20 Black Poets You Should Know (and Love)

Poetry lovers and novices alike can connect with verses by this list of extraordinary wordsmiths.

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    Nikky Finney reading at the Annikki Poetry Festival in Tampere, Finland, June 9, 2012. (Wikimedia Commons)

    In 1996 the Academy of American Poets dubbed April National Poetry Month to celebrate the richness of American poetry. In its honor, here are 20 black American poets who have shown brilliance in their art and service to the community.

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    Gwendolyn Brooks

    Brooks, who was the poet laureate of Illinois, became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her second collection, Annie Allen. Her keen insight and musical language make her writing required reading for students of poetry today. “We Real Cool” is a good place to begin.

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    Langston Hughes

    What happens to a dream deferred?” asked Hughes in one of his best-known lines. His name became synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance, and his work has inspired subsequent generations of black poets.

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    Audre Lorde with writer Meridel Le Sueur (Wikimedia Commons)

    Audre Lorde

    The unapologetic Lorde is equally known for her poetry and essays. In every medium, she transcended form and used words to dismantle systems of oppression.

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    Rita Dove

    A Pulitzer Prize winner and the country’s first black poet laureate, Dove deftly weaves together subject matter that is both personal and political. She continues to shape the conversation on modern poetry as an editor and professor.

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    The Dark Room Collective

    This community of writers gave voice to the next generation of black American poets. It was founded nearly 30 years ago in Boston by Thomas Sayers Ellis, Sharan Strange and Janice Lowe, who were dedicated to nurturing and supporting black poetics. It grew to include Major Jackson, Carl Phillips, Tisa Bryant and Kevin Young, along with Pulitzer Prize winners Tracy K. Smith and Natasha Tretheway, who was also honored as the poet laureate of the United States.

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    Lucille Clifton

    Clifton won the National Book Award, was once the poet laureate of Maryland and earned two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work, legendary for its extremely modern minimalism, revolved around spirituality, womanhood and African-American identity.

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    June Jordan

    As with Audre Lorde, Jordan’s political acts of speaking truth to power through creative expression were shaped in essays, poems and stories. Lorde, the founder of Poetry for the People, has continued to inspire students through her teaching since her death in 2002.

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    Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady (Facebook)

    Cave Canem

    Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte are the founding visionaries behind this Brooklyn, N.Y.-based organization that showcases the brilliance of black poets. Together with founding faculty members Elizabeth Alexander, Afaa Michael Weaver, Michele Elliot, Terrance Hayes and Sarah Micklem, Cave Canem hosted its first retreat in 1996. During the past two decades, Eady and Derricotte have created a safe space for black poets, often marginalized in traditional literary spaces, to nurture one another.

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    Derek Walcott

    Walcott’s first poem, “1944,” consisting of 44 lines of free verse, was published when he was just 14 years old. For a lifetime of poetic expression, he received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1992. The committee called his work “a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment.”

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    Claudia Rankine

    A razor-sharp intellect reinventing the lyric poem and the use of documentary style in poetry, Rankine often turns a close eye to the intricacies of macro- and microaggressions in the United States. Her latest book, Citizen: An American Lyric, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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    Nikky Finney

    Finney, winner of the National Book Award for her fifth book of poems, Head Off & Split, is also a formidable educator and mentor to young poets.

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    Alice Walker

    Walker wrote the first of many books of poetry when she was a senior at Sarah Lawrence College. Active in the civil rights movement, a former columnist at Ms. magazine and co-founder of a feminist publishing company, she has long been a staunch advocate for social justice.

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    Kwame Dawes

    The author of 12 books of poetry, Dawes is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and editor-in-chief of famed literary journal Prairie Schooner. He empowers the next generation of black poets through his work with the Calabash International Literary Festival, Cave Canem and the African Poetry Book Fund.

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    Nikki Giovanni

    A star of the Black Arts Movement, Giovanni is one of America’s best-selling poets. She paid it forward by founding the publishing company NikTom Ltd. to promote African-American female writers and inspires young poets through teaching and accessible, dynamic verse.

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    Ntozake Shange

    Shange’s choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf revolutionized both literature and theater. Nearly 40 years after its first performance, it continues to incite and inspire audiences.

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    Maya Angelou

    Considered to be more inspirational than literary, Angelou’s work popularized African-American poetry like none before it.

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    Sonia Sanchez

    The author of 18 books of poetry, Sanchez has had an illustrious writing career. In the 1970s she was also instrumental in introducing black-studies courses into university curricula, something we take for granted today.

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    Angelina Weld Grimké

    Grimké’s poems, essays, stories and plays made her a pivotal figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Her work often highlighted the desperate conditions of black women and children. Born in 1880, Grimké is credited with being the first African-American woman to write a publicly performed play.

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    Saeed Jones

    Last year Jones published his first full-length poetry book, the critically acclaimed Prelude to Bruise. The BuzzFeed editor has also funneled his talent into the creation of a literary journal and a $12,000 fellowship for emerging writers.

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    Jean Toomer

    His masterwork, Cane, is a meditation on the black American experience, inspired by his return to the South after his family’s migration north. There, Toomer witnessed lynchings and other racial violence and vividly expressed their horrors in his poetry.

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