Hey, Black Child by Countee Cullen

Countee Cullen’s ‘Hey, Black Child’ is a moving and memorable poem that is directed to and dedicated to all the black children who have been taught by the world that their lives can’t amount to anything. The speaker does his best in these lines to counteract those teachings. This poem taps into themes of equality, the future, and civil rights. 

 

Summary of Hey, Black Child

‘Hey, Black Child’ by Countee Cullen acts as a mantra, determinedly creating a new way for black children to think about their lives and futures. 

The poem makes use of repetition in order to inform a black child, over and over, that they are strong and capable of anything they want to do. The speaker addresses the listener, a young black child, and tells him/her that they can do anything they choose if they set their mind to it. The poem concludes by alluding to a future that is different from the poet’s contemporary present. This is a future that has not yet come to pass in America, making this poem as relevant now as it was then. 

 

Structure of Hey, Black Child

Hey, Black Child’ by Countee Cullen is a four stanza poem that is separated into three sets of seven lines and one final set of six. These lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABBCCC ADDEEE, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. There is no single metrical pattern used in this poem, but the lines feel as though they have a rhythm, based solely on the use of repetition within the lines. 

 

Literary Devices in Hey, Black Child 

Cullen makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Hey, Black Child’. These include but are not limited to repetition and enjambment. The most prominent of these is repetition. It is around repetition that the entire poem is based. The lines read like a mantra, reminding the black child over and over to acknowledge their strength and the possibilities that are surely in front of them. 

Anaphora, one kind of repetition, is the use of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, “Hey,” which starts all four first lines” and “Do” which starts two lines in the first three stanzas and one line in the last. 

Epistrophe is the repetition of the same word, or a phrase, at the end of multiple lines or sentences. For example, lines two and three of each stanza, as well as lines four, five, and six, all end with the same words. In the second stanza, those words are “going” and “learn,” in the third, they are “strong” and “do”. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines six and seven of all four stanzas. 

 

Analysis of Hey, Black Child 

Stanza One 

Hey Black Child

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

In the first stanza of ‘Hey, Black Child’ the speaker begins by making use of the line that came to be used as the title of the poem. It begins each stanza of the poem, acting as a refrain, always reminding the intended listener to listen to the following words. 

The second and third lines of each stanza are also similar. In the first stanza, they ask the listener if they know who they are who they “really are”. This gets at the heart of the poem, that this child is so much more than the world has led him/her to believe. The same theme is continued through the next lines as the speaker inquires into whether the child really understands that they can be who they want to be as long as they “try to be / What [they] can be”. 

 

Stanza Two

Hey Black Child

Do you know where you are going

Where you’re really going

Do you know you can learn

What you want to learn

If you try to learn

What you can learn

In the second stanza of ‘Hey, Black Child’, the poet uses a similar structure to the first. This time he asks the child if they know “where” they are going and what they can learn if they “try to learn / What [they] can learn”. There are several examples of alliteration in this stanza. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “you,” which is used eight lines in these seven lines as well as “going” and “going” and “What” and “want”. 

 

Stanza Three

Hey Black Child

Do you know you are strong

I mean really strong

Do you know you can do

What you want to do

If you try to do

What you can do

In the third stanza of ‘Hey, Black Child’ the speaker asks the child, very clearly, if they know that they are strong. While the first two stanzas were less clear in their intent, this stanza puts out the meaning in the poet’s words directly and obviously. He wants the child to know that they are “really strong” and that they can do “What [they] want to do”. 

 

Stanza Four 

Hey Black Child

Be what you can be

Learn what you must learn

Do what you can do

And tomorrow your nation

Will be what you want it to be

In the final stanza of ‘Hey, Black Child’, which is one line shorter than the previous three stanzas, the speaker stops asking questions and directs a series of statements at the child. He tells them that they can be what they want and learn everything they want to learn. Then, someday “your nation,” meaning America and the larger world, “Will be what you want it to be”. Right now, he alludes, the nation is still entrenched in policies and socially acceptable practices of discrimination. One day though that won’t be true. 

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