by Shannon Sea
I was mesmerized when I first heard Angel Bat Dawid’s “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black.” A friend of mine played it for me, on her iPhone. I didn’t quite grasp the lyrics at first, but I found the melody to be distinctly beautiful and haunting.
Bat Dawid’s mezzo-soprano voice carries the melody. Her airy timbre and the cascading melodic contour creates an atmosphere that is deeply melancholic. And Bat Dawid’s use of contrapuntal techniques accentuates the potency of the words: “… to be captive in this, to be captive in this, to be captive in this dark skin.”
When I returned home that evening, I listened to “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black” again. This time, with headphone monitors. I engaged in what I call mindful listening. I was fully present and listened to all the subtleties within the piece. This is when I fully understood the lyrics. Bat Dawid sings, “What shall I tell my children who are Black, of what it means to be a captive in this dark skin.” I investigated the piece more and discovered that it was inspired by Margaret T. Burroughs’s 1963 namesake poem.
I then watched a video of Burroughs recite“What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black” and was astonished that I had only learned of that poem now. The poem is riveting, and is a raw glimpse into the emotional challenges many Black parents face.
The first stanza reads:
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…
The poem continues with four more voluminous stanzas. I invite you to read the rest of it via the links below.
My discovery of Burroughs’s poem through Bat Dawid’s piece made me think about how contemporary music can help us rediscover forgotten Black art. Over the past two years, I’ve been mulling the thought of turning into song Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s 1921 lesbian-themed poem, “You! Inez!” I haven’t yet found the right melody for it, but I haven’t given up.
Angel Bat Dawid - “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhvAD8TFrIM
Margaret T. Burroughs - Burroughs reading “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black”: https://youtu.be/fEwU86r-nTo
Margaret T. Burroughs - “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black”: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/146263/what-shall-i-tell-my-children-who-are-black-reflections-of-an-african-american-mother
Alice Dunbar-Nelson - “You! Inez!”: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52760/you-inez
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