African Americans have made a great contribution to the poetry of the United States as well as the world since the 18th century. The earliest known black American poets include Jupiter Hammon, Lucy Terry and Phillis Wheatley, all of whom were active in the 18th century. The poem “Bar Fight”, written in 1746 by Terry but not published until 1855, is the first poem known to have been written by a black poet. The 19th century saw a substantial rise in African American authors but it was the 20th century in which they became some of the most acclaimed poets in the world. A prominent turning point in this rise was the Harlem Renaissance, an African American movement which was centered at the Harlem neighborhood in New York City. Langston Hughes and Claude McKay were the most influential poets of the movement. Their poems, including The Negro Speaks of Rivers and If We Must Die, are among the best known poems by African Americans. African American poetry has prospered since the Harlem Renaissance and today some of the best known poets in the world are black poets. Here are the 10 most famous poems written by African American writers.
#10 If We Must Die
Poet: Claude McKay
Claude McKay was one of the most influential leaders of the Harlem Renaissance; an African American movement during which African Americans took giant strides politically, socially and artistically. If We Must Die, his most famous poem, is a militant sonnet noted for its revolutionary tone and considered a landmark of Harlem Renaissance. The poem was written in response to mob attacks by white Americans upon African-American communities during Red Summer, a period in 1919 which was marked by hundreds of deaths in the United States from anti-black white supremacist terrorist attacks. If We Must Die doesn’t aim to arouse sympathy in its readers. It rather calls for oppressed people to resist their oppressors, violently and bravely; even if they die in the struggle. Though it was written keeping in mind the anti-black racism in America, it doesn’t limit itself to that and may be seen to evoke oppressed people around the world.
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
#9 We Wear the Mask
Poet: Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar is perhaps the most famous black poet from the 19th century. This poem is focused on the mask that, according to the author, black people are forced to wear during their interactions with other people of the world. The mask that he refers to is that of smiles. The poet stresses that, despite being troubled, African Americans suppress their emotions rather than expressing their inner troubles or protesting openly. The poet then goes on to describe in more detail the agony that is concealed by the “smile” of the mask. When they smile, black people like him are praying to Christ with “tortured souls”. They sing, but the path they walk is “vile” and “long”. We Wear the Mask is the most famous work of Paul Laurence Dunbar and one of the best known American poems of the 19th century.
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
#8 Love After Love
Poet: Derek Walcott
Derek Walcott had a long and distinguished career as a poet during which, among other things, he won the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature. His most acclaimed poem is the Homeric epic Omeros but his most famous poem is perhaps Love After Love. The poem is unusual for a love poem as it stresses on loving the self. Particularly, it is about the importance of loving the inner self after break down of a relationship. It’s main theme is that of becoming whole again through self-recognition. Consisting of four stanzas, Love After Love is written in the form of advice that is presented to someone suffering from distress that comes from a bad relationship. The speaker believes that this person has become someone else and, only when he fully embraces his true self, he will be able to become fully content.
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
#7 Ego Tripping
Poet: Nikki Giovanni
Nikki Giovanni is perhaps the most famous African American poet in the world and she is acclaimed both by critics and the masses. This poem is her best known work in poetry and through it is famous by this short title, its original title is Ego-Tripping (there may be a reason why). The title of the poem suggests an ego that is so large that the author is tripping over it. The poem was written after Giovanni’s first trip to Africa in 1972 when she saw the achievements of some of the great ancient African civilizations including the Egyptians, the Carthagians and the Ethiopians. During the poem, the speaker aligns herself with these great beginnings as she celebrates both being black and being female. Ego Tripping is one of Giovanni’s favorite poems and she has included it in at least three of her poetry collections.
I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
that only glows every one hundred years falls
into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad
#6 We Real Cool
Poet: Gwendolyn Brooks
Gwendolyn Brooks was one of the leading American poets of the 20th century who won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for poetry making her the first African American to receive the honor. Moreover, she was the United States Poet Laureate for the term 1985–86. The best known poem of Brooks, We Real Cool is a poem about the identity of a group of teenagers, black males, playing pool in the Golden Shovel. However, the poem may be applied to any group of youngsters, whether white, black, male or female. The poem tells how the youngsters feel about themselves and what they do, like play pool or drop out of school. Consisting of four verses of two rhyming lines each, We Real Cool is often cited as “one of the most celebrated examples of jazz poetry”, poems which demonstrate jazz like rhythms. Moreover, it is one of the most famous poems by an African American and is widely studied in literature classes.
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
#5 Harlem (Dream Deferred)
Poet: Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes was an African American poet who was a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. He is regarded by many as the greatest black poet of all time. Harlem first appeared in a 1951 poetry collection by Hughes titled Montage of a Dream Deferred. The dream in the poem refers to the American dream of rights; equality of opportunity for prosperity and success; liberty; and democracy; which at the time when Hughes wrote the poem was denied to most African Americans. In response to his question at the beginning of the poem, Hughes gives examples of what happens to things with deferral and negligence and asks whether the same is happening to the African American dream. Hughes brilliantly uses neat one syllable rhymes, as used in nursery rhymes, suggesting simplicity but accompanies it with imagery and rhythm which tell a more uncomfortable and hurtful tale. The famous last line of the poem then gives warning of dire consequences for everyone if the dream continues to be deferred.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
#4 Phenomenal Woman
Poet: Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou has been referred to as “people’s poet” and “the black woman’s poet laureate”. She is one of the most renowned poets of all time and her poetry is widely read till date. In this poem, the narrator, a self-confident woman, talks about the traits that make her phenomenal despite her not adhering to the world’s view of how a woman should look. Despite not being “built to suit a fashion model’s size”, women wonder where her secret lies and men swarm around her like honey bees. Maya Angelou said that she wrote Phenomenal Woman for all women, regardless of their race or appearance. It is perhaps the most popular of her poems that she often recited for audiences during her public appearances. It was also one of Angelou’s poems featured in the 1993 American film Poetic Justice.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
#3 Those Winter Sundays
Poet: Robert Hayden
Robert Hayden was the first African American to be appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a role today known as US Poet Laureate. This poem, Those Winter Sundays, does not follow the conventions of the sonnet form apart from its 14 lines length and the theme of love, which is traditionally associated with sonnets. In the poem, the speaker remembers how his father rose up early on Sunday mornings, despite the hard work he did all week, and stroked the furnace fire. He woke his son only when the house was warm and he even polished his son’s “good shoes”. The speaker then regrets being indifferent to his father and not thanking him. The prominent themes of the poem are fatherly love and regret for not being grateful for the various ways in which people express their love. Those Winter Sundays is the most famous work of Robert Hayden and it ranks among the most anthologized American poems of the 20th century.
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
#2 The Negro Speaks of Rivers
Poet: Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes wrote his most famous poem when he was only seventeen. The idea of it came to him while he crossed the Mississippi river while travelling on a train to Mexico to meet his father. He began to think what Mississippi had meant to Negroes in the past leading him to think what other rivers had meant to them and the thought came to him, “I’ve known rivers”. He then penned down this much acclaimed poem in around fifteen minutes. In the poem Langston connects to all his African forefathers through rivers which are “older than the flow of human blood in human veins”. He places his ancestor on important historical and cultural sites and uses active verbs like “I built”, “I bathed”, etc. to demonstrate their active participation in civilization since ancient times, even when they had to face discrimination.
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
#1 Still I Rise
Poet: Maya Angelou
Still I Rise directly addresses the white oppressors of black people and responds to centuries of oppression and mistreatment they have suffered. It talks about various means of oppression, like writing, which the narrator addresses in the first stanza of the poem. Still I Rise hails the indomitable spirit of Black people; and expresses faith that they will triumph despite adversity and racism. It is the most famous poem of Maya Angelou and it was also her favorite. She quoted it during interviews and often included it in her public readings. In 1994, Nelson Mandela recited this poem at his presidential inauguration. Still I Rise is perhaps the most famous poem written by an African American and it has been called a “proud, even defiant statement on behalf of all Black people”.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.