Just Us: These Black Poets Use the Power of Their Words to Highlight Injustice

Illustration: Angelica Alzona (G/O Media)

Editor’s note: This week, for National Poetry Month, we’re featuring 37 up-and-coming black poets—including one today who is much more well-known but in a different field—who we expect do amazing work over the next decade. We grouped them by categories, though their works often blur boundaries and defy definitions. Monday’s theme was Black Regionalism, poets who look at black life and society through the prism of geographic regions or cultures. Tuesday, we presented poets who center being black and queer and place white, cis, heteronormativity to a backdrop. On Wednesday, the nine poets featured work in academic, cultural and government institutions committed to elevating and preserving the poetry artform. For Thursday, we explored poets who deploy the full spectrum of the arts: visual arts, theatre, music and, of course, poetry, to convey their artistic expression. For the last day of Black Poetry Week, we’re featuring poets who bear witness to injustice. They are affiliated with movements demanding social change. Their work provokes and transforms. They are especially concerned with the daily struggles of black and marginalized people.

Clint Smith

Photo: Kendal Thomas

Twitter: @ClintSmithIII

Clint Smith, a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion, was previously named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and Ebony Magazine Power 100 lists. His first poetry collection, Counting Descent (Write Bloody Publishing) won the Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Award for Best Poetry Book and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He co-hosts the podcasts Pod Save the People and Justice in America. The Harvard University Ph.D. candidate is a Cave Canem fellow.


Excerpt from “the drone

the drone was once a scrap of metal the drone looks as if it might be a toy the drone is not a toy the drone could have been something other than a killing machine the drone could have been a house


Eve L. Ewing

Photo: Nolis Anderson

Twitter: @eveewing

Eve Ewing does the most with her superpowers. Right now that is promoting Marvel’s Ironheart comic series, which she wrote. Before that, she was collecting honors for Electric Arches (Haymarket Books), which was named one of the year’s best books by NPR and the Chicago Tribune. Ewing has been a Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the Pamet River Prize. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Chicago, a Master of Arts in Teaching from Dominican University, and a Master of Education and Ph.D. from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.


Excerpt from “to the notebook kid

yo chocolate milk for breakfast kid.

one leg of your sweatpants rolled up

scrounging at the bottom of your mama’s purse

for bus fare and gum

Hanif Abdurraqib

Photo: Andy Cenci

Twitter: @NifMuhammad

Hanif Abdurraqib shares his obsession with the hip-hop quartet, A Tribe Called Quest in his book, Go Ahead in the Rain, but his poetry is also gripping. His book, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press) was nominated for a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. An essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio) was named a best book by NPR, GQ and Publisher’s Weekly. He is a member of the poetry collective Echo Hotel with Eve Ewing. Forthcoming: A Fortune For Your Disaster (Tin House 2019) and a history of black performance in the United States, They Don’t Dance No Mo’ (Random House 2020).


Excerpt from “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This

dear reader, with our heels digging into the good

mud at a swamp’s edge, you might tell me something

about the dandelion & how it is not a flower itself

but a plant made up of several small flowers at its crown

Mahogany L. Browne

Photo: Mark Poucher

Twitter: @mobrowne

Mahogany L. Browne is the author of Woke Baby and Black Girl Magic (Roaring Brook/Macmillan), Kissing Caskets (Yes Yes Books) and Dear Twitter (Penmanship Books). She has received literary fellowships from Agnes Gund, Air Serenbe, Cave Canem, Poets House and Rauschenberg. The organizer and educator is the artistic director of Urban Word NYC. Previously, she coordinated the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam. Browne is the publisher of Penmanship Books, curator of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Friday Night Slam, founder of the Women Writers of Color Reading Room, and the director of Black Lives Matter at Pratt Institute.


Excerpt from “litany

today i am a black woman in america
& i am singing a melody ridden lullaby
it sounds like:
the gentrification of a brooklyn stoop
the rent raised three times my wages
the bodega and laundromat burned down on the corner
the people on the corner


Malcolm London

Photo: Ted Talk

Instagram: @MalcolmLondon

Malcolm London was one of three artists profiled in the Billboard Documentary piece, Saving Chicago: Inside Hip-Hops Movement to Make Chicago a Better Place when his debut album Opia was released in October 2016. As an organizer, London was part of a historic youth delegation to the United Nations in Geneva to address police violence in Chicago. In addition to crafting poems and songs, Malcolm runs the largest youth open mic in Chicago.


Excerpt from “High School Training Ground

This is a training ground.

Just sought to sort out the “regulars” from the “honors,”

a reoccurring cycle built to recycle the trash of this system.

Morgan Parker

Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Twitter: @morganapple

Morgan Parker is the author of the poetry collection Magical Negro (Tin House). Her debut young adult novel Who Put This Song On? (Delacorte Press) is forthcoming. She is the recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, winner of a 2016 Pushcart Prize and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. Morgan received her B.A. from Columbia University and her Master of Fine Arts from NYU. She is the creator and host of Reparations, Live! at the Ace Hotel. She and Angel Nafis form the Black Feminist poetry duo and tour as The Other Black Girl Collective.


Excerpt from “Let Me Handle My Business, Damn

Took me awhile to learn the good words

make the rain on my window grown

and sexy now I’m in the tub holding down

that on-sale Bordeaux pretending

Reginald Dwayne Betts

Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Twitter: @dwaynebetts

Reginald Dwayne Betts’ most recent poetry collection, Felon (W.W. Norton), will be released this fall. Previously, he wrote three books of poetry, as well as a memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Avery/Penguin), which won the 2010 NAACP Image Award for non-fiction. President Barack Obama appointed Betts to a council focused on juvenile justice. He’s also a 2018 honoree of The Root 100. Betts is a graduate of Prince George’s Community College, the University of Maryland, Warren Wilson College and Yale Law School, where he is currently pursuing his Ph.D.


Excerpt from “At the End of Life, a Secret

Everything measured. A man twists

a tuft of your hair out for no reason

other than you are naked before him

and he is bored with nakedness.

Yolanda Young is the author of the memoir, On Our Way to Beautiful, published by Random House in 2002. She founded @DorpieBooks to ensure space for black voices. She is also executive director of Lawyers of Color. Follow her on Twitter.

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