Poetry has rung out across the nation throughout times of turmoil and injustice, galvanizing change and inspiring humanity through language. From the powerful social commentary of Langston Hughes to the soulful musings of Dr. Maya Angelou, Black poets have used their works to inspire, educate, and empower generations of readers and amplify their voice during historical resistances such as the Harlem Renaissance and Civil Rights Movement. Under the theme of Black History Month 2023, Black Resistance, we’re discussing Black poets and their legacy of beauty, resistance, and strength whose inspiration has carried into today and will continue to shape the future.
The Harlem Renaissance
Through rhyme and rhythm, poets have voiced complex emotions and experiences during times of uncertainty. This has never been truer than in the case of Black poetry, which has been a critical tool in the fight for equality and justice in America. The Harlem Renaissance through the 1910s and 1930s saw a flowering of Black artistic expression, with poets such as Langston Hughes and Georgia Douglas Johnson at the forefront.
Langston Hughes (1901-1967) is remembered for his powerful and evocative verse that spoke to the experiences of working-class Black Americans and challenged the racial inequalities of the day. His works, such as Daybreak in Alabama and Black Maria, reflect his vision of a future in which Black pride pervades the country across diverse cultures and aesthetics. Hughes penned a tone that brought profound sincerity to the realities of the African American experience, including all its joys and sorrows. Throughout his lifetime Langston Hughes went on to write roughly 868 poems, 12 novels and short stories, 11 major plays, eight children’s books, and a series of essays, leaving an immeasurable mark on the literary world.
Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966) began to write poetry after she moved to Washington, DC, with her husband and two sons, inspired by a poem written by William Stanley Braithwaite. Her first poetry collection was published in 1916, titled The Heart of a Woman, followed by her collection Bronze. Both collections explored her identity as a woman, mother, and woman of color, calling upon the emotions of pain and love that traversed her everyday life. Her activism rested primarily in her anti-lynching efforts expressed throughout her plays, such as Sunday Morning in the South and The Ordeal. Johnson also participated in multiple NAACP campaigns and was a part of the “Writers League Against Lynching,” which fought to bring forth a federal anti-lynching bill. After her husband’s death, Johnson began hosting “Saturday Salons,” opening her doors to authors and artists that became significant contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, and Anne Spencer. Her home became a cultural hub of joy and creativity, opening its doors as a “Halfway House,” as described by Johnson, for all to be welcome.
The Civil Rights Movement
The artistry and activism showcased by Black poets during the Harlem Renaissance stretched into The Civil Rights Movement throughout the 1950s and 1960s. These prominent voices continued their resistance and called for justice while setting the stage for poets like Dr. Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde.
Dr. Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a world-renowned author, poet, memoirist, performer, and activist known as the “black woman’s poet laureate.” While she is well known for her autobiographies, mainly I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; she published roughly 167 poems, which are the fruit of her poetry studies and writings from a young age. Perhaps her most famous poem, Still I Rise, illustrates Black women’s beauty, strength, and perseverance amidst the toils of discrimination. Dr. Angelou worked directly with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., founded the “Cultural Association for Women of African Heritage”, and held more than 30 honorary degrees for her contributions to education and literature. As the fight for equality in America continues, Dr. Angelou’s words live on as a beacon of hope and a call to action, reminding us of the power of language in the face of oppression.
Audre Lorde (1934-1992) is a poet who drew upon her unique experience as a Black woman, lesbian, mother, activist, and theorist. Her contributions to poetry are united alongside her work in feminism, race, and queer theory. Her works, such as Afterimages, From a Land Where Other People Live, and The Black Unicorn, address the complexities of identity and protest against racial and social injustice. Lorde’s celebration of herself illuminated her work and commitment to black feminism, which she saw as a distinct variation of feminist theory that considered how racism perpetuated oppression and the patriarchy. Lorde coined this concept “intersectionality” and is attributed as the creator of the term. In addition to her poems, Lorde’s essays, speeches, and other writings have been widely read and continue to influence and shape discussions about race, gender, sexuality, and social justice.
Black Poets Today
From Langston Hughes to Audre Lorde, these poets have used their words to challenge systemic injustice and give voice to Black Americans’ experiences. Their beautiful and thought-provoking works are a testament to the enduring spirit of Black resistance and a call to action for us all. I would be remiss not to mention a few poets that have answered that call, using their poetry to join the long legacy of activists forging a brighter future.
Amanda Gorman is a groundbreaking American poet, activist, and the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history. Gorman was the first person to be named National Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles in 2014 at 16 years old, and the first poet to perform at the Super Bowl with her poem Chorus of the Captains. One year later, Gorman published her book of poetry titled The One for Whom Food is Not Enough. In 2021 she delivered her poem The Hill We Climb at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. Her poetry and activism center on issues of oppression, feminism, reproductive rights, race, and the African diaspora. Gorman has been featured on the cover of Time magazine and is the first poet ever to be featured in Vogue. With an ever-growing resume of accomplishments at only 24 years old, Amanda Gorman has quickly established herself as a poetic paragon of her generation.
Jericho Brown is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems, The Tradition. His first book, Please, won the American Book Award, and his second book, The New Testament receiving the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Brown writes in a unique and original poetic form he has titled a “duplex,” a “combination of the sonnet, the ghazal, and the blues,” defined as a series of couplets that play off each other, mirroring previous lines to introduce new images or ideas. He holds writers’ fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation, and is currently the director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University.
Tracy K. Smith is a poet and educator who currently teaches English and African American Studies at Harvard and was named the 22nd U.S. poet laureate from 2017-2019. Her four books of poetry have won numerous awards, including; the Cave Canem prize for her first book, The Body’s Question, and the James Laughlin Award and Essence Literary Award for her book Life on Mars. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection, Wade in the Water, captures the truth of living as an artist and Black woman in a patriarchal, colonialist, and capitalist world. In addition to poetry, Smith is a radio host for the daily program and podcast, The Slowdown, which shares poems with the goal of reflection, connection, and mindfulness.
The timeless nature of the works of Black poets is a testament to their enduring impact and influence. From the Harlem Renaissance to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, these poets have used their words to challenge systems of oppression and demand justice. Their voices inspire and inform new generations, serving as a guiding light in the ongoing fight for equality. Their poetry is a constant reminder of the work yet to be done, but it also provides hope and a blueprint for how change can be achieved through the power of language.
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