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Celebrating National Black Poetry Day

Black Poetry Day is October 17th and honors past and present black poets. The day also commemorates the birth of the first published black poet in the United States. Jupiter Hammon, who was born on Long Island, New York in 1711. Today, there are thousands of talented black poets around the world writing about both the shared black experience and their own unique experiences through different forms including written poetry, rap, and spoken-word poetry. While Black Poetry Day is celebrated throughout the United States, Oregon is the only state to designate it as a state holiday.

Here is a list of Black Poets to celebrate and share with your children:

Maya Angelou
Angelou reciting her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at U.S. president Bill Clinton's inauguration, January 20, 1993

Perhaps one of the most famous black poets, Maya Angelou used her captivating poetry to kickstart conversations on race, oppression, and loss — her most famous poem is “On The Pulse of Morning.” She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years.

Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar circa 1890.jpg

You might have once heard or read the opening line of one of his most famous poems called “Sympathy”: I know what the caged bird feels, alas! Dunbar began writing stories and verse when he was a child. He published his first poems at the age of 16 in a Dayton newspaper, and served as president of his high school's literary society.

Langston Hughes
1936 photo by Carl Van Vechten

Langston Hughes is one of the fathers of the literary art form called jazz poetry — he wrote his first piece of jazz poetry, “When Sue Wears Red.” Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance

Gwendolyn Brooks
Commemorative postage stamp of Gwendolyn Brooks issued by the USPS in 2012.

Gwendolyn Brooks is the first African-American ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, for her poetry book “Annie Allen”. Her work often dealt with the personal celebrations and struggles of ordinary people in her community.

Alice Walker
Walker in 2007

is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, and social activist. In 1982, she became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which she was awarded for her novel The Color Purple

Phillis Wheatley
Portrait of Phillis Wheatley, attributed by some scholars to Scipio Moorhead

Phillis Wheatley published Poems on various subjects Wheatley was seized from West Africa at just 7 years old. She learned to read and write and by age 18, Wheatley had a collection of 28 poems to publish.

W.E.B. Du Bois
Carte-de-visite of Du Bois, with beard and mustache, around 39 years old

W.E.B. Du Bois was a sociologist, Pan-Africanist, writer, and so much more. Not only was he the first African American to earn a doctorate after studying at the University of Berlin and Harvard, but he also was among the founders of the NAACP in 1909. His best-known works include The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction in America, but Du Bois also published a number of poems including “Ghana Calls,” and “The Song of the Smoke.”

George M. Horton

Nicknamed “the Black bard of North Carolina, George Moses Horton published his first poetry collection, The Hope of Liberty, in 1829. Horton had hoped to purchase his freedom with the book, but sadly, his attempts were denied. After 30 years of purchasing and appealing for his freedom, he was ultimately freed at the end of the Civil War.

James Weldon Johnson
Photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1932

A civil rights activist, an early leader of the NAACP, and the first African American to pass the Florida Bar are just a few of the many impressive titles held by James Weldon Johnson. In addition to his activism efforts, Johnson was a strong musician and writer. He wrote the iconic song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (1900), the poetry collection Fifty Years & Other Poems (1917), and several other works. His creative pursuits and unparalleled drive made him a key figure in the development of the Harlem Renaissance.

Jessie Redmon Fauset
Negro Poets and Their Poems-0182.jpg

The life work of Jessie Redmon Fauset shaped African American literature as we know it. Not only was she among the first authors to portray Black fictional characters as working professionals, but she also discovered and mentored a number of key figures including Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen.

Countee Cullen
Countee Cullen, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1941

A later key figure in the Harlem Renaissance was Countee Cullen. Cullen had a close relationship with many key figures in the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, and Alain Locke—also known as the “Dean” of the movement. Cullen published four collections of poetry (Color being his most well-known) and spent a great deal of his career promoting fellow Black poets.

Arna Bontemps
Bontemps photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1938

Born in Louisiana to a Creole family, Arna Bontemps spent many of his formative years frequenting speak-easies and jazz joints with his father. He is best known for his poem “Hope,” published in Crisis magazine of the NAACP. He later traveled to New York City where he continued to write poetry and befriend other key members of the Harlem Renaissance.

Margaret Walker
Margaret Alexander (13270304753).jpg

Poet and novelist Margaret Walker established her career as part of the Chicago Black Renaissance. Her 1942 poetry collection, For My People, was awarded the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, making her the first Black woman to win a national writing prize. She went on to publish three more albums of poetry.

Robert Hayden
Robert Hayden.jpg

Poet, essayist, and educator Robert Hayden served as US Poet Laureate before it was even a thing. Really, he served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1976-1978. As the first African American writer to hold the office, Hayden was a central figure in the rise of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. His most famous poem, “Those Winter Sundays,” is one of the most anthologized poems of the twentieth century.

Lucille Clifton

Lucille clifton.jpg

Former Poet Laureate of Maryland and a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Lucille Clifton is more than a household name. Her most celebrated collection, Two Headed Woman, won the 1980 Juniper Prize. Within it, her poem “homage to my hips,” is among the most well-known American poems. Among her many awards, she received the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement from the Poetry Society of America.

Haki R. Madhubuti
Haki madhubuti 7624.JPG

Author, educator, poet, and publisher Haki R. Madhubuti has dedicated his life to the advancement of Black literature. In addition to publishing 28 books, he’s a co-founder of Third World Press, the largest independent Black-owned press in the United States. The press has published works by some of the greatest Black arts authors, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, and Amiri Baraka.

Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith 9132454 crop.jpg

Massachusetts-born poet Tracy K. Smith has authored four critically acclaimed books of poetry: The Body’s Question (2003), Duende (2007), Life on Mars (2011), and Wade in the Water (2018). Her memoir, Ordinary Light, was a finalist for the National Book Award in non-fiction. She served as U.S. Poet Laureate in 2017.

Danez Smith
Danez smith 8024782 (48459329982)a.jpg

Poet and performer Danez Smith has made waves in recent years with a number of successful works and awards. Their most recent collection, Don’t Call Us Dead (2017), was a finalist for the National Book Award and [insert] Boy (2014) earned the Lambda Literary Award and Kate Tufts Award. Smith is also a Poetry Foundation Fellow, a McKnight Foundation Fellow, and a National Endowment for the Arts recipient, as well as landing on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list and earning a Pushcart Prize.

Terrance Hayes
Hayes reading at the Lannan Center 2020

With seven poetry collections under his belt, South Carolina-born Terrance Hayes served as the 2017-2018 poetry editor for New York Times Magazine. His awards include the National Book Award for Poetry, a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Whiting Award, among many others. Although Hayes has made a number of contributions to the art of poetry, one of his most notable is the invention of the “golden shovel” poetic form.


More History on Jupiter Hammon

Hammon was born during the time of slavery on October 17, 1711, at the Lloyd Manor in Long Island. His masters, The Lloyds, allowed him to receive some education through the Anglican Church’s Society for The Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Hammon took advantage of this education and created poetry that was supported with layered metaphors and symbols. In 1761, when he was nearly 50, Jupiter Hammon published his first poem called “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries.”

As a respected preacher and clerk, his poems about slavery received wide circulation. Eighteen years after his first poem was published, Jupiter Hammon got a second poem published, “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley.” Wheatley was the first published black female author and Jupiter Hammon admired her and encouraged her with a dedication poem. Hammon recognized the need to support and encourage other black writers like himself, especially at a time where black writers rarely received the support their white counterparts did.

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