African Americans Poems

Beginning with Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects in 1773, African American poetry has a long and powerful history. It is linked to an extensive tradition of oral storytelling and music. Much African American verse is inspired by cultural shifts and historical events happening contemporaneously, specifically from a Black perspective.

This sub-section of Black literature is filled with allusions to the fight for equal rights, slavery and the Civil War, family, history, passion and creation, Harlem, jazz, beauty, and much more. Experiences in contemporary American society flow through African American verse in a unique and highly relevant way. Many authors responded to their environment by bringing to light the darker parts of their experiences, reminding readers that there is never just one way of interpreting events.

Famous African American poets include Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Nikki Giovanni, and Claude McKay. These authors, and many more, used poetry to define their life experiences and those of their friends, family members, and the broader community. Much of their verse focuses on Black culture, Black love, and the equal treatment of all people in the United States.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

by Langston Hughes

’The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ is about a man who has seen the great ages of the world alongside the banks of the most important rivers.

'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.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

Still I Rise

by Maya Angelou

‘Still I Rise’ is an inspiring and emotional poem that’s based around Maya Angelou’s experiences as a Black woman in America. It encourages readers to love themselves fully and persevere in the face of every hardship.

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, and she doesn’t allow it to.

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I'll rise.


by Audre Lorde

‘Power’ is based on a real-life murder and court case. This poem was first published in 1978 but is just as relevant today as it was then.

‘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.

The difference between poetry and rhetoric

is being ready to kill


instead of your children.

Harlem (A Dream Deferred)

by Langston Hughes

‘Harlem (A Dream Deferred)’ by Langston Hughes is a powerful poem. The poet wrote it in response to what he felt as a black man navigating a career and personal life in a white-dominated world.

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.

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Phenomenal Woman

by Maya Angelou

‘Phenomenal Woman’ by Maya Angelou defies the stereotypes women are often faced with today. It is a poem filled with strength and determination.

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.

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size   

But when I start to tell them,

They think I’m telling lies.

Primer for Blacks

by Gwendolyn Brooks

‘Primer For Blacks’ by Gwendolyn Brooks speaks on the necessity of accepting one’s black heritage and a possible unified future for all black people.

‘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.


is a title,

is a preoccupation,

is a commitment Blacks

Harriet Beecher Stowe

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Dunbar was inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as it was one of the first works of literature to shed light on the brutality and cruelty of slavery.

Dunbar was one of the best-known African American poets of his time. His parents were formerly enslaved people, 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.

She told the story, and the whole world wept

At wrongs and cruelties it had not known

But for this fearless woman's voice alone.

She spoke to consciences that long had slept:

The Women Gather

by Nikki Giovanni

‘The Women Gather’ is a short, free verse poem that speaks on how we judge one another and the essentially good nature of human beings. 

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 can 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.

The women gather because it is not unusual to seek comfort in our hours of stress.

A man must be buried.

It is not unusual that the old bury the young though it is an abomination.

Ballad of Birmingham

by Dudley Randall

Ballad of Birmingham’ by Dudley Randall is a moving narrative of the last moments of a little girl murdered in a church bombing.

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.

“Mother dear, may I go downtown

Instead of out to play,

And march the streets of Birmingham

In a Freedom March today?”


by Rita Dove

In the poem, ‘Rosa’ by Rita Dove is a short and powerful piece that relays the story of Rosa Parks in simple and memorable terms.

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.”

How she sat there,

the time right inside a place

so wrong it was ready.

Explore more poems about African Americans

Poem About My Rights

by June Jordan

‘Poem About My Rights’ by June Jordan is a one-stanza poem revealing a speaker’s thoughts on misogyny, sexism, and racism from their experience. It is celebrated for accurately portraying the struggles of women and men of color in a patriarchial and predominantly white society.

The poem is centred on African Americans and their struggles, hence its relevance as a topic.

The Quilting

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

‘The Quilting’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar is a very short love poem that reveals the speaker’s growing affection for a woman named Dolly.

Paul Laurence Dunbar, while he was a black American, often wrote about the enslavement of African Americans and other black people in America during the late 1800s and early 1900s. His position as one of the very first well-known, nationally acclaimed black poets gave him the power to write poetry with political meaning. While 'The Quilting' is not explicitly about black rights, it is a vignette of life as a black American.

The Rose That Grew From Concrete

by Tupac Shakur

‘The Rose That Grew From Concrete’ is a moving celebration of personal resolve against the backdrop of oppressive forces.

While never mentioned explicitly, the rose could represent the few African Americans, like Shakur himself, that were able to break free of the constraints placed upon them by the predominately white economic and political leaders.


by Marilyn Nelson

‘Star-Fix’ by Marilyn Nelson is a poem that lionizes the noble role of the navigator onboard an aircraft.

The poem very much deals with race, as the navigator's identity as a Black is brought up multiple times. Nelson points to the disparities between the navigator's treatment on the aircraft versus how they'd be treated back at home as a key point of contention.

Claudette Colvin Goes to Work

by Rita Dove

‘Claudette Colvin Goes to Work’ by Rita Dove depicts the life and struggles of Claudette Colvin, who is best known as a civil rights activist.

The poet alludes to the lives and struggles of Black Americans in this poem by exploring a semi-fictional depiction of Claudette Colvin's adulthood. She suggests that innumerable people struggle, as Colvin and her parents do, on a day-to-day basis, to make ends meet.

Ruins of a Great House

by Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott’s ‘Ruins of a Great House’ combines themes of historical and cultural abuse with factual reasoning and literary references to bring together a massive emotional conflict in the Speaker’s perception.

This poem does not get a higher score as it does not discuss African Americans enough, even though they are an essential part of the story. The poem heavily discusses slavery, an abuse of the culture and people, but we do not see it in the present time; we only imagine it through the Speakers imagination.

Caged Bird

by Maya Angelou

‘Caged Bird’, or ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ as the poem is sometimes referred to, by Maya Angelou, is arguably one of the most moving and eye-opening poems ever written.

For Sidney Bechet

by Philip Larkin

‘For Sidney Bechet’ is a poetic tribute to Sidney Bechet, one of the early jazz maestros that poet Philip Larkin admired the most.

Frederick Douglass

by Robert Hayden

‘Frederick Douglass’ by Robert Hayden honors Douglass and speaks about a future in which all people, according to Douglass’ ideas of love and logic, will be treated equally without question.

I, Too, Sing America

by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes’ poem ‘I, Too, Sing America’ is an incredibly personal poem Hughes wrote, highlighting American Society and a Black man’s experience in it.

Rosa Parks

by Nikki Giovanni

‘Rosa Parks’ by Nikki Giovanni is a poem about activism and the importance of remembering important moments in African American history. The poem pays tribute to the heroic actions of the Pullman Porters who spearheaded the civil rights movement and forever changed history for the African American community.

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