Our 2021 Big Read Lakeshore programming has come to an end. Even though our events are over, we hope that the discussions are only just beginning about An American Sunrise and the themes within this collection of poetry. 

Joy Harjo’s poem “An American Sunrise” reminds us of the fact that even though something has ended, there are hopeful and hope-filled new beginnings. 

An American Sunrise (poem) 
By: Joy Harjo 

We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We
were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.
It was difficult to lose days in the Indian bar if you were straight.
Easy if you played pool and drank to remember to forget. We
made plans to be professional — and did. And some of us could sing
so we drummed a fire-lit pathway up to those starry stars. Sin
was invented by the Christians, as was the Devil, we sang. We
were the heathens, but needed to be saved from them — thin
chance. We knew we were all related in this story, a little gin
will clarify the dark and make us all feel like dancing. We
had something to do with the origins of blues and jazz
I argued with a Pueblo as I filled the jukebox with dimes in June,
forty years later and we still want justice. We are still America. We
know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die
soon.

An American Sunrise Takeaways

In many of our Big Read events, this poem was discussed or referenced. Joy Harjo spoke about it in a discussion with Hope College Creative Writing students as well as in her author event. Big Read team members and Professor Moreau’s English Education students also used this poem when they led various Big Read book discussions. Talking about this poem in these events and in discussion with others allowed me to look at the poem from different perspectives.

  1. It is beautiful that Harjo chose to name the poem an American Sunrise. A sunrise represents hope and rebirth as a new day is dawning. She could have chosen a sunset or another image, but she chose this hopeful image despite some of the sad images in the poem. In her discussion with Hope College students, she mentioned that she wrote this poem first for her collection after she was leaving a university to pursue a new career path. Change is difficult to accept, but it also brings so many new possibilities. The sun is setting on our November programming, but there is so much to still discuss and look forward to! 
  2. I never realized until I was discussing this poem with others that the line endings and the capitalizations are significant in this poem. This poetic form is called the “Golden Shovel” and means the poet borrows from another poem and uses the words as end lines of their own poem. An American Sunrise borrows from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool.” This stood out to me because Harjo borrows from another poet and incorporates their work into her work creating another dimension. In our program, we hope to incorporate many different perspectives and learn about art, writing, history, and so much more.   
  3. The poem represents unity through the use of “we” instead of “I” or “me.” This poem even ends with the word “We.” Harjo’s word choice connects the reader and the author. A lot of division occurred throughout United States history when considering the Native Americans, so this language and the ability to come together is another theme that brings hope. It is also our hope at the Big Read Lakeshore to bring people together over a common book and the themes within the book. 

Our Big Read month has been a wonderful learning experience once again. On behalf of our Big Read team and Hope College, I thank you for your participation in our program. May we all continue to listen, learn and live differently because of what we’ve learned. Comment below with your biggest takeaways from our program! 

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