Writer’s note: Countee Cullen’s poem “Hey, Black Child” is one of many gems he left inspiring educators, parents and child advocates for nearly a century. I wrote this letter to walk in his intergenerational footsteps for the youth I know and love.
Hey Black Child,
I don’t want to leave this life wishing I had done more for you. So I am starting by writing you this letter. And I hope to give you so much more. Not cash or land or jewels. I know those are the things we are told should be stocked for future generations, right? As if cash could ever buy dignity. As if land could ever give you freedom or even be truly ever given. As if jewels could ever love you.
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I want to leave you a different inheritance. I want to leave you with a life full of the color purple. You’ll come to know that book by Alice Walker in your own time. You’ll find hers and many other literary ancestors on our shelves and in my notes. Some of them will be banned. Read them anyway. Some of them will be intense. Read them carefully. I want you to read because I want you to see something. I want you to see the world beyond the arbitrary categories created for purposes of power and social control. I want you to see what it looks like when we demand our freedom as justice we are due. My dear darling Black child, I want you to see you.
When you were much younger, you told me something I couldn’t decipher as fantasy or true. But as it tumbled from your mouth into your tiny hands and onto my lap, I took it seriously. “T, I want to be a girl.” And when you uttered these simple and innocent words, they shook the ground beneath me. They roared back 10 times louder and stronger. They wrapped me in a cape of royal responsibility and placed a crown on my head of lineage and ancestral duty. They handed me a scepter that shined and extended to me the notion that I am worthy. What an incredible feeling of pure anointing. I was honored that God chose me to be what they knew you would need.
Not everyone will see this my way. And the truth is that there may indeed come a day when you won’t either. It is quite possible that you will look at me as a teenager and say, “No, that wasn’t what I meant. I was a child at play.” Or the fact that you were surrounded by a parliament of amazingly brilliant older wise women was enough to hold you in the feminine sway. After all, who wouldn’t want to be like them? They are all tender and tough, sweet and serious, fun and fiercely independent. As they passed you around the branches of their arms, kissed your forehead and rubbed your face until your eyebrows appeared, you must have been in complete awe.
To be like them would be a complete win. Resplendent in beauty and infinite grace. You may one day tell me that it was them you wanted to see when you looked at your own face. And at that time, I will let you know that you are allowed to be a man and enjoy all of those qualities. I will tell you not to let patriarchy constrain your liberated sensibility. You are more than enough and you have always been so for me.
If you weigh your options and you choose something between what Robert Jones Jr. has taught me is man, woman, both or free, please know that I will reach for his book to let you know the spectrum is an ancient way. A history we have forgotten in mind but find in our souls still calling. I will take Mr. Jones’ advice and forcefully disagree with anything rooted in your oppression or denial of your humanity. And this is the inheritance, the spirit I truly hope to leave with you.
Cash will not buy you the false sense of masculinity peddled so willingly. Land is not ours to dominate but rather a life of its own wild and ready to rid herself of us if we don’t let her be. And the jewels will be wisdom you impart to siblings, friends and other chosen family who need your help to embrace the things about them that are real and true.
I pledge to work now for a world that affirms you through and through. A world that sees your body as yours and has noble purposes for statutes and laws. For a world where you have the right to look back on these childhood declarations and feel neither shame nor fear. For a world where your life is not in such ferocious peril. For a world where you might actually live to an old age in peace. It will not be easy.
Evil impulses to vanquish entire communities of people are mighty enemies. But I will fight for your future, knowing our ancestors expect nothing less of me. I will fight knowing all they have ever asked is that I leave you with the will to be free. I will not disappoint them. And I have faith that whether this applies to you or someone else you must protect, you, beloved, will not disappoint them or me.
With warm regards from the future,
Tahirah Walker is a writer and a teacher, creating her liberation story in the Pittsburgh area. If you want to send a message to Tahirah, email email@example.com.
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