By Dr Oliver Tearle
Poems dealing with racist prejudice and discrimination – or, indeed, prejudice and discrimination of other kinds – have been around since at least the age of the Romantics, who wrote powerfully about, and against, the slave trade and empire. Below, we’ve picked some of the greatest poems addressing issues of prejudice, racism, and related themes.
William Blake, ‘The Little Black Boy’.
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.
Blake (1757-1827) often wrote about injustice and prejudice, and this is one of his most powerful poems addressing the issue of racial prejudice and slavery. The poem is spoken by the African boy who acknowledges that his skin is black whereas a white English child’s is white, but the black boy’s soul is white too: i.e., as spotless and pure as a white boy’s.
Charles Lamb, ‘Conquest of Prejudice’. Lamb (1775-1834) is best-known as an essayist, and for writing the Tales from Shakespeare with his sister Mary. However, he was also a poet. ‘Conquest of Prejudice’ might be read as a companion-piece to Blake’s ‘The Little Black Boy’: it focuses on an African boy attending a school in Yorkshire, and facing prejudice from his classmates:
But soon with altered looks askance
They view his sable face and form,
When they perceive the scornful glance
Of the head boy, young Henry Orme.
He in the school was first in fame:
Said he, ‘It does to me appear
To be a great disgrace and shame
A black should be admitted here.’
His words were quickly whispered round,
And every boy now looks offended;
The master saw the change, and found
That Orme a mutiny intended …
Jane Taylor, ‘Prejudice’.
Then let inquiry rise, with sudden flight,
To reason’s utmost intellectual height;
Where native powers, with culture high combined,
Present the choicest specimen of mind.
– Those minds that stand from all mankind aloof,
To smile at folly, or dispense reproof;
Enlarged, excursive, reason soars away,
And breaks the shackles that confine its sway:
Their keen, dissecting, penetrating view,
Searches poor human nature through and through;
But while they notice all the forms absurd,
That prejudice assumes among the herd,
And every nicer variation see,
Theirs lies in thinking that themselves are free.
Taylor (1783-1824) is not much known these days, but one of her poems continues to be famous around the world: she wrote the words to ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. Taylor also wrote this long poem in heroic couplets, meditating upon the nature of prejudice (especially from a class perspective) while concluding that everyone is guilty of some form of prejudice which they need to overcome. Warning: the full poem is long.
W. H. Auden, ‘Refugee Blues’. Auden wrote this poem in March 1939, while he was living in New York; he’d emigrated to the United States two months earlier. The poem is spoken by a Jewish refugee living in New York, who is addressing his lover and reflecting on the fact that he – and many other refugees in a similar position – are not made welcome in the city because of the prejudice that is rife there.
Dudley Randall, ‘Ballad of Birmingham’. This is a powerful poem about the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Taking the form of a dialogue between a young child and her mother, the poem highlights the racial prejudice – and the real threats to their lives – that African Americans faced during Civil Rights-era America. The mother sends her daughter to church, thinking she will be safe from harm and trouble there; tragically, the church becomes another target of white nationalist hate.
Audre Lorde, ‘Power’. This is a harrowing but powerful poem about power: both the power of the state (specifically, the case of a police officer shooting dead a black child in the United States) and the power of words. Lorde, one of the finest African-American poets of the twentieth century, takes in the difference between poetry and rhetoric as she responds to the upsetting realities of life in contemporary America, including racial prejudice.
Chrystos, ‘Into the Racism Workshop’. Chrystos is a Menominee writer and activist whose work often focuses on indigenous Americans’ civil rights, as well as feminism. This poem from the 1990s details the speaker’s involvement in a ‘racism workshop’, designed to highlight systemic prejudice against people of colour (in the United States specifically, here), and how a world-weariness attends such attempts to educate white Americans about the experiences of black people – although the end of the poem suggests that Chrystos, or at least the speaker of her poem, is still committed to the task of changing people’s minds and challenging their attitudes.
Nikki Giovanni, ‘Rosa Parks’. Giovanni (b. 1943) is a well-known African-American poet and activist, who has written about one of the most significant Civil Rights activists, Rosa Parks, on several occasions (including writing a book for younger readers, Rosa, all about her). Parks, of course, came to widespread attention in December 1955 thanks to her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, when she resisted racial segregation on a local bus and refused to give up her seat for a white passenger.
Warsan Shire, ‘Home’. We bring this pick of classic poems about prejudice and discrimination right up to date with this poem from the contemporary British poet Warsan Shire, who was born in Kenya, to Somali parents, in 1988. Here, Shire writes an impassioned poem about the reasons why refugees are forced to leave their homes in search of new ones: as the opening lines have it, nobody leaves home unless ‘home’ is the mouth of a shark. A powerful note on which to end this selection of great poems about the plight of refugees – and all too relevant in our own times.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.