more. The story reflects on a time before these figures, and their names, were merely passed over every day with nonchalance as just words on a street sign, and brings light to the real people who contributed to changing the world. This is an important book for that very reason, as it attempts to bring to life the real people behind the names, and reminds readers that there was a time in the United States, in the not so distant past, when these figures needed to work towards changing the world.
Why Element 4?
Element four is of the utmost importance for students to learn about and be knowledgeable about as it discusses the importance of social movement and social change. One of the most important aspects of understanding social movement or change is knowing the figures that work towards these changes, the risks they take, and the motivations for the decisions they make. To me, this makes Ellington Was Not a Street a book that every student should read and learn about because it brings a different side of social movement and change to light. Rather than highlighting one influential figure, and reflecting on one change that they may have advocated for, this book introduces us to the time period when a myriad of figures were real people, not just immortalized names. I think that the personal nature of the story, the little girl who experienced these figures as every day people in her home and realized that they were all important and intricate members of a movement that changed the world forever, is what makes it a powerful example of social justice element number four. In order for a student to appreciate a story about a huge named figured in the world of social change, like a Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr., they must develop an understanding of the time when change was being made by real, accessible people who would one day become immortalized as some of the most important names in history.
How would I use this story?
I see this book as a great opening read in a unit about social change, civil rights, or anything which promotes a student to advocate for a social movement. It offers an I compromised look at the real side of some figures that students may only know as immortalized names. I think a good activity might be one similar to the idea that the title of the story promotes. I would have students create a street sign which is derived from a their last name and have them develop a social change that they want to advocate for. The students could then write a paragraph about the social change they want, and present both their newly named street and their change to the class. This project could help to promote the ideas of social justice element four, which focuses on real, every day people being able to create changes in the world.