African-American poetry is the first formal literature created by Africans and their descendants in the New World. It is a body of literature that emerged out of the largest forced migration in human history, the subsequent enslavement of those migrants, and the racial circumscription encountered by their descendants. Black verse has therefore embodied and emphasized concerns at once aesthetic, spiritual, and, necessarily, political. Gwendolyn Brooks's striking metaphor, which imagines the poetry of the oppressed as "pretty flowers under blood," makes this point explicit. Many poets posit America as a location of exile and alienation, yet it is the only home most black Americans have ever known. Contemporary African-American verse echoes the more than two hundred years of black poetry that preceded it, finding its animating principle in the exploration of what the critic George Kent termed "exile rhythms," as they continue to reverberate in black life. Consequently, the quests for home and freedom—in all of their philosophical, spiritual, and physical dimensions—are a continuing preoccupation for black poets.
Some of the primary responses to this predicament of exile and lingering discrimination can been found in black vernacular, or oral folk culture—that is, in the lyrics and music of ring shouts, field hollers, work songs, spirituals, blues, and jazz. With their emphases on transcendence, perseverance, improvisation, and humor, these forms provide the aesthetic, philosophical, and epistemological foundations on which much black poetry rests. Black folk poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries combined African polyrhythmic structures, West African-based African-American "call and response" patterns, and European forms and language to create a New World literature. While the lyrics and structures of these forms constitute one line of development, the eighteenth century also witnessed the birth of a written African-American poetry. This poetry, primarily modeled on European and Euro-American source material, developed under the gaze of white slave masters, editors, and publishers. Not surprisingly, these poetries are very different. Yet, despite the surface differences between the oral and written black traditions in poetry, especially prior to the twentieth century, there is a sameness in the desires they articulate. In the later nineteenth century, some poets working in the more formal literary tradition attempted to infuse their work with African-American oral culture—a practice that was increasingly employed during the Harlem Renaissance, and that continues today.
A "Difficult Miracle": Black Poetry of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
The dynamic tension between the ideal of freedom and the reality of enslavement or oppression has informed African-American poetry from its inception. The written tradition of black poetry emerged in the second half of the eighteenth century, in an Anglo-American world wrestling with the potent ideas of liberty and self-determination—an intellectual set of concerns bequeathed by the European Enlightenment but given political import in the context of British colonial rule and the revolutionary responses it spawned. The evangelical Great Awakening, an influential eighteenth-century Methodist revivalist movement noted for its emotional fervor, emphasized human equality through Christian salvation. This emphasis on equality "at the foot of the Cross" resonated with African Americans and had a profound influence on early African-American verse.
The prelude to the written tradition of African-American verse occurred in 1746, the year of one of the first documented lynchings, in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Lucy Terry (1730–1821), then an enslaved African sixteen-year-old, wrote "Bars Fight," inaugurating the African-American literary tradition with the composition of a ballad of twenty-six lines that commemorated a Native American ambush of white settlers. Acknowledging the literary and extraliterary challenges confronting the creation of black verse, the poet June Jordon (b. 1936) has labeled African-American poetry, especially its beginnings, nothing short of a "difficult miracle."
It was indeed miraculous that Africans, despite the fierce assaults on their humanity and identity during the Middle Passage and slavery, would enter the continuum that is Western poetic discourse while still in bondage. It may have been especially difficult for African-American poets contemplating an almost 3,000-year-old tradition in poetry that marked, for Europeans and Euro-Americans, the highest level of human artistic achievement. Jupiter Hammon (1711–1806), a slave to three generations of a wealthy New York family and the first published African-American writer, produced an eighty-eight line broadside titled An Evening Thought, Salvation, by Christ, with Penetential (sic) Cries in 1760. This poem's significance rests not in its aesthetic qualities, but in its use of the weight and authority of Christian discourse to make an argument for black (spiritual) equality and (transhistorical) liberation, a rhetorical method that would be repeated throughout the African-American verse tradition.
The African-American written tradition truly begins with the Gambian-born Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–1784), who was the first black person—and the second woman—to publish a book in British North America. Wheatley wrote in daring and direct opposition to the racial hierarchy of eighteenth-century Europe and America, which associated blackness with mental and cultural inferiority. Her Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) reveals a poet politically engaged, spiritually devoted, and artistically ambitious. Wheatley's neoclassicism, her expressed desire to write a song in the "bolder notes" of Homer, Virgil, and Ovid, and her incorporation of a capacious and radically inclusive Christianity were all marshaled to articulate her central concern, the theme of liberation.
During the nineteenth century, over one hundred and thirty black poets would respond to Wheatley's call for a poetry at once political and beautiful. George Moses Horton (1797?–1883?) was the first black southerner to publish a book. This iconoclast published three volumes of poetry: The Hope of Liberty (1829), The Poetical Works of George M. Horton, the Colored Bard of North Carolina (1845), and Naked Genius (1865), published shortly after his emancipation. Horton's poetry stands alone in the nineteenth century in its unique examination of the slave's psyche, love, marriage, financial hardship, and death. His life spanned most of the tumultuous nineteenth century, an era that encompassed slavery, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and the post-Reconstruction period (or "nadir"), a period of extreme political, social, and economic subjugation, and systematic violence. Ann Plato, most likely a free black citizen of Hartford, Connecticut, wrote Essays: Including Biographies and Miscellaneous Pieces of Prose and Poetry (1841), which included twenty poems in the neoclassical style favored by Wheatley. James Monroe Whitfield (1822–1871) wrote "America" (1853), declaring, "America, it is to thee, / Thou boasted land of liberty,— / It is to thee I raise my song, / Thou land of blood and crime and wrong."
A year later, the writer-activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911) published Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), a book of poems and essays with a title revealing a recursion to Wheatley, a clear indication that black writers were fully aware of their own burgeoning literary tradition. Harper—born free like Whitfield, but in the slave South—published other collections, including Moses, a Story of the Nile (1869), an almost 700-line blank-verse epic retelling of the Book of Exodus, and Sketches of a Southern Life (1872), a significant contribution to American and black poetry due to the realistic manner in which it rendered the dignity, knowledge, humor, and speech of African Americans in the South. Alberry Allson Whitman (1851–1901), born a slave in Kentucky, wrote technically complex, heroic, and romantic poetry in order to contribute to racial advancement and to challenge himself artistically. He authored the expansive Leelah Mislead (1873), Not a Man Yet a Man (1877), and The Rape of Florida (1884), among other epics. In addition to Whitman and Harper, some other extended verse writers were Elymas Payson Rogers, George Boyer Vashon, James Madison Bell, and Francis A. Boyd. Although many black writers crafted historical, weighty poems, others, especially after the Civil War, turned inward to explore more emotional, subjective concerns. These poems were transgressive in that they made black speaking, thinking, and feeling their primary focus. Ann Plato, George Moses Horton, and later, T. Thomas Fortune, Eloise Bibb Thompson, and Henrietta Cordelia Ray were among those who adopted this style.
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906), the northern-born son of southern slaves, was the most significant poet of the nineteenth century. In his eleven volumes of poetry, starting with Oak and Ivy (1893), Majors and Minors (1895), and Lyrics of a Lowly Life (1896), Dunbar's formal versatility was as evident as his cross-racial popularity was immense. Dunbar wrote in both standard English and in black vernacular, or dialect, a dichotomy that would influence his popularity and critical reception. Some critics and many readers praised the authenticity and artistry of his dialect verse, noticing Dunbar's ability to mask the exile rhythms, communal healing, and thematics of liberation in his poems. Daniel Webster Davis and James Edwin Campbell also wrote dialect poems. Fenton Johnson was a transitional figure who fashioned poetry reminiscent of Dunbar in its lyricism and use of black speech. The tone of despair in his last volume, Songs of the Soil (1916), encapsulated the mood of the nadir period and the tone of Euro-American modernism.
The Harlem Renaissance: 1919–1940
The Harlem Renaissance, sometimes called the New Negro Renaissance or New Negro movement, was an artistic flowering that peaked in the 1920s but began to wane during the Great Depression. The Great Migration (the movement of blacks from the American South to the North during the early twentieth century), the smaller migration to New York City from the Caribbean, the return of black soldiers from World War I, and the rise of a new, more militant black leadership who responded to the brutality of the post-Reconstruction nadir were some of the factors contributing to its emergence. With these changes came a corresponding shift in African-American racial pride and self-assertion, as well as a surge in artistic energy. Alain Locke (1886–1954), a professor of philosophy at Howard University, captured this new, more assertive and defiant attitude in The New Negro (1925), an anthology of essays, fiction, poetry, and artwork. Poetry was one of the more prominent means of literary expression in the period, and poets were given monetary awards and the chance to publish by the journals The Crisis and Opportunity, sponsored by the NAACP and the National Urban League, respectively. The black poetry anthologies that appeared between 1922 and 1941, such as James Weldon Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) and Countee Cullen's Caroling Dusk (1927), were also important publishing venues.
During this era, artists and critics continued grappling with black representation in art, artistic freedom, art as propaganda, white patronage, and the proper use of folk material. Claude McKay (1890–1948), a pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance, foregrounded the contributions of Anglo-Caribbean immigrants who helped nourish the literary, cultural, and political environment of the Harlem Renaissance. McKay's Harlem Shadows (1922), which included the still popular "If We Must Die," yoked traditional poetic forms, especially the sonnet, to a critique of racial and economic oppression and exploitation. Jean Toomer's (1894–1967) modernist-inspired Cane (1923), a generically restless long poem that was a swan song for the South left in the wake of the Great Migration, was also influential to black poets. In Color (1925), which includes the poem "Heritage," the erudite Countee Cullen (1903–1946) asked the question that many African-American artists in the Harlem Renaissance and after would repeatedly consider: "What is Africa to me?" Langston Hughes (1902–1967), the prolific Afro-modernist and self-proclaimed folk poet, embraced vernacular material with his wedding of jazz and blues forms to traditional verse. Hughes published his signature poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1921), in The Crisis, and later authored the collections The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). James Weldon Johnson's free-verse God's Trombones, Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927) is a master-work of the era; with its poetic articulation of black sermonic tradition it complements the strand of religiously influenced poetry from the eighteenth century to the present. In Southern Road (1932), Sterling Brown (1901–1989) used language that foreshadowed the subtitle of Stephen Henderson's important Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Music as Poetic References (1972), creating poems that explore the rhythms of black American life. One of Brown's most enduring legacies is in his uniting of the blues and ballad forms, as in "Ma Rainy," which portrays its eponymous subject.
The blues not only served as a structuring form and verse referent for poets of the Harlem Renaissance, but, as critic Hazel Carby has suggested, the blues lyrics performed by Ma Rainy (1886–1939) and Bessie Smith (1895?–1937), to cite just two examples, were a significant oral poetry. For many women poets in the literary arena, however, black female representation and voice was a complex undertaking within the confines of the "Cult of True Womanhood," the ubiquitous ideology that venerated female domesticity, piety, and sexual purity. Often living outside of Harlem and saddled with traditional domestic responsibilities and gender discrimination—within and outside of the publishing world—women poets experienced specific challenges. The writer and poet Akasha Gloria Hull and others have pointed out that many women established informal and formal multigenerational networks in their cities and expressed political and romantic desire within the more conventional lyric genre, as was the case with Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1975–1935), Angelina Weld Grimké (1880–1958), and Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880–1966). Johnson authored four books of verse, including The Heart of a Woman (1918) and Bronze (1922). Other poets, such as Anne Spencer, Gwendolyn Bennett, Mae Cowdery, Helene Johnson, Gladys Mae Casely Hayford (Aquah Laluah), and the Ethel Trew Dunlap, offered the Renaissance a dazzling array of unique poetry ranging from lesbian and Pan-African verse to poetry that explored gender and racial equality.
Poetry of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Freedom Movement: 1940–1960
The 1940s and 1950s were decades of economic expansion, cultural conformity, and ideological consensus resulting from World War II and its aftermath, which served as a unifying force and manufacturing juggernaut. African Americans might also characterize this era as a moment of increased political rebellion and agitation with its sitins, boycotts, and mass demonstrations against injustice. Many black poets during this period embraced the new formalism (a return to more traditional European forms and metrics) and the dense and highly allusive high modernism of the academy. Others opted for a more radical experimentation with language, as a reading of the magazines Free Lance and Yugen will attest. The writer Aldon L. Nielsen calls the tradition of experimental black poetry a "continuum within a tradition of fracture," with black poets locating this experimental impulse in black vernacular forms as well as Euro-American innovation. Russell Atkins, Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), Bob Kaufman, Oliver Pitcher, Harold Carrington, Stephen Jonas, Ted Joans, and Tom Postell were just a few of the writers pushing the boundaries of referential language. Some of these poets made use of unique typography and oral performance in an attempt to approach the sublimity of jazz.
During the World War II period, Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000), Melvin B. Tolson (1898–1966), Robert Hayden (1913–1980), and Margaret Walker (1915–1998) became prominent literary figures, wining prestigious academic, national, and international recognition for their work, while Langston Hughes continued to write poetry. His bebop-influenced Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) is a long poetic exploration of the desire for home and equality in America—the exile rhythms—that would serve as a primary concern for the major black poets of the era. Margaret Walker's collection For My People (1942), written in free verse, folk ballad, and sonnet form, has been compared to a sermon because of its imaginative inter-weaving of history, biblical imagery, and African-American folk elements. Black history and folklore also serve as source material for some of the multitextured and technically masterful poems of Robert Hayden. His "Middle Passage" (1945) remains an extraordinary testament to a prolific forty-year writing career that produced many fine volumes, The Lion and the Archer (1948) and A Ballad of Remembrance (1962) among them.
American modernism was also energized through the dense, compressed, and allusive poetry of Melvin B. Tolson, who first gained national recognition for his frequently anthologized "Dark Symphony" (1939). Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953) is a sweeping, dense, long poem written to celebrate Liberia's centennial. His epic Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator (1965) is a singular achievement in black poetry in its importation of high modernist technique and black vernacular forms. One of the most significant, influential, and gifted voices of this era (and beyond) belonged to Gwendolyn Brooks, who wrote more than twenty poetry volumes. The first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize—for Annie Allen (1949)—Brooks's poetry wrests the ordinary lives of black folk from its moorings in transparent language and vivifies its everyday heroism through a brilliant use of polished technique and explosive metaphor. Samuel W. Allen (Paul Vesey), Owen Dodson, Margaret Esse Danner, Raymond Patterson, and Ray Durem were also important poets of the era.
The Black Arts Movement: Early 1960s–Early 1970s
The 1960s witnessed a proliferation of black art. Mirroring the late nineteenth century and the 1920s, energized writers responded to social and economic injustice, and the seemingly endless attacks on African-American humanity, most recently evidenced in the brutal assaults on freedom-movement participants and the assassinations of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King. The black arts movement, the cultural arm of the Black Power political movement, called for a politically engaged, revolutionary art. Its precursor texts came from poets as diverse as A. B. Spellman, Dasein poets such as Percy Johnston, and poets from the Umbra Workshop (established in New York in 1962) such as Lorenzo Thomas, Askia M. Touré, and Norman H. Pritchard, as well as from Hughes, Brooks, Tolson, and Sterling Brown. Black arts poetry, then, reflected its roots in the continuum of black avant-garde experimentalism, vernacular expression, and the enduring legacy of socially committed verse inaugurated during the eighteenth century. Baraka and Larry Neal's Black Fire (1968), Clarence Major's The New Black Poetry (1969), Addison Gayle's essay collection The Black Aesthetic (1971), and Stephen Henderson's Understanding the New Black Poetry, were some of the anthologies that established a canon of black arts verse. These texts disseminated an ideological and aesthetic framework for understanding this new black "collective" art. Amiri Baraka (b. 1934), the most prominent poet of this era, produced Black Magic: Collected Poetry 1961–1967 (1969), among other works.
The verse in these collections are frequently didactic, ritualistic, irreverent, and, like the black experimental culture from which it was in dialogue, many of these poems attempt to approximate jazz improvisation. Baraka's programmatic "Black Art" demands a poetry as palpable as "teeth or trees or lemons." His transformation to black cultural nationalist from Beat writer was at least as stunning as the shift of his fellow poet Gwendolyn Brooks, whose black arts–inspired long poem In the Mecca (1968) explored the dynamics of gender, race, and poverty in Chicago. Nikki Giovanni's Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968) and Black Judgement (1969) presented a bifurcated lyric and political voice; Sonia Sanchez became the blues woman of the movement with her frank discussions of black female sexuality and interpersonal relations in Homecoming (1969); while Haki Madhubuti's Don't Cry, Scream (1969) called for political action instead of the resignation he found in the blues. Quincy Troupe, Etheridge Knight, Carolyn M. Rogers, Jayne Cortez, and Mari Evans represent the diversity of voices that contributed to this movement.
The formal and thematic range of the poetic voices during the black arts movement, along with government attacks on Black Power, ultimately contributed to its rupture. Important volumes such as Jay Wright's The Homecoming Singer (1971), Audre Lorde's The First Cities (1968), and Lucille Clifton's Good Times (1969) are just a few of the texts that benefited from the new black aesthetic even as they pointed in new directions. These works and others illustrate how black arts engendered, above all else, an explosion of black poetries with radically different approaches to language, genre, history, and the representation of blackness. The title poem of Audre Lorde's magnificent volume Coal (1976) foregrounded these myriad possibilities of expression, including the articulation of feminist and lesbian identity, when it pondered "Is the total black, being spoke / From the earth's inside / There are many kinds of open."
Poetry Since 1970
It is impossible to name all of the poets who made significant contributions to black poetry during the previously discussed periods of literary history. The contemporary era only expands this difficulty, for there has been such a
proliferation of black verse since the 1970s that only a small sample of poets can be recognized here. Contemporary African-American poetry can best be characterized by its embrace of the full weight of its literary tradition, including its origins in African forms and Euro-American verse traditions. Its formal and thematic range has produced many poets of distinction, from the experimentalist poetics of Harryette Mullen, Will Alexander, Ed Roberson, and Erica Hunt to the dramatic monologues of Ai. Rita Dove's (b. 1952) traditional sonnet sequences and "elliptical" narrative verse, as seen in her Pulitzer Prize–winning Thomas and Beulah (1986), stands firmly on terrain established by Gwendolyn Brooks and Melvin Tolson. The expansive desires of Wheatley have found contemporary expression in significant long poems by Jay Wright, N. J. Loftis, Derek Walcott, Amiri Baraka, Gayle Jones, Brenda Marie Osbey, and Julia Fields among many others. For other poets, the lyric impulse continues, as illustrated in the work of June Jordon, Audre Lorde, Toi Derricotte, and Essex Hemphill, and in the incomparable poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa (b. 1947), whose jazz-and-blues saturated Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems 1977–1989 (1994) also received a Pulitzer Prize. The influence of black music is also evident in the poetry of Michael S. Harper, Al Young, Sherley Ann Williams, Nathaniel Mackey, and Paul Beatty, to cite only a small number of poets who highlight the blues, jazz, or hip-hop in their work. Contemporary African-American poetry, grounded in black vernacular and American poetry traditions, continues to produce remarkable poems that explore the exile rhythms in black life, while also contributing some of the most exciting, challenging, and engaging texts in American poetry.
See also Autobiography, U.S.; Baraka, Amiri (Jones, LeRoi); Biography, U.S.; Black Arts Movement; Brooks, Gwendolyn Elizabeth; Cullen, Countee; Drama; Dunbar, Paul Laurence; Hammon, Jupiter; Horton, George Moses; Hughes, Langston; Literary Criticism, U.S.; Literary Magazines, U.S.; Literature; Locke, Alain Leroy; Lorde, Audre Geraldine; McKay, Claude; Novels, U.S.; Toomer, Jean; Wheatley, Phillis
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keisha bowman (2005)