"For over 250 years, African Americans have written and recited and published poetry about beauty and injustice, music and muses, Africa and America, freedoms and foodways, Harlem and history, funk and opera, boredom and longing, jazz and joy. For African Americans, the very act of composing poetry proved a form of protest."
-Kevin Young, African-American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song
Day 16 - P is for The Poets
Lucy Terry Prince by Louise Minks
Lucy Terry Prince i(1730-1821) is the first known African-American poet. She composed Bars Fight in 1746. The poem was shared only orally until publication in 1855. An account of a violent attack on her Deerfield village, the first stanza of:
The Bars Fight
August ’twas the twenty-fifth,
Seventeen hundred forty-six;
The Indians did in ambush lay,
Some very valiant men to slay
Read The Bars Fight in its entirety.
Jupiter Hammon (1711-1806)
published several of his works, often pious, in newspapers and other outlets, starting in 1760; he was the first African American to publish poetry in a magazine. Hammon’s first work, the broadside An Evening Thought was published in 1760.
George Moses Horton (1798-1883) An African-American poet from North Carolina, the first to be published in the Southern United States. His book, On Liberty and Slavery, was published in 1828 while he was still enslaved. An excerpt from:
Alas! and am I born for this,
To wear this slavish chain?
Deprived of all created bliss,
Through hardship, toil and pain!
How long have I in bondage lain,
And languished to be free!
Alas! and must I still complain—
Deprived of liberty.
A New Image
Countee Cullen (1903-1946) A Harlem Renaissance figure, "Cullen was celebrated as the golden exemplar of a campaign by black political and cultural leaders who sought to engineer a new image of black people in America. He published Color n 1925. Hs poem Incident about a little white boy in Baltimore who insultingly called another little boy nigger may be an indication of why he was so eager for a "new image" of Black people.
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, nigger.
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December.
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
Gwendolyn Bennett (1902-1981) One of the uncelebrated women of the Harlem Renaissance, Bennett’s most productive period as a poet was from 1926 and 1927, producing poems that explored themes of racial pride and reflected African motifs. “Fantasy” spoke to the aspirations of African-American women. “Dark Girl” encouraged black women to love themselves and aspire to the nobility of African queens.
To A Dark Girl
I love you for your brownness,
And the rounded darkness of your breast,
I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice
And shadows where your wayward eyelids rest.
Something of old forgotten queens
Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk
And something of the shackled slave
Sobs in the rhythm of your talk.
Oh, little brown girl, born for sorrow’s mate,
Keep all you have of queenliness,
Forgetting that you once were slave,
And let your full lips laugh at Fate!
For My PeopleLet a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let abloody peace be written in the sky. Let a secondgeneration full of courage issue forth; let a peopleloving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full ofhealing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsingin our spirits and our blood.
An Auspicious Start
Phillis Wheatley Monument, Boston, MA
Phillis Wheatley (1751-1784) was the first African American to publish a book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). "It wasn’t till Wheatley that an entire tradition coalesced, and fully began—with her poems addressed to British royalty and then-General Washington, contemplating creativity and creation and a freedom she ultimately would write herself into." Although she was an enslaved person, Phillis Wheatley Peters was one of the best-known poets in pre-19th century America.
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was the first Black poet whose work had a wide appeal for the white public. James Weldon Johnson: “Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out as the first poet from the Negro race in the United States to show a combined mastery over poetic material and poetic technique, to reveal innate literary distinction in what he wrote, and to maintain a high level of performance. He was the first to rise to a height from which he could take a perspective view of his own race. He was the first to see objectively its humor, its superstitions, its short-comings; the first to feel sympathetically its heart-wounds, its yearnings, its aspirations, and to voice them all in a purely literary form.”We Wear the MaskWe 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, whileWe wear the mask.We smile, but, O great Christ, our criesTo thee from tortured souls arise.We sing, but oh the clay is vileBeneath our feet, and long the mile;But let the world dream otherwise,We wear the mask!Claude McKay by Gary Kelley
Claude McKay (1889-1948) was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, alongside Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. Langston Hughes: "When McKay came out of the Caribbean to the U.S. to publish in 1922 his Harlem Shadows...the poem therein to attain lasting fame and great popularity was his most militant sonnet, If We Must Die. This poem was a protest against the monstrous barbarity of the race riots which plagued America in the second decade of our century, and its advice to fight back struck a responsive chord in Negroes. An excerpt from:If We Must DieO 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!
Gwendolyn Brooks by Joyce OwensGwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) Gwendolyn Brooks is one of the most highly regarded, influential, and widely read poets of 20th-century American poetry. She was a much-honored poet, even in her lifetime, with the distinction of being the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. A self described "folksy" poet, following a gathering of Black writers at Fisk University in 1967, Brooks noted that the poets at Fisk were committed to writing as Blacks, about Blacks, and for a Black audience. If many of her earlier poems had fulfilled this aim, it was not due to conscious intent, she said; but from this time forward, Brooks thought of herself as an African determined not to compromise social comment for the sake of technical proficiency.
Audre Lorde (1934-1992) A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. "People would say, well what do you think, Audre. What happened to you yesterday? And I would recite a poem and somewhere in that poem would be a line or a feeling I would be sharing. In other words, I literally communicated through poetry. And when I couldn’t find the poems to express the things I was feeling, that’s what started me writing poetry, and that was when I was twelve or thirteen.” An excerpt from:
A Woman SpeaksI have been womanfor a long timebeware my smileI am treacherous with old magicand the noon's new furywith all your wide futurespromisedI amwomanand not white.