Poem of the Week: “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black (Reflections of an African-American Mother)” by Margaret Burroughs

Center for Poetry intern, Jayla Harris-Hardy chose this week’s poem. Here’s what she had to say: “This obviously isn’t a very upbeat poem, but I think it’s necessary right now considering the current racial climate of the university. Official emails have been sent out to the students about “possible” incidents of racial bias, some specifically targeted towards black students. As a black person with a decent amount of common sense and an understanding of some people’s worst prejudices, I saw these incidents as threats against the safety of many of the people of color at the university. These incidents don’t seem to be taken as seriously by those in charge, which of course angered a lot of already angry students. I think the student body, and more specifically, the students of color need to stand unified in these and future events in order to hold each other up and keep everyone afloat in dangerous tides. It’s difficult being a person of color, and I think our readers can see a glimpse of that in the poem, and how it’s also still something to celebrate.”

What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black (Reflections of an African-American Mother)

1963

What shall I tell my children who are black

Of what it means to be a captive in this dark skin

What shall I tell my dear one, fruit of my womb,

Of how beautiful they are when everywhere they turn

They are faced with abhorrence of everything that is black.

Villains are black with black hearts.

A black cow gives no milk. A black hen lays no eggs.

Bad news comes bordered in black, black is evil

And evil is black and devils’ food is black…

Stanza break

What shall I tell my dear ones raised in a white world

A place where white has been made to represent

All that is good and pure and fine and decent.

Where clouds are white, and dolls, and heaven

Surely is a white, white place with angels

Robed in white, and cotton candy and ice cream

and milk and ruffled Sunday dresses

And dream houses and long sleek cadillacs

And angel’s food is white…all, all…white.

stanza break

What can I say therefore, when my child

Comes home in tears because a playmate

Has called him black, big lipped, flatnosed

and nappy headed? What will he think

When I dry his tears and whisper, “Yes, that’s true.

But no less beautiful and dear.”

How shall I lift up his head, get him to square

His shoulders, look his adversaries in the eye,

Confident of the knowledge of his worth,

Serene under his sable skin and proud of his own beauty?

stanza break

What can I do to give him strength

That he may come through life’s adversities

As a whole human being unwarped and human in a world

Of biased laws and inhuman practices, that he might

Survive. And survive he must! For who knows?

Perhaps this black child here bears the genius

To discover the cure for…Cancer

Or to chart the course for exploration of the universe.

So, he must survive for the good of all humanity.

He must and will survive.

I have drunk deeply of late from the foundation

Of my black culture, sat at the knee and learned

From Mother Africa, discovered the truth of my heritage,

The truth, so often obscured and omitted.

And I find I have much to say to my black children.

stanza break

I will lift up their heads in proud blackness

With the story of their fathers and their fathers

Fathers. And I shall take them into a way back time

of Kings and Queens who ruled the Nile,

And measured the stars and discovered the

Laws of mathematics. Upon whose backs have been built

The wealth of continents. I will tell him

This and more. And his heritage shall be his weapon

And his armor; will make him strong enough to win

Any battle he may face. And since this story is

Often obscured, I must sacrifice to find it

For my children, even as I sacrificed to feed,

Clothe and shelter them. So this I will do for them

If I love them. None will do it for me.

I must find the truth of heritage for myself

And pass it on to them. In years to come I believe

Because I have armed them with the truth, my children

And my children’s children will venerate me.

For it is the truth that will make us free!

Margaret Burroughs, “What Shall I Tell My Children Who are Black” from What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?.  Copyright © 1968, 1992 by Margaret Burroughs.  Reprinted by permission of the Margaret Burroughs Estate. 

Published by cpoetrymsu

The Center for Poetry opened in the fall of 2007 to encourage the reading, writing, and discussion of poetry and to create an awareness of the place and power of poetry in our everyday lives. We think about this in a number of ways, including through readings, shows, community outreach, and workshops. We are at work building a poetry community at MSU and in the greater Lansing area. Contact: cpoetry@msu.edu (517) 884-1932 http://www.poetry.rcah.msu.edu

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