By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Poetry can be used to address and explore a range of pressing social issues, and racial prejudice and racial identity are among these topics which poets have written about powerfully, from a range of perspectives.
Whether it’s African-American poets writing at the time of the Civil Rights movement in the US, or British Asian poets writing about dual identity, the following poets have articulated important aspects of ‘the race debate’ (or, perhaps, debates). As well as getting us to think, they have made us feel.
Let’s take a look at what they say.
1. 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, which was still legal in the British Empire at the time).
The poem is spoken by the African boy who acknowledges that his skin is black whereas a white English child’s is white. However, he points out that his soul is white too: i.e., as spotless and pure as a white boy’s.
2. 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’.
3. Dudley Randall, ‘Ballad of Birmingham’.
Randall (1914-2000) is as well-known for publishing some of the greatest poets of the twentieth century as he is for writing poetry himself.
‘Ballad of Birmingham’ is a powerful poem about the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, written that year and published 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.
4. Gwendolyn Brooks, RIOT.
Brooks (1917-2000) was an important American poet whose work often engaged with the lives of Black Americans. This long poem was written in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King (who provides the poem with its epigraph) in 1968, and the social unrest that followed. Brooks’s poem suggests that social progress can be effected not just by protest or action but by thinking, reading, and reflecting.
5. 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.
6. Alice Walker, ‘Remember Me?’
Although she is probably best-known for her novel The Color Purple, Alice Walker (born 1944) is also a poet, who writes powerfully in this poem about being the woman with ‘the dark skin’. The poem addresses the hardship faced by many black women in the US but also reiterates a message of hope, ending with the positive words, ‘Let us begin’.
7. 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.
8. Patience Agbabi, ‘Skins’.
Agbabi (born 1965) is a British poet who often addresses important social themes, including race and racial identity. ‘Skins’ is a fine example of her engagement with this topic.
Although Agbabi’s work lends itself to spoken-word performances, this does not mean she doesn’t also do fascinating things with the poem on the page. ‘Skins’ is a sestina, moving away from the unspoken tradition of writing such a poem in iambic pentameter and instead using a mixture of longer and shorter lines. The poem is also a variation on the dramatic monologue, spoken by a young man of mixed race who is talking to a woman he finds attractive.
9. Daljit Nagra, ‘Booking Khan Singh Kumar’.
The British poet Daljit Nagra (born 1966) was the first poet to win the Forward Prize for both his first collection of poetry, published by Faber in 2007, and for its title poem, ‘Look, We Have Coming to Dover!’
Some of his poems use Punjabi-inflected English, and allude to earlier poets such as D. H. Lawrence, W. H. Auden, and Rudyard Kipling. With its reference to ‘Punglish’, this poem explores Nagra’s Englishness and his Punjabi ancestry, and how this duality has shaped him as a poet. One of the best contemporary British poems about racial identity.
10. Warsan Shire, ‘Home’.
We bring this pick of classic poems about race and racism up to the present (or as good as) with this poem from the contemporary British poet Warsan Shire, who was born in Kenya, to Somali parents, in 1988.
In ‘Home’, 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.