The Black Lives Matter movement has been something that has been around since the mid-2010s and gained a lot of popularity in 2020. Following the death of George Floyd, there was a huge amount of support for the movement, to raise awareness for the brutality of what the black people have faced, attempting to put a stop to racism.
The poets featured on this list bring unique perspectives to the contemporary equal rights movement. In addition, many speak from personal experiences of loss and discrimination.
Explore Poems Inspired by the Black Lives Matter Movement
- 1 This is Not a Small Voice by Sonia Sanchez
- 2 Ode to the Head Nod by Elizabeth Acevedo
- 3 I Can’t Breathe by Pamela Sneed
- 4 Praise by Angelo Geter
- 5 A Small Needful Fact by Ross Gay
- 6 little prayer by Danez Smith
- 7 The Virus by Jericho Brown
- 8 not an elegy for Mike Brown by Danez Smith
- 9 they need some of us to die by Donte Collins
- 10 FAQs
This is Not a Small Voice by Sonia Sanchez
‘This is Not a Small Voice’ was first published in 1995 in Wounded in the House of a Friend. Sanchez spends the lines discussing and celebrating the immense “love / you hear” and the large “voice / you hear” in Black communities. The poet uses language like “not a small voice” and “no epitaphs spill out of their river mouths” in order to emphasize the positive language, like “this is a large / love, a passion for kissing learning / on its face.” Here are a few lines:
This is a love that crowns the feet with hands
that nourishes, conceives, feels the water sails
mends the children,
folds them inside our history where they
toast more than the flesh
The lines bring together images that relish Black identity, joy, love, and experience. The poet focuses on a longing for learning, acceptance, and empowerment.
Explore more Sonia Sanchez poems.
Ode to the Head Nod by Elizabeth Acevedo
‘Ode to the Head Nod’ by Elizabeth Acevedo explores small gestures. It’s only one of several poems Acevedo has written on the subject. In this piece, she focuses on the head nod. It’s a way, she says, “how Black folks say hello,” and that is learned from childhood. She explores what it means to have a very specific gestural form of communication, one that is not shared by all readers, and have that edited by the “copy editor,” no matter how well-meaning they are. Here are a few lines:
didn’t we learn this early?
to look at white spaces
& find the color
thank god o thank god for
Acevedo wanted readers to consider what it means for someone to be told that their “embraces…greetings, often color outside the lines of the literary stylebook.”
I Can’t Breathe by Pamela Sneed
‘I Can’t Breathe’ by Pamela Sneed is a thoughtful poem written in March/April 2020. The poet was inspired by recent losses of close friends, one of whom died of AIDS and the other of COVID. The poet wanted to question where Black men and women, who are viewed as dangerous, turn when they’re in need of help. The title references the haunting words of George Floyd, whose death unified the Black Lives Matter movement around the same period of time. Here are a few lines:
Both I know were proud of me the poet star stayed true to my roots
I guess what stands out to me is that they both were
gay black mountains of men
Felled too early
The men whose lives the poet is elegizing were “both mountains of men / dark black beautiful gay men” who were far more complex than society would’ve liked to have painted them. She speculates about their deaths and considers the role race played in how doctors treated both men.
Praise by Angelo Geter
‘Praise’ by Angelo Geter uses irony and allusions to depict what the speaker has to be grateful for. He praises the fact that the “chalk” did not “outline a body today” and that “the body” is still a “body.” Geter repeats the phrase “praise the” numerous times throughout this poem, bringing the reader through various images of loss and suffering while alluding to what the world could be like. No one should have to spend a day feeling grateful that one of their friends wasn’t murdered. Here are a few lines:
Praise the bullets
That called in sick to work.
Praise the trigger
That went on vacation.
Praise the chalk
That did not outline a body today.
When speaking about the poem, he described writing it while mourning the loss of loved ones. He was consumed by the negatives and took the time to focus on “Praising in the midst of all this chaos.”
A Small Needful Fact by Ross Gay
‘A Small Needful Fact’ by Ross Gay was written in 2015 after the death of Eric Garner on July 17th, 2014. He was killed by a New York City Police Department officer who used a prohibited chokehold. This beautiful poem was composed in his honor. It suggests that “perhaps” and “in all likelihood” that there are still some plants growing that Garner touched with his “very large hands.” Here are a few lines:
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow […]
It speaks of something beautiful that could still exist in the world despite the fact that Garner was killed. The plants exist, ding what they do. They feed creatures, convert sunlight into food, and make it “easier / for us to breathe.”
Discover more Ross Gay poems.
little prayer by Danez Smith
‘little prayer’ by Danez Smith was published in 2017 in Don’t Call Us Dead. The poem is quite short, only eight lines long. It is an elegy, written in honor of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man who was shot in August 2014. The event birthed the slogan “Hands up, don’t shoot,” which’s still used to this day during protests. Here are a few lines:
let ruin end here
let him find honey
where there was once a slaughter
The poem asks that “ruin,” an allusion to the murder of Black men and women, “end here.” Michael Brown, the speaker hopes, will find “honey” or peace and happiness. Rather than darkness, let there be “a field of lilacs” and “healing.”
The Virus by Jericho Brown
‘The Virus’ by Jericho Brown was published in The Tradition. It is a poem about illness and the fears that come tied to them. He was inspired by the way that all illnesses, but particularly COVID-19, disproportionately affected people of color in his community and around the world. Here are a few lines:
If I can’t leave you
Dead, I’ll have
You vexed. Look. Look
Again: show me the color
Of your flowers now.
When speaking about his poem, the poet said that it’s hard to “reconcile the personal with the political, particularly if you’re a Black person who’s safe, and you understand that Black people as a whole are some of the most vulnerable people living at a time like this.”
Read more Jericho Brown poems.
not an elegy for Mike Brown by Danez Smith
‘not an elegy for Mike Brown’ by Danez Smith was written after the death of Michael Brown, killed in August 2014. The poem is filled with imagery associated with the death of Black men, killed, the speaker alludes, seemingly endlessly. Here, he says, is a “new name” and “his same old body. Ordinary, black / dead thing.” The speaker’s community will mourn the young man “until we forget what we are mourning.” The poet relates the unending deaths of young Black men to the one kidnapping of a “white girl,” Helen of Troy, that started the 10-year Trojan War. Here are a few lines:
I demand a war to bring the dead boy back
no matter what his name is this time.
I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.
Read more Danez Smith poems.
they need some of us to die by Donte Collins
‘they need some of us to die’ by Donte Collins was inspired by the events of 2020, including the death of George Floyd, COVID-19, and the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement. The poet described how he wrote this poem “after a phone call with my sister explaining being forced to work while cases of COVID-19 spread throughout the nursing home.” He directs the poem towards his uncle and siblings, who were mistreated by doctors who reused to believe their pain. Here are a few lines:
hell nah over my dead—i paid mine. I checked
Black & subtraction knows what it did. made Black
a box to check. subtraction doesn’t know how even
a sigh seasons the roux […]
Protest poetry is a genre of poetry that looks to change something about the world. These poems emphasize the need for change and put forward what that change should be.
Examples include: ‘I look at the world‘ by Langston Hughes, ‘America‘ by Allen Ginsberg, and ‘RIOT‘ by Gwendolyn Brooks
Poetry is used for protesting in many ways. It can be a call to action, bringing together powerful images with memorable rhymes. These can be reminders of the past and promises for the future.
The themes of Black Lives Matter poems are perseverance, determination, racism, strength, and death. These are often singularly featured in a poem but more often, they come together in different ways, depicting a broader image of the movement and its inspired events.
These poems celebrate identity, mourn loss, look to the future, and demand the listener pay attention to what Black writers have to say.