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Useni Eugene Perkins The Gentle Giant

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Useni Eugene Perkins

Baba Useni Eugene Perkins left this earth Sunday, May 7, 2023,leaving behind his contribution which has made a difference in the lives of many.



Just several years ago the Chicago Tribune  titled an article describing Baba Useni Eugene Perkins as perhaps the most famous poet whose name you don’t know and goes on to tell of the popular  poem learned and recited by

As recent as 2017, after an African-American arts website posted video of a 3-year-old Chicago girl reciting “Hey Black Child,” Perkins’ best-known (and most misidentified) poem,with a note explaining that Perkins is the author, not Cullen, a reader left this comment: “You insult my Black heritage to covet that which is not yours.Tell the truth,” sparking media attention.

The truth is, Useni Eugene Perkins wrote the popular poem, “Hey Black Child.”

For instance, if at any time since 1975, you were a child in a Black classroom in Chicago, there is a good chance you recited “Hey Black Child,” for an assignment, at an assembly — And that’s true for any Black child anywhere in America. Teachers have used it as an affirmation of  empowerment for years.It can be found  as on posters, framed in their living rooms: or in books or programs they possess in their homes. . .

“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 ...”


A longtime fixture of the South Side art scene, Perkins was a leader of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, which sought to distance its art from European influences,encouraging fresh Afrocentric voices. He wrote “Hey Black Child” in 1975, for his musical “Black Fairy.” He intended the words to be  lyrics to the play’s penultimate number. Yet in the 40 years since, “Hey Black Child,” and its long cultural history, is a story of its own.  

It is not surprising that if you came across the poetry of Useni Eugene Perkins, it is likely you thought you were reading the work of Maya Angelou, who needs no introduction, or Countee Cullen, a Harlem Renaissance poet who died in the1940s. This was the intro or disclaimer often used when introducing Useni Eugene Perkins’ work. If not them, it was either Illinois poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks or Langston Hughes, all four of whom  share a type of simplicity in language, voicing a powerful in depth message, yet their styles were all uniquely expressive of their own voices just as Useni had expressed his. To some, such confusion could be considered flattering, however, to Baba Useni, whom I’ve known all my adult life, really didn’t think of it that way.  What was important to him was that it was being read and shared and hopefully making a difference in Black children's lives.


In fact, Baba Useni Perkins, who when I last saw him earlier this year, shared that he was working on a book about Paul Roberson. He was always writing; only a few years ago he completed "RISE OF THE PHOENIX, Voices From Chicago’s Black Struggle, 'published by Third World Press. It’s a collection of personal narratives that articulate the political, social, religious, and cultural experiences of many who participated in Chicago’s Black struggle for self determination, self-reliance, and equality during the civil rights and Black Power movement. I respected that about him and perhaps more than anything the manner of man that he was.

Women always talk about the ‘gentleman’ with affection, and I have to say that Baba Useni was truly a 'gentle' man, perhaps more accurately, he was a gentle giant, putting a new spin on the meaning of original ol’G.  He walked strong and deliberate with a mighty power always in-hand because his words were his greatest weapon slaying the lies and misconceptions about who Black people were and are in the world described as by those who wrote our history.Baba Useni, like the conscious Blacks before him as well as his peers chose to write our narrative from our lens exposing the truth.

Here's the thing, what you establish as your intention leads you to your destiny. BabaUseni was not seeking fame. That was not his intended outcome, but rather to enlighten and uplift the self-consciousness of young Black youth.  He wanted to transform any self-doubt that they may have had about themselves.  And guess what. His poem “Hey Black  Child,” since 1975, was most likely shared in classrooms in Chicago, and Black classrooms anywhere in the United States. Though they may not have known that it was written by Useni Eugene Perkins, didn’t matter but rather the message. Teachers have used its empowering message as an affirmation for years.

So, after “Hey Black Child” was heard  at a Black History Month event, by the 3-year old Pe’Tehn Jackson, on video, one thing leading to another resulted in the video being viewed millions of times and influenced children from all over the country to do the same.

The good news? Ultimately, Little, Brown and Company  contacted Useni proposed  that he  transform the poem into a children’s book---now a colorful richly textured story which became Mr. Perkins’ most financially successful work to date, illustrated by Bryan Collier, a four-time honoree of the Caldecott awards, given annually to distinguished picture books. Finally, Useni Eugene Perkin’s poem was acknowledged because the work is powerful as demonstrated by  the numerous counts of people who have taught the poem generation to generation.More importantly  is that it  finally settled the identity of the author.”



Baba Useni’s papers, letters, and manuscripts, are in the Harold Washington Library Center archives to be available for years to come.Because he was an important contributor to the Black Arts movement. It's not surprising that he was an inter-disciplinary artist who expressed himself through multiple disciplines. Because of the times Baba Useni served his community as a professional social worker meeting the demand of what our community needed at that time. It was not unusual to find our creative artists serving underprivileged  African-American neighborhoods.

Black folks of his era did what was called of them and so served organizations like, the Henry Horner Chicago Boys Club, as program director, Chicago Boys Club. the Better Boys Foundation, first as program director then, then as executive director just short of 20 years, in North Lawndale, Baba Useni submitted his play “Black Fairy,” to the newly opened La Mont  Zeno Community Theater in 1974, which he had written after a trip to the Goodman Theatre with his 8-year-old daughter Julia  who is documented to have asked, ‘Daddy, why aren’t there any Black people in children’s plays?”

Useni Eugene Perkins along with Abena Joan Brown and Okoro Johnson, founded Ebony Talent Association, Creative Arts Foundation (eta) in April 1971. He remained a very integral contributor to the organization until his recent passing.

In 1986 he became the social director at the Chicago Urban League, and two years later became the chief executive officer of the Urban League of Portland.  He returned to Chicago to serve as president of the DuSable Museum of African American History; founded the Association for the Positive Development of African American Youth in 1991,remained editor of the Black Child Journal which he published for more than 35 years. Of course, there’s more, but the point here is that Baba Useni was always engaged in the  arts. Perkins authored several books of poetry, a few social justice studies about abused and troubled children;  two dozen plays, about race riots, blues pioneer Lead Belly, the civil rights lunch-counter protests; history of Chicago’s Black Power Movement.

The beautiful thing to note about Baba Useni is that he was modest and humble almost to a fault. He committed to be of service to our Community as did all Catalyst members. He often shared that the Black Arts Movement, in contrast to the civil rights movement, was not interested in conformity or reconciliation; he said white academics have “hijacked” the history of the movement. But about the treatment of his own work — “I think I’ve accepted it.” He was not bitter, but at peace that his work has been read and continues to serve and to enlighten generations to come.


Useni Eugene Perkins was born on September 13, 1932, in Chicago, Illinois, to Marion Perkins, a celebrated sculptor whose work is collected by the Art Institute of Chicago, and Eve Perkins, who worked for University of Chicago and North Side families. When Perkins was 11 years old, his father took him to see Shakespeare's Othello performed by Paul Robeson, who was a friend of his father as  was Richard Wright. Baba Useni credits his father's efforts to expose him to the arts was an early major influence on his writing career. It was the same year he first published a Poem in the Chicago Tribune. The Perkins family resided in the Ida B. Wells Public Housing project where Baba Useni grew up.  Upon graduation from Wendell Phillips High School, he joined the Air Force from which he returned to pursue a college education at George Williams College in 1963, where he completed his both his BA and MS degrees.

He is survived by children, Julia and Russell Perkins and wife Sharon Perkins; his niece, Marian Perkins, nephew, L’Overture Perkins, and sister-in-law Thelma Perkins. His great life will be honored and celebrated June 17, 2023, at Hartzell Untied Methodist Church.



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About Author:

Visionary Kai EL´ Zabar has worked as CEO of arts organizations and as editor, writer and multimedia consultant accumulating a significant number of years in experience as an executive, journalist,publisher, public relations, media training, marketing, internal and external communications. Kai currently continues her life’s work as Editor-in-Chief Of Chicago News Weekly where she has resumed her column, “E NOTES.” She is ecstatic to be in the position to grace Chicago and the world with a publication that articulates the Black voice.



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