On this list, readers can find ten of the best poems written by African-American poets over the last decades. These are only a few of the incredible poems that address some of the most important themes in the broader history of literature, including perceptions of self, community, dreams, and equality/inequality.
Best Poems by African-American Poets
- 1 ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ by Langston Hughes
- 2 ‘Harlem (Dream Deferred)’ by Langston Hughes
- 3 ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou
- 4 ‘Power’ by Audre Lorde
- 5 ‘Primer for Blacks’ by Gwendolyn Brooks
- 6 ‘Phenomenal Woman’ by Maya Angelou
- 7 ‘Harriet Beecher Stowe’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar
- 8 ‘The Women Gather’ by Nikki Giovanni
- 9 ‘Ballad of Birmingham’ by Dudley Randall
- 10 ‘Rosa’ by Rita Dove
The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ is likely Langston Hughes’ most famous poem, partially because he wrote it when he was only seventeen years old. The text comes from the perceptive of an old man who has seen the great ages of the world alongside the banks of the most important rivers. He takes the reader through several of these great rivers and the events that he saw them play host to. He has seen humankind’s first moments alongside the Euphrates, participated in the building of the pyramids, and listened to the Mississippi while Abraham Lincoln was sibling down it.
Undoubtedly one of Langston Hughes’ best-known works, ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred’, also commonly known as ‘Harlem’ is a book-length poem. The poem is noted for its musical qualities and its direct depictions of the inequality of the “American Dream”. Hughes refers directly to the people of Harlem. The Black citizens of America’s cities are not living the dream that its white citizens are. Through a series of questions, one Harlem resident asks what happened to his dreams, and more widely, the dreams of all those like him.
This is very likely Maya Angelou’s most popular and often-quoted poem. It is celebratory and encourages self-love and acceptance. She takes the reader through a series of statements in which she praises her own determination, perseverance, and strength. No matter what happens, she’s still able to rise up and become more than she was in the past. Nothing about her history holds her back, she doesn’t allow it to.
‘Power’ is a moving poem that was written in reaction to a specific, real-life court case involving the murder of a young boy. The New York City police officer who committed the murder was acquitted, something that Lorde learned about while she was driving. She described having to pull off the road in a rage. In the lines of this poem, she addresses inequality, racism, and injustice.
‘Primer for Blacks’ is one of the longer poems on this list. In it, the speaker makes an impassioned speech to all the Black men, women, and children she knows and doesn’t know, about the necessity of accepting one’s heritage. This is not just for one’s own personal benefit but for the benefit of the broader community. It is only when the Black community comes together, fully supportive of themselves and one another, they will know their own greatness.
Alongside ‘Still I Rise,’ this poem is one of Angelou’s most famous. In it, her speaker celebrates her body and uniqueness. She is unafraid to embrace how she looks and points out her wonderful originality. She knows she doesn’t have the stereotypical of a “beautiful” woman but that doesn’t matter to her. She knows her value and she knows her beauty without approval from society.
Dunbar was one of the best-known African American poets of his time. His parents were former slaves, allowing him a perceptive on life and suffering that was powerful and incredibly moving. In this particular poem, he praises Stowe for telling the true story of slavery. Her famous volume Uncle Tom’s Cabin revealed elements of the practice that many Americans shied away from or purposefully ignored.
This short poem is one of Nikki Giovanni’s best. In it, she discusses how we judge one another while also revealing that she believes in the essential goodness of human beings. She speaks about how human beings, specifically women, come together in times of tragedy and hardship. They are able to help one another through these difficult times. In the next part of the poem, she spends time talking about those who are the source of these tragedies and who urge them on.
This deeply sad poem was published as a broadside in 1965. It was written in response to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The speaker narrates the last moments of a little girl’s life, her mother’s choice to send her to the church rather than allow her to go to a protest, and then her discovery that her child has been killed.
This poem is one of several that Rita Dove wrote in dedication to Civil Rights activists. As the title suggests, this poem is about Rosa Parks. In it, readers can find allusions to the practice of segregation in the United States in the fifties as well as mention of Parks herself. While her name is not mentioned in the body of the poem itself, it’s clear who the text is about. She “stood up” against racists by sitting down and doing “nothing”.