The Top 10 African American Poets
by Destiny Benjamin
From the early eighteenth century to the present, great black poetry has expressed social, cultural and political ideas. Read on to learn who made the list of Top 10 African American Poets.
Phyllis Wheatley (1753 – 1784)
No list of great black poets would be complete without Phyllis Wheatley. In 1773, Wheatley became the first African American to publish a book of poetry. Amazingly, she managed to do this in a time when most slaves were forbidden to read or write. Her collection of poems was so impressive, she was forced to defend her work before a court.
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 – 1906)
Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first black poet to gain national success. Although Phyllis Wheatley published black poetry before Dunbar, he was the first to reach readers across the United States. Both black and white readers enjoyed his work. Some of his work was written in southern dialect with words like “dey” instead of “they.” He is best known for his poem “Ode to Ethiopia.”
Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)
Langston Hughes wrote poetry during the Harlem Renaissance. He helped to create a new art form called jazz poetry. Hughes influenced the work of Maya Angelou, another great black poet. The title of her autobiography, I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, comes from one of Hughes’s poems.
Countee Cullen (1903 – 1946)
Countee Cullen also wrote black poetry during the Harlem Renaissance. Unlike many other African American poets, Cullen viewed poetry as “raceless.” He believed race did not affect a person’s ability to write poetry. Cullen wanted to simply be called a “poet” instead of a “black poet.”
Robert Hayden (1913 – 1980)
Robert Hayden first turned to poetry as a way to deal with bullying. As a child, he was made fun of because of his short statue and thick glasses. He is best known for his poem “Those Winter Sundays” which explores loneliness and the death of a father. Much of Hayden’s work was political. He often wrote about the Vietnam war.
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 – 2000)
Gwendolyn Brooks published her first poem when she was only thirteen years old. In 1950, Brooks became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize. She earned the prestigious award for her second book of poetry titled Annie Allen.
Maya Angelou (b. 1928)
Maya Angelou is one of the best-known figures in black poetry. Not only was she a poet and writer, but she also was very involved in the Civil Rights Movement. She was chosen to recite one of her poems during Bill Clinton’s 1993 presidential inauguration.
Amiri Baraka (b. 1934)
Amiri Baraka, born Everett LeRoi Jones, is a very controversial poet. His work often addresses taboo issues such as rape, homosexuality, terrorism and violence. Like Countee Cullen and other poets, Baraka includes dialect words like “dey” in his poems. He has earned many prestigious awards for his black poetry. These include the Langston Hughes Award and the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.
Nikki Giovanni (b. 1943).
Nikki Giovanni looks to the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movements as inspiration for her poetry. Her book Love Poems is written as a tribute to the rapper Tupac Shakur. Giovanni wrote a poem for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
Alice Walker (b. 1944)
Alice Walker is most recognized for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Color Purple. She is also a very accomplished poet. She published her first book of black poetry when she was a college senior. Walker has published seven volumes of poetry.