The voice of the children

Words: Nick Batho

In June of this year, eight-year-old Nolan Davis led hundreds of other children in a Black Lives Matter Protest in his hometown of Kirkwood, Missouri. The children chanted ‘We are the children, the mighty mighty children, here to tell you: Black lives matter!’ In the UK, a poem written and performed by a seven-year-old girl, Nylah, went viral: ‘Black is excellent,’ she said.

Nolan, Nylah and other child protestors remind us that children have an understanding – and often an experience – of racism. Some feel it’s inappropriate for children to take part in activism, but their presence in the struggle isn’t new: Nolan and Nylah are part of a longer history of others like them speaking out in protest. 

In 1969, the poet, activist and author June Jordan realised the importance of listening to children’s views on race. She and Terri Bush, an educator, embarked on a series of writing workshops with predominantly Black young people from Brooklyn, which led to the publication of poetry collection The Voice of the Children. ‘If we will hear them, they will teach us,’ Jordan wrote in the book’s afterword. 

The workshops met on Saturday mornings in a community centre close to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to ‘to rap, dance, snack, browse among the books lying around, and write their stories, poems, editorials and jokes.’ As an informal writing group, the workshop differed from public school and let children work at their own pace.

The group wrote about what mattered to them – which included Black history, familial love and Black Power. Like the words of Nolan and Nylah, these children’s observations on their experiences, communities and identities offer insights into the world as it existed then, and the world we live in today. 

‘What is Black Power?’ Loudel Baez, aged twelve, asks his reader in The Voice of the Children. ‘Is Black power winning a fight? Is Black power killing White? Is Black Power having a gang?’ The questions mirror a feeling prevalent among US citizens at the time: scholars Joel Aberbach and Jack Walker took a survey in Detroit in 1967, and found that ‘Black Power’ meant many things to different demographics and individuals, ranging from support of armed resistance to Black-run institutions and businesses.

Baez challenges common stereotypes and oversimplifications of Black Power as a violent, supremacist movement, and then settles on a final definition: ‘Or is Black power being proud, standing out in the crowd, standing with your fist held high?’ He makes his mind up that Black Power is a force for good, fostering a positive self-identity and evoking the iconic protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. 

In contrast to Baez, David Clarke, Jr., aged fourteen, observes the risk of Black Power violence in his poem ‘We Can’t Always Follow The White Man’s Way’. He warns that ‘white people must be careful because there is not any more Martin Luther King’, referencing a distinction between King’s form of resistance and ‘groups like the Black Panthers.’ Later, he evokes Black nationalism, imploring Black people to ‘build our own foundation’ in opposition to the ‘fascist […] white European country that we live in.’

Clarke’s analysis of Black Power is furthered in another poem, ‘Who Are You – Who Are You?’ The poem addresses Black religion in the form of a dialogue between God and the author: ‘I am god. a true god a / BLACK GOD BLACK BOY / and heaven ain’t all white, David.’ Black public figures from Marcus Garvey to Albert B Cleage and James H Cone had advocated for a Black deity – in which African-American people could see themselves mirrored – as a form of liberation from white religious oppression. Historian Jeffrey OG Ogbar has written that a key facet of Black religious nationalism is that God speaks to Black people as the chosen ones, and that when God is imagined in anthropomorphic terms, he is always Black.

The young writers Clarke and Baez offered very different understandings of Black Power that reflected wide divisions among adult activists. In his 1972 book Profiles in Black Power, Jim Haskins, a former schoolteacher and Black Power scholar, argued that Black Power meant anything from an equal share of power to armed revolution, but that the common thread between adherents was ‘a pride in blackness and a sense of black unity.’

That the children’s interpretations addressed such broad themes suggests a role played by children in the Black Power movement not often addressed by history. In 1970, Charles Billings conducted a study of Black activism amongst school-age children and concluded that although not in the majority, Black activist students were ‘articulate exponents of the ‘black power’ school of thought.’ Their responses to open-ended questions revealed their familiarity with the issues and the rhetoric of the Black Power era. The poems written in The Voice of the Children workshop support Billings’s conclusion: young Black people understood Black Power in all its manifestations and were much more than receptacles of knowledge – they partook in analysing and producing it.

In recent months there has been a proliferation of articles and advice for parents on how to talk to children of all backgrounds about race and racism. Childhood should be a period of innocence, but for many, living under a system of oppression makes that an impossibility. This issue was addressed a hundred years ago by Jessie Fauset and W.E.B. Du Bois, who published the Black children’s magazine The Brownies Book, which sought to ‘turn [Black children’s] little hurts and resentments into emulation, ambition and love of their own homes and companions.’ 

Black children’s literature and writing ever since has been an important tool through which children can engage with difficult subjects. In The Brownies Book, The Voice of the Children and poems and chants from children like Nolan and Nylah, children remind us not only of the power of anti-racism, but of their specific role in the movement, and their unique point of view.

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Nick Batho is a PhD student at Edinburgh whose research focuses on African-American children’s literature in education. He is also involved in the Our Bondage and Our Freedom Project, looking at Black abolitionists in Edinburgh and Scotland.