Of all the incredible African-American poets to have ever written in the English language, twelve of the best are listed below.
In addition to information about the featured African-American poets is a selection of their best works. They range in approach from Maya Angelou’s and Lucille Clifton’s impassioned and inspiring verse, like ‘Caged Bird’ and ‘homage to my hips’ and to Langston’s Hughes and his heart wrenching ‘Harlem (A Dream Deferred)‘. Other poets include Audre Lorde and Claude McKay, the latter a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
Best African-American Poets
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in February of 1901. Most of Hughes’ childhood was spent in Lawrence, Kansas. It was here his grandmother instilled in him pride for his race and deep care for those struggling around him. He attended the university at Columbia where he was an average student and became part of the Harlem Renaissance. This period was known for its explosion of artistry and intellectuality, centered around the African-American community in Harlem, New York. His first collection, The Weary Blues, appeared soon after in 1926. This work won first prize in a literary magazine competition and supplied him with the scholarship he needed to continue his studies. It was followed by Fine Clothes to the Jew in 1927.
His first collection of short stories appeared in 1934. Two years later what is now his most popular poem, ‘Let American Be America Again’ was published in Esquire. It was focused on the disadvantages of the lower class and the hope of the American Dream.
A few of Langston Hughes’s best-known poems are:
Maya Angelou was born in January of 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her full birth name was Marguerite Anne Johnson. During the years of World War II, Angelou attended California Labor School and when she was 16 she became the first black female cable car conductor in San Francisco. She also became interested in performing, leading to her touring throughout Europe with a production of an opera titled, Porgy and Bess. In 1957 she recorded her first album, Miss Calypso. The end of the decade saw her return to New York to focus on her writing career. Her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which became one of her most popular works, was published in 1969. It was the piece that brought her the recognition she had been searching for. Throughout her life, she published seven autobiographies as well as several books of poetry. Her essays were compiled in three books and she is credited in a number of plays and television shows throughout her long career.
A few of Maya Angelou’s best-known poems are:
Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio in June of 1872. His parents, Joshua and Matilda, were former slaves in Kentucky during the Civil War. As a young man, Dunbar was the only African-American student in his high school class of 1890. Dunbar first developed a love for writing as he worked editing the school newspaper and participating in literary societies. Eventually, a speaking opportunity at the Wester Association of Writer in Dayton culminated with Dunbar publishing his first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy, in 1893. Positive reviews and endorsements from civil rights leaders such as Fredrick Douglass brought Dunbar some fame. Today, Paul Lawrence Dunbar is considered one of the most important writers of the early 20th century and his legacy continues to influence Modern American literature.
A few of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s best-known poems are:
Audre Lorde was born in New York, New York in February of 1934. She was able to memorize and recite entire pieces of poetry at a young age. In 1954 she spent a year at the National University of Mexico. She would later cite this period as being that which affirmed her identity as a poet and lesbian woman. Her first book of poetry was published in 1968 and was titled The First Cities. It was also during this period that she was the writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College. While there she led workshops and discussions with young students about civil rights. From 1969 to 1970 she taught at Lehman College then went on to John Jay College of Criminal Justice. A year later she was teaching at Hunter College in New York City. At this same time, she helped to fund the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix. As her reputation as a writer and advocate for marginalized groups grew, she was invited to Cuba alongside a group of black women writers. From 1991 until her death in 1992 Audre Lorde was the poet laureate of New York.
A few of Audre Lorde’s best-known poems are:
Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas in 1917. Brooks’ first collection, A Street in Bronzeville, was published in 1945 by Harper & Brothers. It was received very well and a number of very positive reviews were published in regards to her style. The following year saw Brooks receive her first Guggenheim Fellowship. Her burgeoning career was highlighted in Mademoiselle magazine. The next volume of poetry, Annie Allen, followed in 1949. It was focused on the life experiences of a young Black girl growing up in the same areas in which Brooks lived. The work was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry the next year. It also received Poetry magazines Eunice Tietjens Prize. In 1968 Brooks was appointed the Poet Laureate of Illinois. She held this position for the next thirty-two years until her death. This was also the year she published one of her most well-known works, In the Mecca. In 1985 she was made the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position is better known as Poet Laureate of the United States.
A few of Gwendolyn Brook’s best-known poems are:
Nikki Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on June 7, 1943. She is one of America’s most important living poets. She has published many collections of poetry, including her first Black Feeling Black Talk, which she self-published in 1968. It emerged from her reaction to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, and other figures. She has also written novels and completed recordings. One, The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection, was nominated for an Emmy in 2004. She’s worked as an editor and lecture, teaching at Rutgers University, Ohio State University, and others. Her early books, like Feeling Black Talk and Re: Creation helped establish her career as an important literary voice.
A few of Nikki Giovanni’s best poems are:
Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753 in West Africa. Although her exact birth location is not known, it was likely Gambia or Senegal. When Wheatley was only seven years old she was sold by a local chief to a visiting slave trader. Her new owner, a merchant, bought her as a servant for his wife. The family name was Wheatley. They educated her, and soon she was able to read Greek and Latin classics as well as the Bible. She crafted verse that was deeply influenced by Neoclassicism and other writers such as Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray. The subject matter was focused on freedom and morality and displayed pride in her heritage. In 1773, Wheatley traveled alongside the father of the family to London where they believed she would have a better chance of publishing her book of poems. While there she spoke with the Mayor of London as well as other important members of British society. The same year she published her book, Poems on Subjects of Religious and Moral.
A few of Phillis Wheatley’s best-known poems are:
Lucille Clifton is a widely loved and respected poet whose work focuses on pushing through adversity with strength, particularly in regard to discrimination and power in African-American communities. Clifton studied at Howard University and SUNY Fredonia. During this time period, she was discovered by Langston Hughes. He published her poetry in The Poetry of the Negro in 1970.
She was awarded the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2007 and was the first author to have two poetry books chosen as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. These were Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980, and Next: New Poems. She served as the poet laureate of Maryland from 1974 until 1985 and won the National Book Award for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000. Clifton died in 2010 in Baltimore, Maryland.
Some of Lucille Clifton’s best-known poems are:
Robert Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey in Paradise Valley, Detroit. He became the first Black faculty member in Michigan’s English department. He was also the first African-American to be appointed as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. A Ballad of Remembrance, published in 1962, won the grand prize at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar. He is considered by many to be one of the finest writers of “Afro-American” poetry. Much of his poetry was inspired by history and the poet’s adherence to the Baha’i faith. The latter allowed him to reject any racial classification of his poetry.
Some of Robert Hayden’s best-known poems are:
James Weldon Johnson was born in June 1871 in Florida and is remembered today as a Civil Rights activist and writer. He was a leader of the NAACP, or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was also the first African-American to be chosen as executive secretary of the organization. His reputation was established during the Harlem Renaissance in which his poems, novels, and anthologies were quite popular. He collected poems of the period and helped to define the Black culture at the time. He was appointed US consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua from 1906 to 1913 and was the first African-American professor hired at New York University. His first poetry collection Fifty Years and Other Poems was published in 1917 but his most important, God’s trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse was published ten years later.
Some of James Weldon Johnson’s best-known poems are:
Claude McKay was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He was born in 1889 and wrote five novels which included Home to Harlem, Banjo, and Banana Bottom. McKay’s first book of poetry, Songs of Jamaica, was published in 1912. These were the first works ever published in Jamaican Patois, a dialect of English words spoken in an African structure. His second volume, Constab Ballads, followed that same year. This work focused on the time he spent in the constabulary in 1911. It was around this same period that McKay traveled to the U.S. and attended Tuskegee Institute. He encountered a shocking amount of racism while there, seen through the people of South Carolina and their segregated facilities. In the late 1910s, he worked as the editor of The Liberator. It was in this publication that he published his most famous poem, ‘If We Must Die.’
A few of Claude McKay’s best-known poems are:
Rita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in August of 1952. She served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and is the first African-American to have been given this role since it transitioned from “consultant in poetry.” She is the second African-American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and severed as the Poet Laureate of Virginia.
She taught creative writing at Arizona State University from 1981 to 1989. Dove was on the board of the Associated Writing Programs and served as its president from 1986 to 1987. She worked as poetry editor of The New York Times Magazine from 2018 to 2019.