In 2016, the sound and visual artist Damon Locks was browsing a vintage record shop in southwest Chicago when he came across a full-length LP of the late artist, educator, and activist Dr. Margaret Burroughs performing several of her poems with a band’s accompaniment. It had “no record jacket,” Locks says, “and lay just in a plastic sleeve with a Xerox of one of her prints” on the cover. Likely recorded in the late 1960s, the album was produced by the Chicago-based label Sound-A-Rama, which released many gospel and R&B records throughout that decade. On the LP, Burroughs reads “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?,” a poem she wrote in 1963 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s her most well-known and celebrated literary work, and one she continued to revise over the years:
What shall I tell my children who are blackOf what it means to be captive in this dark skin? […]Villains are black with black hearts.A black cow gives no milk. A black hen lays no eggs.Bad news comes bordered in black, mourning clothes black. […]…black is evil,And evil is black and devils food cake is black…I will lift up their heads in proud blacknessWith the story of their fathers and their fathers’Fathers. And I shall take them into a way back time […]I will tell them of the black kingdoms of antiquity…Of Kush, Timbuktu, of Kano, Ghana, and Benin.I will tell my children this and more…I must find the truth of heritage for myselfAnd pass it on to them…
“The poetry has an immediacy as the sounds of her words hit the air. The past and present have no delineation. Her words speak to me. They help clarify work that still needs to be done,” Locks has written.
Given the poem’s era—it circulated widely in 1968—and its emphasis on teaching Black history to Black children, “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?” can be read in the tradition of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), an artistic response to the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. According to critic and poet Larry Neal, BAM “envision[ed] an art that [spoke] directly to the needs and aspirations of black America.” In his poem “Black Art,” Amiri Baraka, whose move to Harlem in 1965 and establishment of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School are key events in BAM’s history, asks that art for Black audiences endeavor to love actual Black people:
Let Black people understandthat they are the lovers and the sonsof warriors and sonsof warriors Are poems & poets &all the loveliness here in the world
However, it’s reductive to conceive of Burroughs as only a BAM artist. She produced poems, essays, articles, and visual art, including watercolors, line drawings, and linocut portraits, both before and after the Black Power era. And her aesthetic and ideological influences, such as social realism, Mexican muralism, and female identity, diverged from those of core BAM figures, including Neal and Baraka.
In the early 1930s, while still a teenager, Burroughs belonged to the Chicago-based Arts Crafts Guild, where she learned painting techniques alongside the then-emerging muralist Charles White. She was also a founding member of the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC), which opened in 1940 and was funded by the Works Public Administration (WPA). The SSCAC nurtured the careers of photographer Gordon Parks and poet Gwendolyn Brooks, among many others. Also in 1940, Harlem Renaissance writer and philosopher Alain Locke organized Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro, in which visual artists from across the country came to Chicago to show their work. The unprecedented national event attracted huge crowds and press coverage. Locke attended the SSCAC’s dedication in 1941, and Burroughs wrote the organization’s address.
The ferment of activism, education, and artistic production on the South Side from the 1930s to the Cold War era is known as the Chicago Black Renaissance. It’s the same milieu that fostered Richard’s Wright’s novels, Katherine Dunham’s choreography, and Mahalia Jackson’s and Thomas A. Dorsey’s gospel music. It was a place and period as significant and culturally rich as the Harlem Renaissance had been in New York City in the 1920s and 30s. Though the flowerings of Black creativity in Harlem and Chicago are often considered distinct developments with clear beginnings and endings, that’s only partly true. Artists in each period responded to generational and geographic concerns, but as Burroughs’s own long, prolific career suggests, Black American cultural production is best conceived as an ongoing and continuous flourishing, with many generational changes and tensions and, perhaps most important, conversations that have yet to end.
As the LP that Locks found might suggest, “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?” was a celebrated fixture of Black civic life into the 1970s and beyond. I heard it read at beauty pageants, fundraisers, and church programs while growing up in Memphis in the 1980s and early 1990s, along with other stirring, incantatory works such as Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping” and James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation.” Burroughs’s poem was translated into several languages and circulated throughout the world. In 1991, Senator Paul Simon (Illinois) entered it into the congressional record, the first time in 17 years that a poem had been thus honored.
When Burroughs died in 2010, at age 95, President Obama called her “a beacon of culture and a resource worldwide for African American history.” Indeed, she developed cultural institutions that continue to nourish Black Chicagoans. She remains better known as an educator and a cultural curator than as an artist, yet her artistry is inseparable from her activism and institution building. Her visual art touched or influenced many disparate creative movements that transformed the United States in the 20th century, including Modernism, social realism, and the avant garde. And her poetry ambitiously records Black life while also taking on the noble and liberatory tasks of fortifying Black self-esteem and forging Black community.
Burroughs was born in 1915 in St. Rose, Louisiana, a small Mississippi River town about 20 miles west of New Orleans. Her father was a farmer with a gift for languages, and her mother was a domestic worker who also taught the neighborhood’s Black schoolchildren. When Burroughs was five, the family moved to Chicago, where her uncles had found well-paying work. “Ain’t no lynchings” in Chicago they wrote in a letter back home. Compared to St. Rose, Chicago had excellent schools, and the family eventually lived in an integrated community. Burroughs was a conscientious student who was curious about her own people and early on noticed that her textbooks made no mention of Black contributions to society. After graduating from Englewood High School in 1933, she enrolled in the Teachers College at Chicago Normal College (now Chicago State University). This was followed by a bachelor’s and master’s in arts education from the Art Institute of Chicago. She got a job teaching visual art at the city’s DuSable High School in 1946.
DuSable High was named after Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, thought to be Chicago’s first non-native resident; he was likely born in present-day Haiti in the mid-18th century. The school opened in 1935 to accommodate overflow from other area high schools that served the city’s Black population, which had swelled from about 44,000 to 337,000 between 1910 and 1945—a 666 percent increase attributable to the Great Migration, in which millions of Black Americans fled the South for economic and social opportunity in cities throughout the North and along the West Coast. In those years, much of the city’s Black cultural life was clustered in the Bronzeville neighborhood, near East 47th Street and South Parkway (later renamed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive). This is where the George Cleveland Hall Library, the South Parkway Branch of the YWCA, and DuSable High were located, along with popular jazz nightclubs, the Regal Theater, the Savoy Ballroom, and the South Center department store, which catered almost exclusively to Black customers and was one of the South Side’s largest retail outlets.
There Burroughs, along with violinist and music director Walter Dyett, helped establish DuSable High’s notable reputation, especially in the humanities. Singers Dinah Washington and Johnny Hartman, TV personality Don Cornelius, and Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, were all DuSable alums. Burroughs’s classroom was synonymous with sweeping narratives of Black history that sometimes drew ire from the school’s administration. She recalls in her autobiography,
While my students were painting, I would be in the middle of a discussion about the Scottsboro boys and I’d look over and see the white principal appear at the classroom door. Turning back to the class I’d say, “And that’s how Betsy Ross came to sew the flag. Now boys and girls, let’s talk about Patrick Henry. …” My students knew enough to hold in their chuckles until the principal had passed the door. As soon as he was gone, we’d go back to Clarence Darrow’s Scottsboro defense or Ida B. Wells’ upbringing or Mary McLeod Bethune’s activism.
Burroughs taught at DuSable until 1968 and at Wilson Junior College (now Kennedy-King College) until 1979.
In the late 1950s, she began hosting informal salons at her home, which soon became the place to be for Black artists and intellectuals, including poets Brooks, Margaret Danner, and Margaret Walker, and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett. The space was decorated with Black-themed books and artwork, and when a poet friend brought a gunpowder horn inherited from a relative who had fought in the American Revolutionary War, Burroughs turned her living room into a makeshift museum. She listed it in the phone book as the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art. As interest grew, she and her husband moved the fledgling museum to another location nearby, and in 1961, they officially founded the museum. Renamed after du Sable in 1968, the museum was the first in the United States dedicated to the study and preservation of African American history.
Skyla S. Hearn, the DuSable’s current chief archivist, grew up in Chicago and says she has always thought of the museum as a “place for community to come together, an intersection with multiple opportunities for engaging with and activating African American life and culture.” Burroughs was proud that the museum emerged out of the community surrounding it. Today, it holds an impressive collection of 19th- and 20th-century work by Black artists and an archive of rare manuscripts and correspondence, and it attracts more than 200,000 annual visitors. Education programs remain central to its mission, just as education was a cornerstone of Burroughs’s legacy, and the museum maintains partnerships with the Chicago Public School System and area colleges.
In an interview late in her life, Burroughs calls “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?” the “embodiment of the DuSable Museum.” But she’d started her literary career years earlier. Her first book, Jasper, the Drummin’ Boy, a children’s story published by Viking in 1947, tells of a small Black boy who loves drums even though his mother wants him to play piano. Its first edition included Burroughs’s own ink drawings. This was followed in 1956 by an anthology, Did You Feed My Cow?, which compiled children’s games and chants. In 1966, she published a collection of folktales for children called Whip Me Whop Me Pudding and Other Stories of Riley Rabbit and His Fabulous Friends.
Encouraged by the success of “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?,” Burroughs published her first collection of poems in 1968, which featured an introduction from poet Don Lee (Haki R. Madhubuti). He wrote that Burroughs’s work was made of “images and words that speak to the inner self, the soul … if read seriously, it will infect the reader with a Black disease: Black pride.”
Much of the collection recalls Burroughs’s work as a children’s book author. She often addresses readers directly and focuses thematically on the positive contributions that Black people have made to society. In “To Non-African Brothers and Sisters,” she writes,
Or who proportioned the Sphinx, or who raised the Pyramids,Or who invented the live-saving blood bank,Or who performed the first surgery on open heart,Or whose blood was first to stain the cobblestones at Boston.
It’s a poetry based on repetition with an almost call-and-response style that invites interaction from its audience. It can feel heavy-handed at times, although it’s useful to remember that BAM artists were correcting centuries of pseudoscience about Black inferiority. Theirs was an era of indignation, grief, and collective impatience. Civil rights legislation had not turned into material gains for most Black people. According to scholar Evie Shockley, “Rather than seek validation in the art forms of a culture in many ways founded upon the notion that black people are less than human … Black Arts proposed to establish a new set of cultural reference points.” In other words, Black “ways of seeing and being in the world” were righteously defended and reclaimed, as Burroughs writes in “The Beauty of Black”:
We black people must be born again.Know that the black people like other racesHave their own distinct beauty.Know that the Stygian night too is beautiful.
In addition to addressing collective Black well-being and education, Burroughs’s first collection includes poems about Black family life, such as “Memorial for My Father,” an elegiac prose poem dense with childhood memories:
Whenever we hurt inside or out, we went to himAnd he dosed us or rubbed us down,With liniment if it was a backache.He gave us a teaspoon of sugar withThree drops of turpentine to break a cold,And placed bay leaves dipped in vinegarOn our heads to bring down a fever.
The Dictionary of Literary Biography describes Burroughs’s poetry as “direct, accessible, and innovative” and notes that much of it reads more like prose than poetry. Its aesthetic aims are bound up in the political realities of the tumultuous sixties.
In 1966, Burroughs attended the Black Writers Conference at Fisk University in Nashville and saw Margaret Walker and others read poems about Malcolm X, who’d been assassinated the year before. Dudley Randall, founder of Broadside Press in Detroit, was also there, and he and Burroughs agreed to coedit a collection of poems dedicated to the slain civil rights leader. Published in 1969, For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and the Death of Malcolm X became a central text of BAM. It includes an introduction by the two editors, the eulogy that Ossie Davis delivered at Malcolm X’s funeral—in which he calls Malcolm “our Shining Black Prince”—and work by Brooks, Baraka (writing as LeRoi Jones), and Sonia Sanchez.
In 1968, Burroughs won a grant to study at the University of Ghana, and the poems in her second collection, Africa, My Africa!, published in 1970, reflect this experience. Hailed as the “most efficacious of her poetry writings to date” by the Literary Biography, the book shows Burroughs reckoning with cultural estrangement:
I have come home and find that I am yet a strangerI have wandered over the land in search of my ownIn and out of the slums and Zongas of the cities, I goThrough the stalls of the crowded Makalo, I goAlong the emerald hedged roadways, I goFrom one walled village to the other, I goUntil I reached one that seemed to be mineExpecting to be welcomed I poured libationTo the spirits of my ancestorsBut they gave no sign of greetingTo one who had been gone so long
Burroughs is most striking in her impressionistic, slice-of-life poems, such as “Of Mercedes Benzes And The Big Coke,” in which she depicts Accra, Ghana’s capital, as a teeming metropolis where modernity juxtaposes against tradition:
And ancient lorry wagons packed with poor folk
Riding, riding, riding down the highway
Past huts of mud with thatched and tin roofs
And swank ranch style houses with television aerials
By the early 1980s, Burroughs landed poetry in anthologies such as The Forerunners: Black Poets in America and Black Sister: Poetry by Black American Women, 1746–1980. But her work is hard to find today. All three volumes of her poetry are long out of print, and many local libraries don’t hold copies. I found first editions at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, on 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. This is actual hallowed ground for Black literature and culture—a portion of Langston Hughes’s ashes are buried beneath the atrium. As it happens, I took Duke Ellington’s A train from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn to Harlem to sit with Burroughs’s work. I was surrounded by other Black researchers poring over rare texts, and the occasion felt like a pilgrimage. Yet Burroughs was an artist deeply engaged with her world and community, so it’s an unfortunate irony that to read original versions of her work today requires a trek to a public institution accessible only with ID and a library card.
At times, Burroughs struggled to get published. Scholar Melba Boyd notes that Burroughs’s poetry was met with a “bitter-sweet ambiguity” and that her “reputation as a writer pales [in] comparison to her acclaim as a visual artist.” Most of her poetry remains as manuscripts in her personal files. Although she didn’t aspire to the critical recognition of Brooks, her poetry nonetheless deserves serious consideration. It’s a map to the emancipatory ambitions that were her guiding principles and inspired the cultural institutions that remain her most enduring legacy.
In the 1970s, Burroughs became a volunteer art and poetry instructor at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago. Opened in 1925, Stateville has classic “panopticon, cell-block architecture, with marble steps and sniper points,” says Tara Betts, a poet who teaches at the prison as part of the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project (PNAP), a nonprofit that facilitates arts and humanities courses at Stateville. The organization began after Burroughs’s death in 2010. Locks, who found the LP of Burroughs, has taught in the program since 2014.
Betts will teach a course on poetic form and craft to 15 to 18 imprisoned men, some of whom are Burroughs’s former students. Burroughs encouraged them to live a “life of the mind” even though they were confined, Betts says, quoting prison activist Angela Davis. In addition to teaching craft and technique, Burroughs was known to visit tightly guarded cell blocks, dole out compassion and understanding, and listen intently to each incarcerated man she met.
Today, these men apply to PNAP as they would to any MFA program: with writing samples and purpose statements. According to Betts, many of the students are fond of Brooks, Langston Hughes, Nate Marshall, and Aimé Césaire. Studies show that prison arts programs reduce recidivism rates and boost the overall emotional health of participants, yet the stability of these programs has been threatened because of state budget crises and political wrangling. Nonprofits and private fundraising have helped fill some gaps, but Burroughs’s work at Stateville is a reminder of how much individuals can do to create a more equitable world.
Poet, sociologist, and playwright Eve Ewing, whose 2017 play “No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks” includes a scene depicting the friendship between Burroughs and Brooks, calls the former a “multidisciplinary artist who embodied a get up and do it spirit.” Betts adds that Chicago’s “visual and performing arts are again becoming so popular because of folks like [visual artists] Dawoud Bey and Theaster Gates,” who prove that the city can produce “commercially viable media.” Their success is indebted to groundbreaking artist-activists such as Burroughs, whose poetry may be hard to find today but whose work lives on in places such as the SSCAC, which remains vital for young and established artists alike. Burroughs created art that sought change, changed her community via the institutions she built, and changed the lives of those she taught. Put more simply, she helped change an ever-changing America.
Danielle A. Jackson grew up in Memphis and now lives in Brooklyn. Her essays have appeared in Shondaland, the New Yorker, Literary Hub, and Vela. She is a contributor at Memoir Magazine and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from Aspen Words, Sula's Room/Hedgebrook, and VONA. She is working on a memoir about...