“Hey Black Child” by Useni Eugene Perkins is a rhythmic poem with a remarkable history.
Written as the capstone to Black Fairy, a play about the empowerment of a young black boy, it’s been recited by students as a morning pledge and misattributed to Maya Angelou and Countee Cullen.
In 2015, “Hey Black Child” went viral when precocious preschooler Pe’Tehn Raighn-Ken Jackson recited it on ABC Chicago’s Windy City LIVE and NBC’s Little Big Shots.
“When Little, Brown and Company contacted me four years ago about doing an illustrated version,” says Perkins, a Chicago-based poet, playwright, and social worker, “boy, that really surprised me! This poem has been around about 40 years. It’s been recited by children all over the country.
“So, I was pleasantly surprised,” he says, “but I had no idea of who the illustrator was going to be.” That the illustrator of Hey Black Child (ages 3-10) would be “someone as renowned and creative as Bryan Collier” was an absolute “blessing.”
Collier, of Marlboro, New York, is a Coretta Scott King Award winner (Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews, 2015) and four-time Caldecott Honor recipient (Rosa by Nikki Giovanni, 2005). Known for a signature style of watercolor and collage, he welcomed the opportunity to illustrate Perkins’ exuberant poem.
“The first thing that jumped out at me were the words ‘Hey Black Child,’ ” Collier says, “—they leaped right off the page. You could hear the musicality in the language and the rhythm and timing. [The poem is] so soulful ... short and spare that it allowed me to put in images that could really tell a story.”
Hey Black Child, a story of black history and heritage from Africa through the Civil Rights Movement to modern movements like Black Lives Matter, was made to be read aloud.
“Hey Black Child,” the poem begins, “Do you know who you are/Who you really are/Do you know you can be/What you want to be/If you try to be/What you can be.”
“That is fundamental to all people, Do you know who you are?” Perkins says. “I’m asking the question, but I’m also telling the answer, if [the child] just looks internally [they’ll know].
“All kids have potential,” he says. “We just have to give them the opportunity, we have to give them the resources, we have to give them the love ... to understand that they are here for a purpose, and this is one of the messages that I hope ‘Hey Black Child’ is conveying to not just black children, but all children.”
Collier’s collages depict black children as politicians, astronauts, dancers, musicians—dreamers, strivers, succeeders. Colorful balloons feature throughout, reinforcing the buoyant message. They accompany radiant portraits of young people in the process of realizing their dreams.
“That’s the existence of god within a child,” Collier says of the light that seems to beam from their faces. “Inner light is there. I recognize it, I see it all the time, and that’s what I try to capture in the artwork.”
In a starred review of Hey Black Child, Kirkus writes, “This book dazzles in every way and is bound to inspire so many more viral videos of black children speaking their abundant futures into existence.”
“I always like to leave with an African proverb: ‘Children are the reward of life,’ ” Perkins says. “That’s what it’s about, it’s about the children. My generation, every generation should leave something fruitful for the generation yet to come. ‘Children are the reward of life.’ ”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked. The photo above left is of Useni E. Perkins and photo above right is of Bryan Collier.