African-American poets through the centuries

We at iUniverse would like to honor Black History month by taking a look at three African-American poets. We’ve chosen one excellent poet from each of the preceding centuries, to celebrate black poetry through the ages!

poetsPhillis Wheatley: One of the earliest writers of poetry in the US was Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784), who arrived in the American colonies as a slave around 1760. Wheatley studied poetry under the Wheatley family that she lived with in Boston, and published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773. She was even able to read Latin and Greek by the age of 12!

Wheatley’s poetry shows classical elements, in keeping with the neo-classical style popular in the 1700s, an era which also featured Alexander Pope. At the same time, her poems also infuse elements of Christianity. The time period, which consisted of rising tensions between the American colonies and the British government, is reflected in her writings, especially in a poem to George Washington during the Revolution:

Thee, first in peace and honors—we demand

The grace and glory of thy martial band.

Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,

Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!

Incidentally, Wheatley was not actually the first Black poet in America. Sometime in the late 1740s, Lucy Terry (also living in Massachusetts) composed a poem called “Bars Fight”, about an incident in 1746. However, the poem was only in oral form until it was published in 1855. Thus, Wheatley is America’s first published female black poet. (The first published poet, male or female, was Jupiter Hammon.) Her writings created a sensation in England, where she went to publish them, meeting members of the aristocracy during her visit. She was also praised by Voltaire, American naval her John Paul Jones, and of course, George Washington.


poetsPaul Dunbar: Paul Dunbar (1872-1906), hailing from Ohio, emerged at the end of the 19th century, in the first generation born after emancipation. He was a skilled linguist, writing in various American dialects, and published his first two poems at the age of 16. Ultimately, Dunbar wrote a dozen books of poetry, four novels, four books of short stories, lyrics for a musical called In Dahomey (the former name of Benin), and a play.

William Dean Howells, who launched The Atlantic Monthly, praised Dunbar’s skill, as did Maya Angelou, who said his works had inspired her writing ambition. Frederick Douglass, whose eloquent narrative of his own slavery and freedom is now a classic work in American Literature, was also fond of Dunbar’s poetry. Dunbar wrote a poem to Douglass, eponymously titled “Douglass”, which ends with the moving apostrophe,

Oh, for thy voice high-sounding o’er the storm,
For thy strong arm to guide the shivering bark,
The blast-defying power of thy form,
To give us comfort through the lonely dark.

Dunbar’s works fell somewhat into obscurity during the first half of the 1900s, but have fortunately received more critical attention in recent years.

poetsLangston Hughes: One of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes (1902-1967) flourished well into the artistic and tumultuous period of the American 1960s. Hughes, originally from the American heartland, saw a fair amount of the globe during his early years, living in Mexico in his late teens and then serving as a crewman on a ship that visited Africa and Europe. He eventually settled in the northeast, first New Jersey and then New York City.

Hughes’ first poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, was published in the NAACP’s magazine, and helped establish his reputation. It was later published in his first book of poems, The Weary Blues. As a poet, Hughes’ focus was on blacks in the lower-classes, i.e. the proletariat. He had a passion for illuminating the daily life, both struggles and laughter, of the ordinary, working-class African-American, and became known as a “people’s poet”. One very emotional poem by Hughes, which reflects his appreciation for the common black American but also all people, is “Kids Who Die”, which begins with the stanza,

This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
For kids will die certainly.
The old and rich will live on awhile,
As always,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting kids die.

Hughes was a much-celebrated and respected member of the intellectual community in New York City, and remains a famous name to this day. Movie star Danny Glover is a huge fan of Hughes’ poetry, and has toured America giving readings of many of the poems. Here is a recording of Glover’s rendition of “Kids Who Die”, along with his presentation of “Ballad of Roosevelt” and “Montage of a Dream Deferred”. Make sure to check them out — Glover’s charm really brings the poems to life.

Once again, we at iUniverse salute all of the contributors to the world of African-American poetry, and hope you’ll check out more poems by these superb authors.

Now, for the big question: Who is your favorite African-American poet of the 21st Century? Write in and let us know!

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