5 Powerful Poems by Black Poets

Pop quiz: Name five poets who are black. If you pull up big names like Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou but fall short soon after, you aren’t alone. The poets most U.S. students study are overwhelmingly white, and the contributions of poets of color are usually pushed to the sidelines. Since today is Black Poetry Day, it’s the perfect time to start catching up—okay, it’s actually far past time.

The unofficial holiday is said to mark the birthday of Jupiter Hammon, the first published African American poet. He was born into slavery in 1711 on Long Island, N.Y., and used the schooling and library access he was allowed to write poems based on his Christian faith. Through the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and ’30s, when black culture came to a “spiritual coming-of-age,” up until today, celebrating the works of past and present poets remains relevant.

But the statistics on diversity in poetry are depressing. Although Congress started its U.S. poet laureate program nearly seven decades ago, only four honorees ever were African American. Even the brilliant Hughes, often referred to as the Poet Laureate of Harlem in the 1920s, never officially claimed the role. The mixed-race English professor Natasha Trethewey most recently held the post until last year.

It’s important to acknowledge our culture’s diverse influences and not forget the contributions of a whole demographic. Otherwise, only a portion of the population—typically those who are old, white and male—gets to have their story told.

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains the importance of acting otherwise articulately: Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

She continues later to say, “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

Without further adieu, here are five powerful poems by black poets.

1. “We Real Cool,” Gwendolyn Brooks

We real cool/we left school/we lurk late/we strike straight

Admittedly, the start of Brooks’ poem may be familiar, but just in case it isn’t, the experiences of seven pool players is a must-read. Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry back in 1950.

2. “If Only Out of Vanity,” Staceyann Chin

In this world where classification is key/I want to erase the straight lines/So I can be me

The Jamaican-born poetry master muses about being a lesbian and an activist in her spoken-word performance “If Only Out of Vanity.” Chin sees poetry as a form of resistance against the multiple oppressions she faces.

 3. “alternate names for black boys,” Danez Smith

First son of soil. Coal awaiting spark & wind. Guilty until proven dead.

These are a few names award-winning poet Smith gave black boys in his poem last year. Written in the wake of Mike Brown’s tragic killing by police, Smith’s “alternate names for black boys” cuts to the quick.

4. an ordinary woman, Lucille Clifton

at last we killed the roaches./mama and me. she sprayed,/i swept the ceiling and they fell/dying onto our shoulders, in our hair/covering us with red. the tribe was broken,/the cooking pots were ours again

While an ordinary woman is in fact a compilation, not a single poem, Clifton’s work deserves your time. The Emmy winner and former poet laureate for Maryland brings back interesting insights into childhood.

5. Tornado Child, Kwame Dawes

I am a tornado child/I come like a swirl of black and darken up your day

Dawes wrote “Tornado Child” after talking to elderly black people about their memories in South Carolina. He is a prolific playwright, novelist, actor, musician and yes, poet.

These poems are from only a few of the many brilliant minds out there. You can read more here. As Irvin Weathersby Jr. says in the Atlantic, “Black history, after all, is American and world history. Teach it in the context of the human condition all year round.”

Photo Credit: BK

55 comments

Sophie L
Sophie Labout a month ago

thanks for posting

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Mia B
Past Member 2 months ago

Thank you

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Mia B
Past Member 2 months ago

Thank you

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Rose Becke
Rose Becke3 years ago

Wonderful

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Julia Cabrera-Woscek

Love them.

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Roberto MARINI
Roberto MARINI3 years ago

thank for this article

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Beth Wilkerson
Beth Wilkerson3 years ago

I'll be looking for more Danez Smith, for sure

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Pablo B.
.3 years ago

TYFS

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Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y3 years ago

Great choices, thanks. I've always been a Gwendolyn Brooks fan, but didn't know about Staceyann Chin. Great poetess, great reader, both Jamaican and Chinese ethnic background.

I would also nominate Langston Hughes' "Let America be America Again" as a more authentically American counterpoint to Trump's jingoistic campaign slogan. Hughes' thoughtful work is one of the most deeply moving, unvarnished poems written about the U.S.A. by any poet at any time. Its muscular, old-fashioned English is every bit the peer of Whitman, Dickinson, or Poe.

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