Artist Spotlight Writers

Artist Q&A: ‘Hey, Black Child’ author Jaidah Kirksey discusses poetry and growing up in St. Louis

The subject of this piece uses singular they/them pronouns.

Don’t let the colorful cover of Jaidah Kirksey’s debut poetry collection “Hey, Black Child” fool you. The 22-year did not set out to write a warm story of hope.

“Hey, Black Child”—a collection of 44 poems and essays —details the perils of being Black in 2020. Jaidah’s prose recounts the murder of Breonna Taylor, the high mortality rate of Black babies in St. Louis, and the psychological effects of being a Black woman in America. While the poet’s pain is prevalent in each piece, Jaidah simultaneously weaved a sense of warm nostalgia in her words, a longing for childhood and peace for her family.

Jaidah self-published “Hey, Black Child” this summer after she graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a degree in cinema arts. Jaidah is a native St. Louisan and a self-taught multidisciplinary artist, but this is their first published work. They publish their art without ever showing their face so it can be appreciated regardless of their gender or appearance, Jaidah says.

Jaidah grew up in Wellston, Missouri, a part of St. Louis County just north of the Delmar Loop. As Jaidah describes the city: “Wellston was ghetto for some, but it was home for us.” Jaidah and I met there in Amherst Park to discuss her approach to writing “Hey, Black Child.” The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

You dedicated the book to “every black child who has ever felt misunderstood, very black child who has questioned their existence.” Why title the book “Hey, Black Child,” and why focus specifically on children?

It’s based off a poem called “Hey Black Child” by Useni Eugene Perkins. I saw a  little girl recite it on some talk show a while ago, and it always stuck with me because of the emotion and power she had when she read it. She probably didn’t even understand what she was saying. I didn’t know what to title my book, but then it just came to me. ‘Hey, Black Child.” I feel like it’s mainly a universal call to every child. Everyone, including adults, has a child within themselves.

There are almost no capital letters in your book. Was that a style choice or were you trying to convey something? 

I think subconsciously I was trying to convey how I felt this summer—small, unseen, forgotten. It was also a style choice as well. This may sound weird, but writing in lowercase helps me flow out words easier. 

You wrote in the final poem of the book that you wanted to write this as “an expression of transparency.” What did you mean by that?

I wanted to stress how important it is to be 100% honest with yourself about how you feel about what’s happening in the world. I had a lot of scary thoughts this summer about who I was as a person, as a woman, as a black woman, and I feel like being honest with those feelings will help you deal with them. I wanted people to see like you don’t always have to be resilient and strong, because it’s really hard, especially this year. 

A double-exposed image of Jaidah Kirksey at Amherst Park in Wellston, Missouri. Jaidah keeps their face anonymous to avoid gender prejudice.

Is a collection of this honesty and  transparency something you wish you had growing up? 

Yes. My mom kept telling people at an event the other day, ‘I never understood my daughter.’ I’ve always been such a reserved person. My mom only understood my feelings once she read the book. As a child, I was never open with my parents. They always thought I was a brick wall. I just always kept my feelings to myself, and now I release myself through writing.

As a child, I definitely didn’t know how to express myself. I was always misunderstood. People would always think that I was a problem child. Writing has definitely helped me channel how I feel. I hope I can help a kid who might be like me.

What was the inspiration for the book’s cover? 

I’m really infatuated with sunflowers and the color yellow. When people look at the book, they may think, ‘Oh my gosh, the color yellow.’ ‘Hey, Black Child’ is a very endearing and welcoming title, but when you actually read the book, it’s very raw and intense. The poetry is deep, but people will look at it and they won’t get an idea of this. I feel like the yellow color or the sunflower color replicate the irony in life or being black. It’s a roller coaster of being happy and being sad the next. I wanted to use a welcoming color because, even though being black is very, very heavy, it also is the only thing I thing I’ve ever been.

A mural painted along Dr. Martine Luther King Drive in Wellston, Missouri. Wellston’s crime rate reaches nearly four times the national average.

What was your thought process when writing “George,” “For Tonyin” and “For Breonna”?

I’m a spiritual person, and I feel as if channeling the ancestors through art is a duty. I always want to honor the ancestors who aren’t here. It was hard for me to process what happened to George and Toyin and Brianna. I couldn’t figure out what to say the whole summer about what happened to them. One day I said to myself, ‘I’m going to writing a poem for Breonna,’ and it just flowed. What happened to her still messes me up, but I feel like that poem helped me come to accept it. 

How else has your poetry helped you?

It got me out of my dark moments. I had a lot of dark moments this summer. When I released the book, it helped me get out of that funk. Like, OK, you’re here for something, you should channel your gift. I know I have a gift in writing, and that reassured me because it made me feel like I was here for something. You just have to keep at it and push through even though life is hard. 

There’s a strong theme of family in your writing. You spoke with such empathy for your father in “For My Daddy.”

I love my parents. They were young when they had my siblings and I, and I feel like they still have a lot to learn. My generation has a whole different perspective on parenting than my parents. Sometimes, I have to tell them they should be more understanding with their kids, don’t just talk at them. I don’t regret anything that happened while I was growing up, but there are some things I look back on now and think, ‘That was not OK.’ I wanted to highlight that in the book.

My father… I love my dad, but, you know, he’s like the typical Black father. He’s very passionate about his family and doesn’t want anything bad to happen, but at the same time, he needs to allow us to be our own people. He has to let my siblings and I go out and make mistakes and get hurt. I try to look at my father as a person. He’s a father and a husband, but he’s still a man. That’s a whole other conversation—the Black father narrative—how people want them to be more open with their emotions and not just a brick wall. Black fathers are always pressured to be the strong leader of the family. It’s okay to just be sometimes.

Tell me about the way you formed your poems. Some are long, some are just a few lines, and a few are very dense, almost like paragraphs. Did you approach the writing as ‘I want this poem to look like this,’ or was it more unconscious?

It was mostly a conscious thing. I’m also very big on spoken word, so when I write my poetry, I try to read it out loud when I form it. I want it to flow a certaon way when people to read it. In ‘Pray We Make It Out Alive,’ I wanted ‘murder’ to stand out, same with ‘kill.’ I like words that are simple, but they also hit you. 

‘Pray We Make It Out Alive’ is very personal to me. I had a classmate who was murdered over the summer, and when I read, it it gives me chills. It’s very hard for me to read my poetry, but I don’t regret writing it at all. A lot of people keep bringing up poems to me and I still haven’t really touched the book. I need to, though. I need to revisit all I wrote, but at the same time it’s hard for me to relive those moments. But ‘Pray We Make It Out Alive’ is very sentimental to me, because it’s affecting me right now. 

You write about St. Louis with such foreboding, but also admiration at the same time. It’s home, but like your poem said, it’s also where people get murdered. There’s a line in ‘Where I’m From’ that really struck me. You wrote, ‘you never ask me about the beauty of my city, only the ugly, but diamonds always come from rough places.’ Could you elaborate more on that? What is St. Louis to you?

An apartment building in Wellston, Missouri.

When I moved to Chicago for school, I found a great appreciation for my city. I would miss St. Louis so much. Now that I’ve been in St. Louis since I’ve graduated, it’s been up and down. I know that Louis is home, but I can’t stay here. I really appreciate the city, but there’s just a lot about this place that does not resonate with me, and it’s hard to be here. I was born here, so St. Louis will always be a part of me. I would never let somebody talk down on this city. 

A lot of beautiful art has come out of here, a lot of talent. Although, as you know, where there is light there is darkness, and we have a lot of darkness and a lot of issues we need to fix. Hence, Wellston. Wellston was never like this. My parents would talk about how it was back in the day, and it was the total opposite of the way it is now.

But I’ll always love Wellston. Even while I was driving on the way here, I felt so connected to it. My house is like a four minute drive from this house, my old house is five minutes away. My grandma still lives here. All the memories on this block are still here. Whenever I’m in Wellston, I feel the love, but it makes me sad too. I miss being a child. I loved my childhood, but now I get to look back and be appreciative. This is where I’m from, but look where I am now.

Jaidah’s book, “Hey, Black Child” is available for purchase on Amazon.

View more of Jaidah’s work on Instagram @sm8llfry.

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