Black poetry generally refers to poems written by African Americans in the United States of America, though some also use the term for poetry written by writers from other nations. In the US, early black poets include Jupiter Hammon, Lucy Terry and Phillis Wheatley, who were primarily active in the 18th century. Of these, Wheatley features on our list due to her popularity even today after more than two centuries. Paul Laurence Dunbar is perhaps the most famous black poet from the 19th century. The Harlem Renaissance in the 20th century saw African Americans making great strides in poetry, among other things. Langston Hughes and Claude McKay were the leading black poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Since the movement, black poetry has been on a rise and a number of black poets of the 20th century are among the best known poets in the world. Among the poets currently active, Nikki Giovanni is perhaps the most famous African American poet. Here are the 10 most famous black poets and their best known works.
#10 Robert Hayden
Lifespan: August 4, 1913 – February 25, 1980
Born Asa Bundy Sheffey in Detroit, Michigan, Robert Hayden was an African American poet whose subject matter was often the black experience. He extensively studied American history and his poems often reflect his deep knowledge of the same. The first poetry collection of Hayden, Heart-Shape in the Dust, was published in 1940, when he was 27 years old. The poetry of Hayden became international renowned in the 1960s. In 1966, he was awarded the Grand Prize for Poetry at the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, for his poetry collection Ballad of Remembrance. In 1976, Robert Hayden became the first African American to be appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a role today known as US Poet Laureate. He held this prestigious position for two years till 1978. Hayden authored nine poetry collections during his lifetime. His most famous poem Those Winter Sundays is among the most anthologized American poems of the 20th century.
Those Winter Sundays (1962)
Middle Passage (1945)
Frederick Douglass (1947)
#9 Paul Laurence Dunbar
Lifespan: June 27, 1872 – February 9, 1906
Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio to parents who had been freed due to the American Civil War. His talent was apparent from a young age. He wrote his first poem at the age of 6 and gave his first public recital at the age of 9. In 1888, when he was 16, his poems “Our Martyred Soldiers” and “On The River” were first published in Dayton’s The Herald newspaper. With time, Dunbar became acclaimed across America with his poems and essays being published in the leading journals of the day; including Harper’s Weekly, the Saturday Evening Post, the Denver Post and Current Literature. Unfortunately, his career was cut short as he died of tuberculosis at the age of just 33. Much of Dunbar’s best known poetry is written in the “Negro dialect” associated with the antebellum South. Moreover, it is known for its colorful language and conversational tone. Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first influential Black poets in American literature and his poetry is still widely read.
We Wear the Mask (1896)
Life’s Tragedy (1913)
#8 Derek Walcott
Lifespan: January 23, 1930 – March 17, 2017
Born on the island of Saint Lucia, a former British colony in the West Indies, Derek Walcott initially trained to be a painter but soon turned to writing. At the age of 14, his first poem was published in the newspaper The Voice of St Lucia. Walcott gained international renown with his poetry collection In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960 (1962). The book celebrated the Caribbean and its history; as well as focused on the impact of colonialism on their land. His most acclaimed work is however, the Homeric epic poem Omeros which was published in 1990 and is cited by critics as his “major achievement.” Walcott had a long and distinguished career. Apart from being a poet, he was also a playwright, critic, teacher and journalist. Derek Walcott received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature with the Nobel committee describing his work as “a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment”. Walcott was the second Caribbean writer to receive the honor after Saint-John Perse.
Love After Love (1986)
A Far Cry from Africa (1962)
#7 Claude McKay
Lifespan: September 15, 1889 – May 22, 1948
Born in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, Claude McKay started to write poetry at the age of 10 and he published his first book of poems, Songs of Jamaica, in 1912. The same year he left for the United States to attend Tuskegee Institute. In the 1920s, McKay became involved in the Harlem Renaissance; an African American movement which was centered at the Harlem neighborhood in New York City and during which African Americans took giant strides politically, socially and artistically. The poetry of McKay ranged from vernacular verse celebrating peasant life in Jamaica to poems that protested racial and economic inequities. Due to this, it became popular in the African American community and resonated with the leaders of the movement. In particular, his militant sonnet “If We Must Die”, which was published in 1919, is noted for its revolutionary tone and is considered a landmark of Harlem Renaissance. Apart from poetry, McKay also wrote short stories, novels and non-fiction. He is widely regarded as one of the key figures in the Harlem Renaissance and one of the greatest black poets of his age.
If We Must Die (1919)
The Harlem Dancer (1917)
#6 Gwendolyn Brooks
Lifespan: June 7, 1917 – December 3, 2000
Born in in Topeka, Kansas, Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks began writing poetry from an early age and by the time she graduated from high school in 1935, she was already a regular contributor to the newspaper The Chicago Defender. Her first poem “Eventide” was published in the children’s magazine, American Childhood, when she was 13. Her first collection of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, was published in 1945 and it instantly brought her critical acclaim for its authentic portraits of life in the Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago. The second poetry book of Brooks, Annie Allen, was published in 1949. It focused on the life and experiences of a young Black girl growing into womanhood in Bronzeville. Annie Allen was awarded the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for poetry making Gwendolyn Brooks the first African American to receive the honor. In 1968, Brooks was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois, a position she held till her death in the year 2000. She was also the United States Poet Laureate for the term 1985–86. Brooks received numerous other honors. Among other things, she was the first African-American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1976.
We Real Cool (1960)
the mother (1945)
The Bean Eaters (1960)
#5 Audre Lorde
Lifespan: February 18, 1934 – November 17, 1992
Born in New York City to Caribbean immigrants, Audre Lorde attended the Hunter College High School, a secondary school for intellectually gifted students. While there, she published her first poem in Seventeen magazine. In 1968, The First Cities, her first poetry collection was published. In 1973, her collection of poems, From a Land Where Other People Live, was nominated for the National Book Award for poetry. Lorde had a long and prolific career as a poet. Among other things, she was poet laureate of New York for the period 1991-1992. The poetry of Lorde is renowned for its technical mastery and emotional expression. Her poems are also known for expressing anger and outrage at civil and social injustices she observed throughout her life. Apart from being a poet, Audre Lorde was a feminist and a civil rights activist. She described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. This reflects in her poetry as she used her creative talent to confront injustices of racism, sexism, classism and homophobia.
Love Poem (1973)
#4 Nikki Giovanni
Born: June 7, 1943
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, Nikki Giovanni is one of the foremost poets of America. Her early poetry was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement in the United States, which were fought for the rights of African Americans. These works provide a strong, militant African-American perspective due to which Giovanni has been called the “Poet of the Black Revolution”. Moreover, they established Giovanni as a prominent new voice in African American literature. Her 1968 collection Black Judgement sold six thousand copies in three months, almost six times the sales level expected of a poetry book. Apart from being a poet, Giovanni is also a commentator, activist and educator. Moreover, her written work includes nonfiction essays and children’s literature. During the course of her career, she has written 28 books and even received a Grammy Award nomination for her poetry album, The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection. Nikki Giovanni remains one of the best known poets in the world. She is currently a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech.
Ego Tripping (1972)
#3 Phillis Wheatley
Lifespan: 1753 – December 5, 1784
Phillis Wheatley was captured and sold to slavery when she was seven years old. On July 11, 1761, she was brought to Boston, Massachusetts on a slave ship called The Phillis. She was then sold to John Wheatley, a wealthy Boston merchant, who bought her as a servant for his wife Susanna. The Wheatleys named the 8 year old girl Phillis after the ship that brought her to America. Phillis adopted her master’s last name as was the custom for slaves. Phillis Wheatley started writing poetry by the age of 13 and, from the age of 14, her poems appeared in certain newspapers and periodicals in U.S. and Britain. Her first poetry collection was published in September, 1773 in London making her the first published African-American woman. Phillis Wheatley was a renowned poet and her work was praised by several prominent figures of the time including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Wheatley was ultimately freed from slavery. However, she struggled due to poverty and died at the young age of 31.
On Being Brought From Africa to America (1773)
To His Excellency General Washington (1775)
On Virtue (1773)
#2 Langston Hughes
Lifespan: February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin in the American state of Missouri. His ancestry was mixed. He wrote his most famous poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, at the age of 17. The poem was published in the June 1921 issue of the magazine The Crisis. In 1925, while working as a busboy in a hotel in Washington, D.C., Hughes showed his poems to prominent American poet Vachel Lindsay. The following day, newspapers around the country reported Lindsay’s discovery of an African American busboy poet. Langston’s first poetry collection, The Weary Blues, was published the following year. Hughes then became the most famous person associated with the Harlem Renaissance and among the most influential leaders of the movement. He was one of the early innovators of the genre of poetry known as Jazz Poetry, which demonstrates jazz like rhythms. Many of his poems are based on African American culture and blacks being denied the American dream of equal opportunity for all. Also a novelist, playwright and columnist, Langston Hughes is most renowned for his poetry and he is widely regarded as one of the greatest African American poets ever.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1921)
I, Too (1926)
#1 Maya Angelou
Lifespan: April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, Maya Angelou was one of the most renowned figures of the 20th century. She began her career as a singer and dancer; worked as a civil rights activist and journalist; wrote seven acclaimed autobiographies; taught at Wake Forest University; and received many honors including the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. Angelou was a prolific poet who explored numerous themes in her poems including that of women, love, loss, music, struggle, discrimination and racism. She has been referred to as “people’s poet” and as “the black woman’s poet laureate”. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. She was the first female poet and the second ever after Robert Frost to be so honored. The poems of Maya Angelou continue to be extremely popular and have been called the anthems of African Americans. Among other things, her poem Still I Rise was recited by Nelson Mandela at his presidential inauguration. Maya Angelou is the most famous black poet till date.
Still I Rise (1978)
Phenomenal Woman (1978)
On the Pulse of Morning (1993)