Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
There’s a long, and strong, tradition of African-American writing stretching back centuries, and the annals of literature are filled with amazing African-American poets and poems. Below, we introduce just ten of the very best poems by African-American poets, covering over 250 years. Which important poet or poets have we missed off?
For a good anthology of African-American poetry, we recommend African American Poetry: A Library of America Anthology (The Library of America).
1. Phillis Wheatley, ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’.
’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew …
Wheatley (c. 1753-84; pictured below right) was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in 1773 when she was probably still in her early twenties. Wheatley had been taken from Africa to America as a young girl, but was freed shortly after the publication of her poems; the short poem ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ reminds her (white) readers that although she is black, everyone – regardless of skin colour – can be ‘refined’ and join the choirs of the godly.
The poem betrays its eighteenth-century context and the attitudes towards race at the time, but Wheatley’s voice is an important one in eighteenth-century American – indeed, world – poetry.
2. Paul Laurence Dunbar, ‘Sympathy’.
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was the son of African parents who had been slaves prior to the American Civil War. Dunbar also wrote novels and plays, as well as penning the lyrics for the 1903 musical comedy, In Dahomey – the first all-African-American musical that was ever produced on Broadway.
But it was as a poet – one of the first internationally popular African-American poets – that Dunbar would achieve real fame and success. He died young, of tuberculosis, aged just 33. The final stanza of this poem gave Maya Angelou a phrase which she subsequently made more popular, but the whole of Dunbar’s poem about sympathy is worth reading:
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!
3. Langston Hughes, ‘I, Too’.
The finest poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes (1902-67) often writes about the lives of African Americans living in America, especially in New York, in the early twentieth century. In this poem from 1926, and with an allusive nod to Walt Whitman’s poem ‘I Hear America Singing’, Hughes – describing himself as the ‘darker brother’ – highlights the plight of black Americans at the time, having to eat separately from everyone else in the kitchen when guests arrive, but determined to strive and succeed in the ‘Land of the Free’.
4. Robert Hayden, ‘Those Winter Sundays’.
Hayden (1913-1980) served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (now better-known as the US Poet Laureate); he was the first African-American poet to hold the office. This 1966 poem is a recollection of childhood memories involving Hayden’s parents, and one of Hayden’s best-known poems.
5. Dudley Randall, ‘Ballad of Birmingham’.
Randall (1914-2000) is as well-known for publishing some of the greatest African-American poets of the twentieth century as he is for writing poetry himself. As the founder of Broadside Press in 1965, he would go on to publish Audre Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, and many other notable writers of the day.
‘Ballad of Birmingham’ is a powerful poem about the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, written that year and published as a broadside in 1965.
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.
6. Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘We Real Cool’.
In the 1920s, it was African American poets like Langston Hughes who pioneered a new kind of poetry – drawing on jazz rhythms and African-American Vernacular – during the Harlem Renaissance. Gwendolyn Brooks built upon this new tradition for this 1959 poem, which was inspired by seeing a group of young boys in a pool hall when they should have been in school. How do they view themselves, she wonders? This poem attempts to give them a voice – and in doing so, reflects the new phenomenon of the 1950s: the teenager.
7. Audre Lorde, ‘Coal’.
This is the title poem from Lorde’s 1976 collection of the same name, which was her first collection published by a major publisher. Lorde (1934-92) was a self-described ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.’ The ‘warrior’ is as important as the other words. Her poem ‘Coal’ is one of her most frequently anthologised, and sees Lorde harnessing the rage she feels when, for instance, she sees white people’s attitudes to black Americans. ‘Coal’ is black, of course, but if you put it under enough pressure, it can produce diamonds.
8. Maya Angelou, ‘Caged Bird’.
This poem, contrasting the free bird with the caged bird, perhaps owes a debt to William Blake: Angelou’s reference to a ‘bird that stalks / down his narrow cage / can seldom see through / his bars of rage’ evokes Blake’s famous couplet ‘A Robin Redbreast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage.’ But the more immediate link is with Angelou’s own work, and her 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The free bird has no need of song, but the caged bird sings because it is not free.
There are obvious parallels here between African American women in the United States and white American women, but Angelou does not reduce her poem to such a straightforward equivalence. Instead, it can be read as a poem about freedom and isolation in more general terms (although personally we think it benefits from having its specific context borne in mind).
9. 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.
10. Rita Dove, ‘Banneker’.
Rita Dove (b. 1952), a contemporary African-American poet, wrote ‘Banneker’ about Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), the black American polymath who published a series of popular almanacs and helped to survey the area that became the nation’s capital, Washington D. C. This makes it the perfect poem to conclude this introduction to classic African-American poetry – but this is very much just that: an introduction. Which other black American poets have you especially enjoyed reading?
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.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.