Black History Poems

The arrival of February every year reminds us of black people and their sufferings in the foreign land. Though the slavery system has come to an end, the scar still remains afresh with history.

Black writers have recorded the life, sufferings, and joy of the black people in literature. For the month of Black History, we at Poem Analysis explored the poems of accomplished poets. To the ever-expanding repository of literature, black poets from the past to the present have brought powerful and everlasting works. The contributions have been made from Phillis Wheatley to Langston Hughes, to modern poets like Elizabeth Alexander.

The following poems, handpicked, will definitely help to look back at the history of America through the eyes and perspectives of the Black Writers and to cherish their contributions forever.

Black History Poems

 

Bars Fight by Lucy Terry

The first poem on the list of poems for Black History month is ‘Bars Fight. This is a ballad poem written by Lucy Terry Prince, popularly known as Lucy Terry, in 1746. But, it was first published only in 1855, in Josiah Gilbert Holland’s History of Western Massachusetts.

Bars Fight’, is credited with being one of the oldest works of literature by an African American, for she was brought as a slave from Africa to Rhode Island in the US. It is based on an attack upon two white families by Native Americans on August 25, 1746.

August ’twas the twenty-fifth,

Seventeen hundred forty-six;

The Indians did in ambush lay,

Some very valient men to slay,

The names of whom I’ll not leave out.

(…)

Nor tommy hawked her on her head,

And left her on the ground for dead.

Young Samuel Allen, Oh lack-a-day!

Was taken and carried to Canada.

 

Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes wrote the poem ‘Let America Be America Again‘ in 1935 published it the following year in Esquire Magazine. In the poem, he represents not only African Americans but all minority groups of people, making it a great poem for Black History Month. He further probes into the American dream of freedom as he identifies with the experiences of oppressed groups throughout American history: poor white people, African Americans haunted by the history of slavery, Native Americans pushed away from their own land by settlers, immigrants in search of a better future. He sees America as just as everywhere else, where the rich and powerful stomp over the poor and marginalized.

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(…)

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

Read more poems of Langston Hughes.

 

A Brief History Of Hostility by Jamaal May

Jamaal May’s five-part poem ‘A Brief History Of Hostility’ explores the themes of life, fire, death, and peace. May’s use of repetition and captivating images in the poem helps to explore the oppression and the hard-earned peace. Her calculated rhythms as used in “The war said let there be war / and there was war. / The war said let there be peace / and there was war,” gives a kind of fairy-tale effect to the poem.

In the beginning
there was the war.

The war said let there be war

and there was war.

The war said let there be peace
and there was war.

(…)

and uproots, and tomorrow
will be a tornado, you say. Then war,
a sick wind, will come to part the air,

straighten your suit,
and place fresh flowers
on all our muddy graves.

 

History as Process by Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka is popularly known for his provocative style of writing poetry. He is also highly regarded as a cultural and political leader in the Black Arts Movement and inspired many young writers. With this, she has some of the perfect poetry for Black History Month.

In this poem ‘History as Process,’ he takes a philosophical look at the sufferings of human beings while exploring the sacrifice made by the heroes at the war front. He sees everything of human experience, like death, tears, and the hidden secrets of dark folds are all real and a part of making history.

The evaluation of the mysteries by the sons of all

Experience. All suffering, if we call the light a thing

All men should know. Or find. Where ever, the dark folds

(…)

No utopias. I will not listen. (Except the raw wind

Makes the hero’s eyes close, and the tears that come out

are real.

 

Miz Rosa Rides The Bus by Angela Jackson

Angela Jackson is a powerful and Pushcart Prize-winning poet. She often brings historical context to her assertive yet conversational poems. In this poem ‘Miz Rosa Rides the Bus,’ she gives the first-person point of view to Rosa Parks’ act of refusing to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery. Jackson imagines Rosa Parks retelling her act of resistance and what followed along with her physical and mental exasperation.

That day in December I sat down

by Miss Muffet of Montgomery.

I was myriad-weary. Feets swole

from sewing seams on a filthy fabric;

tired-sore a pedalin’ the rusty Singer;

(…)

Jim Crow dies and ravens come with crumbs.

They say—Eat and be satisfied.

I fast and pray and ride.

 

Canary By Rita Dove

The youngest-ever US Poet Laureate, Rita Dove, in this poem ‘Canary’ commemorates the life of Billie Holiday, an African American Jazz Singer. The title serves as a metaphor for Holiday. Also, she lived a kind of enigmatic life despite her popularity thus Dove writes “If you can’t be free, be a mystery.” The poem gives homage to the poet’s life and her tragic death.

 Billie Holiday’s burned voice
had as many shawdows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.
(…)
If you can’t be free, be a mystery.

Read more poetry from Rita Dove.

 

Afterimages by Audre Lorde

Afterimages’ published in Audre Lorde’s “The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde” provides a bone-chilling account of the stark, violent, heartbreaking images that revolve around the death of Emmett Till and the agony of his mother.  It looks like the speaker cannot keep the images out of his mind. This is her emotional outburst not only a result of what she has witnessed by the brutal murder of the African American boy but also on society in general. The poem clearly explores the prevalent existence of Racism after all these years.

 However the image enters

its force remains within

my eyes

rockstrewn caves where dragonfish evolve

wild for life, relentless and acquisitive

learning to survive

where there is no food

my eyes are always hungry

and remembering

however the image enters

its force remains.

(…)

A woman measures her life’s damage

my eyes are caves, chunks of etched rock

tied to the ghost of a black boy

whistling

crying and frightened

her tow-headed children cluster

like little mirrors of despair

their father’s hands upon them

and soundlessly

a woman begins to weep.

Read more of Audre Lorde’s poems.

 

Praise Song For The Day by Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander’s poem ‘Praise Song for the Day’ was composed and read for Barack Obama’s 2009 Presidential inauguration. She gives a clear picture of everyday life in America in the poem. At the same time, she points out the past and the sufferings of the people as the major reason for this day. For she writes, “Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.”

Each day we go about our business,

walking past each other, catching each other’s

eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

(…)

praise song for walking forward in that light.

 

On The Pulse Of Morning by Maya Angelou

On the Pulse of Morning‘ is a poem by Maya Angelou written for the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton in January 1993: another great example of a poem for Black History Month.

Similar to Clinton’s inaugural speech, the poem emphasizes America’s turn, to amend for its violent history of genocide, slavery, colonialism, and environmental destruction.  She attempts to impart a sense of unity and responsibility towards other people and the planet in her audience.

A Rock, A River, A Tree

Hosts to species long since departed,

Marked the mastodon,

The dinosaur, who left dried tokens

Of their sojourn here

On our planet floor,

Any broad alarm of their hastening doom

Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

(…)

The Rock cries out to us today,

You may stand upon me,

But do not hide your face.

Read more of Maya Angelou’s poetry

 

We Should Make A Documentary About Spades by Terrence Hayes

The winner of the 2010 National Book Award in poetry, Terrance Hayes, uses the concept of race in ‘We Should Make a Documentary about Spades’ to show the past oppression experienced by his ancestors.  Also, he speaks of the ways to overcome the unjust treatment his past relatives were subject to and the notion of family. In the poem, he turns a deck of cards into a time machine, and bringing the reader from college dorms to slave ships, through strong emotions and images.

And here is all we’ll need: a card deck, quartets

of sun people

Of the sort found in black college dormitories,

some vintage

Music, indiscriminate spirits, fried chicken,

some paper,

(…)

I’m good and ready for who ever we’re playing
Against tonight. I am trying to imagine our

enemy.
I know you are not my enemy. You say there are

no enemies
In Spades. Spades is a game our enemies do not

play.

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About
Miz Alb received her MA in English Literature. Her thirst for literature makes her explore through the nuances of it. She loves reading and writing poetry. She teaches English Language and Literature to the ESL students of tertiary level.
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