These five poets have all made incredible achievements in the field of literature. Their works educate readers on matters of racism and diversity, and while documenting some crucial historical black experiences.
Maya Angelou is famed for writing many poems and autobiographies about her experience as a black woman in America—her name is also synonymous with her contribution to the Civil Rights Movement that took place during the mid-20th century. ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ is one of her most well-known poems, which she read at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton in January 1993. Her audio recording of the poem won the 1994 Grammy Award in “The Best Spoken Word” category, resulting in her gaining more fame and world-wide recognition. The poem’s optimistic call for harmony and forgiveness, with lines such as: ‘History, despite its wrenching pain/ cannot be unlived, and if faced/ with courage, need not be lived again’, all made it easy to understand why it was such a well-received piece in black history.
Langston Hughes was another prolific poet of African-American descent, known for being a pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance movement in the 1920s. One of Hughes’ most famous works is ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, a poem that celebrates the heritage of African-Americans through its references to rivers of both Africa and America. Written while Hughes was still a teenager, the work gave a voice to the black community during a period of terrible racial oppression.
Amiri Baraka was well known for voicing his opposition to racism in America during the 20th century. His literary works include a poem called ‘A Poem for Black Hearts’, it was written as a response to the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X and calls for America’s population of black to ‘quit stuttering and shuffling’ and to avenge his death. Baraka was at times known for being a controversial literary figure, with many suggesting that his poetry condoned violence and aggression; nonetheless, his passionate tone of voice can be appreciated, as it conveys and justifies his feelings of anger and frustration towards racism.
Contemporary poet Rita Dove was the first African-American poet to be appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Her poetry often focuses on her heritage and experiences as a black woman, although she frequently covers other topics, too. In her 1999 work ‘Rosa’, Dove reimagines Rosa Parks’ iconic refusal when asked to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Alabama, in the 1960s. Her choice to focus on such a key and fairly recent historical event, highlights the impact that the Civil Rights Movement has on the psyche of African-Americans today.
Benjamin Zephaniah is an acclaimed British writer and dub poet, born in Birmingham in 1958. He aims to counteract the misconception of poetry being an outdated and boring choice of entertainment, as his performances are always vibrant and bursting with energy. Zephaniah relocated to London early on in his career with the hopes of reaching a diverse audience, rather than being a black poet who could only communicate with other black people. For example, ‘The British’, lists the various nationalities that essentially make up one, big British community, showing that his writing often leans towards celebrating the ethnic diversity of Britain.