My wife is an elementary school librarian, not a poet, so it was weird when she randomly broke into lengthy spoken word poetry the other day. I enjoyed the beautiful couplets, finally asking her where it was from. She had been reading Yesterday I Had the Blues to her classes for Black History Month, so I asked her to bring it home for me to read.

Come to find out this year marks the twentieth anniversary of author Jeron Ashford Frame and illustrator R. Gregory Christie’s award-winning children’s book. We’ll review how the book celebrates Black life in a metropolitan city, uses imagery around universally relatable emotions, and reminds me of Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s optimism for tomorrow.

Blues, Greens, and Grays: Sad, Happy, and the Existential Crisis in Between

The book finishes by explaining it’s okay to have the blues, greens, and silvers, “’cause together we got somethin’ that’ll never change. We got a family – the kind of family makes you feel like its all golden.”

We’re thrown into the story where an unnamed boy is having a bad day. Or more accurately, yesterday was a bad day (details on the importance of that distinction later). The narrator ties a color to a feeling and uses descriptive language to explain those emotions. He takes the time to describe his family and their colors too.

We’re never told what caused the feelings. And there is a relatable power in not explaining. Instead of wasting valuable time on causes that might distance a reader due to lack of shared experience, Frame finds common ground in core emotions regardless of what created them.

The book begins, “Yesterday I had the blues. Not the rain on the sidewalk blues, or the broken skateboard blues…” This pre-teen’s understatements tell us a lot about his priorities and mindset, while begging the question, “What in his mind could be worse?” On the following pages he answers: “Uh-uh, I had those deep down in my shoes blues, the go away, Mr. Sun, quit smilin’ at me blues.”

The art on these pages have blue hues and are contrasted pictorially with our introduction of his carefree sister Sasha in pink. Then, again without explanation, he says, “But today I got the greens.” He describes these as “runnin’ my hand along the hedges” and “make you want to be Somebody.” It’s only one double page image but there is a sense of optimism. The little Black boy smiles, swinging his backpack as an older White couple look on, smiling.

Next is Daddy who “got the grays.” When my wife recited this portion, I misunderstood “grays” as describing the father’s chrome hairline. Grays are rather feelings of fatigued mediocrity. The words are humorous, such as, “The lines between his eyes, lookin’ at his watch” and “The don’t ask for a new skateboard till tomorrow grays. Poor Daddy.” The theme serves to create relatability for the adult reading aloud and empathy in the child listening.

Clearly the boy is repeating what Daddy, deeply tired, possibly edging toward a mid-life crisis, has lamented many times. And for how much I can relate to Daddy’s frustrations, that last line of the boy’s compassion stands out. A son who doesn’t know it yet, but he’s growing into wrinkles and drudgery and edgy patience.

Color Theory: Gradients of Emotions

Our narrator moves to Talia, although we’re not told her relationship to him. She looks to be an aunt, with shoulder length braids, pursed lips, and a seriousness about her. He says, “Talia says she got the indigos,” but he also shares his confusion: “Indigo’s the same as blue.” Talia, watching a musician, helps him clarify, “Uh-uh, she got the saxophone in the subway indigos.” The next double page reveals Talia dancing back home with the boy playing bongos. Talia’s indigos are represented by “hair hangin’ loose,” and “make her act like the drapes.”

This may be my favorite section. The seemingly miniscule difference between blue and indigo is described as moody, pensive, and yet somewhat enjoyable. And although “drapes” may date the book, the imagery of curtains swaying freely as the wind blows, is tangible. That wind is an outside, uncontrollable force. I think of the fear Black people feel of walking down the street at night, and from that racial demographic, Black women like Talia are 20 percent less likely to feel safe (meaning 49 percent of all Black adult women in America feel unsafe in their neighborhoods).

Unfortunately, I don’t have any hopeful, quick fixes. But rather than specific solutions, Yesterday I Had the Blues demonstrates the Black community’s rich history of transforming adversity and fear into hope. And although this future for our unnamed hero is a sobering thought, aunts and family members teach a cautiously hopeful state of mind.

The book’s small color differences represent nuances in core emotions and acknowledges gradations in our feelings. Giving kids permission to feel nuances underlines my earlier point on the distinction of having the blues yesterday. Structuring the story with yesterday as the “blue” tough day and today as the “green” good day is a reminder that life has its seasons, even from day to day.

This reminds me of a more optimistic version of the U.S. Navy SEAL saying: “The only easy day was yesterday.” Every day is a battle, but today can be one of the good ones. I like how The Message translates Ecclesiastes 7:14: 

On a good day, enjoy yourself; 
On a bad day, examine your conscience. 
God arranges for both kinds of days 
So that we won’t take anything for granted.

The last two family members, Gram (who’s got the yellows) and Mama (who’s got the reds), are juxtaposed. The grandmother’s intro is different. The boy states, “Gram’s got the yellows, I can tell.” Everyone else says the color they’ve got, but Gram’s joyful mood is evident. Yet it’s still from the boy’s perspective: “The hummin’ that parade song…the mix up some oatmeal raisin cookies (I hope) yellows.”

His mother on the other hand, gets eight words: “Mama says she got the reds. Look out!” The image says it all: The boy is obliviously jumping on the bed, but Sasha (in mid-jump) has noticed Mama glaring from the doorway with arms folded. She’s not yelling, but her displeasure is evident by informing him she’s got the reds and by her posture.

I expected Frame to build from the angry reds, finally transitioning to the happier greens or yellows. But the helter-skelter layout emphasizes the nuances of emotions and differences in seasons of life. It also gives permission for people to have different types of days throughout the same period of time.

Starting Tomorrow: A Hopeful Look Forward

If the book ended here, we would have a great collection of snapshots from a city boy’s perspective of his family. But there is a final, two-page section that ties the whole book together. The boy recaps that yesterday was the blues and today the greens, but he expects “tomorrow maybe it’ll be the silvers.” What are the silvers, we may ask. “The rocket-powered skateboard silvers!”

Although a skateboard is never shown, a broken skateboard is one of the first descriptors used for the blues. And there was a hint with Daddy’s “don’t ask for a new skateboard till tomorrow grays.” One might think a new skateboard (especially rocket-powered!) is the most important thing to the boy. And while Frame certainly captures a pre-teen boy’s fixation, the last lines remove self-absorbed, materialistic concerns. The book finishes by explaining it’s okay to have the blues, greens, and silvers, “’cause together we got somethin’ that’ll never change. We got a family – the kind of family makes you feel like its all golden.”

I love that youthful hopefulness grounded in the fellowshipping foundation of family. I could never presume to speak for the Black community, but Malcolm-Jamal Warner did a masterful job recently in his spoken word track “Black Fist Beautiful.” It’s both a recognition of present difficulties and future possibilities where he imagines “powerfully proud people who look like me.”

I am moved by my wife’s stories of reading Yesterday I Had the Blues and having all the Black kids in each class shouting, “He’s Black like me!” Think about that. In order to be excited and surprised in elementary school, a new or uncommon experience is probably taking place. Consider what it’s like to be young and unrepresented. In some ways, things have changed for the better over the twenty years since this book was written, and in other ways they haven’t.

And yet, both Yesterday I Had the Blues and Malcolm-Jamal Warner see hope in family. The boy’s recognition that emotions are okay because a family makes you feel golden is embodied in Warner’s dream of “fathers who dare show that affection and masculinity do co-exist.”

My mom has been dealing with some difficult situations lately that’s got her seeing the reds. But she told me, “I believe the anger of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Frame portrayed wide-ranging emotions of parents, and Warner gave a call for fathers to be masculine and loving. Both show the imperfections of human parents. Some of us have felt those failings more than others.

And yet there is a Father who sticks closer than a brother. Incredibly, this Father who gives us perfect love and discipline, also created our emotions. So when we have a relationship with Him, although yesterday we had the blues, tomorrow can be golden.