20 Black Poets You Should Know (and Love)

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

Image 1
  • images2Fslides2FNikky-FinneyMAIN_1
    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.

  • images2Fslides2FHughes_and_Gwendolyn_Brooks_1
    Wikimedia Commons

    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.

  • images2Fslides2FLangston_Hughes_by_Carl_Van_Vechten_1936_1
    Wikimedia Commons

    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.

  • images2Fslides2FAudre_Lorde_Meridel_Lesueur_Adrienne_Rich_1980_1
    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.

  • images2Fslides2F1024px-Ritadove008_1
    Wikimedia Commons 

    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.

  • images2Fslides2Fdrc_steps89_1
    Wikimedia Commons

    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.

  • images2Fslides2FLucille_clifton_1
    Wikimedia Commons

    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.

  • images2Fslides2FJune_Jordan_1
    Wikimedia Commons

    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.

  • images2Fslides2Fcavecanefoundation_1
    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.

  • images2Fslides2F440px-Derek_Walcott_1
    Wikimedia Commons

    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.”

  • images2Fslides2FClaudia_Rankine_14_1
    Wikimedia Commons

    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.

  • images2Fslides2FNikkyFenney010_1
    Wikimedia Commons

    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.

  • images2Fslides2Falice_1
    Peter Kramer/Getty Images

    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.

  • images2Fslides2FKwame_Dawes_1
    Wikimedia Commons

    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.

  • images2Fslides2FNikki_Giovanni_speaking_at_Emory_University_2008_1
    Wikimedia Commons

    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.

  • images2Fslides2F106049953_1
    Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

    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.

  • images2Fslides2F114378220_1
    Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images

    Maya Angelou

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

  • images2Fslides2F440px-Sonia-sanchez-2013_13_1
    Wikimedia Commons

    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.

  • images2Fslides2FAngelina_Weld_Grimke_1
    Wikimedia Commons

    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.

  • images2Fslides2Fsadeed_2_1
    Twitter

    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.

  • images2Fslides2FJean_Toomer_ca._1920s_1
    Wikimedia Commons

    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.

    Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.