Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families

2Jun/151

Dr. Margaret T. Burroughs: Reading Classic Poem ‘What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?’

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Dr. Margaret T. Burroughs, reading her classic 1963 poem, 'What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black? Reflections of An African American Mother'.  (Video excerpt appears below the full text of her classic poem.)

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.
The night is black and so is the boogyman.
Villains are black with black hearts.
A black cow gives no milk. A black hen lays no eggs.
Storm clouds, black, black is evil
and evil is black and devil’s food is black…

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.

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 in the knowledge of his worth.
Serene under his sable skin and proud of his own beauty?

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 fountain
of my black culture, sat at the knee of 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.

I will lift up their heads in proud blackness
with the story of their fathers and their father’s 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.
I will tell them of a black people upon whose backs have been built
the wealth of three continents.
I will tell him this and more.
And knowledge of his heritage shall be his weapon and his armor;
It will make him strong enough to win any battle he may face.
And since this story is so often obscured,
I must sacrifice to find it for my children,
even as I sacrifice 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 their children’s children will venerate me.
For it is the truth that will make us free!

Margaret Burroughs was born in St. Rose, Louisiana, on November 1, 1917, and moved with her family to the South Side of Chicago in 1922. She is an accomplished poet and author of children's books. In 1961, with second husband Charles Burroughs, she founded the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago. Margaret Burroughs died Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010.

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  1. I was a teenager the 1st time I saw these words, I tried to remember them so that I could repeat them to my children. I couldn’t remember all the words 12 years later but I maintained enough of them to convey the message. I am now a grandmother and the words are just as significant now as the 1st time I viewed them in 1972.


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