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Black poetry refers to poems written by African-Americans in the United States of America. Poetry from black Africans is referred to African poetry and is a distinct area of the genre, although some African poets have influenced America. It is a sub-section of African-American literature filled with cadence, intentional repetition and alliteration.
African-American poetry predates the written word and is linked to a rich oral tradition. Like fiction, black poetry draws its inspiration from musical traditions such as gospel, blues, jazz and rap. Poems are inextricably linked to the experiences of African-Americans through their history in America, from slavery to segregation and the equal rights movement.
The first written poem was by Lucy Terry in 1746. Her poem, "Bar Fight," however, was not published until 1855. The first book of black poems was written by Phillis Wheatley in 1773, just two years before the American Revolution. Wheatley was taken to court soon after publishing her poems in order to prove a black person was capable of writing such refined poems. Those poems went on to influence early American leaders such as George Washington.
Blues poetry draws much of its inspiration from black poetry’s oral tradition. Themes for this kind of black poetry revolve around struggles, despair and sex, but also show the community’s resilient side. The basic blues poem opens with a statement, is followed up by a variation on the theme and then the third line offers an ironic alternative. Examples of blues poets include James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes.
Hughes was also a well-known practitioner of jazz poetry. Like its blues counterpart, it is inspired by music. Where they differ, apart from the musical style they draw from, is on account of how in tune with jazz jazz poets are. It is a genre born of jazz appreciation. Linked to the beat movement, top jazz poets include Thelonius Monk and Amiri Baraka.
After World War I, black communities from the south began migrating north to large cities such as Chicago and New York seeking better employment and living conditions. The migration also gave birth to a flowering of black poetry known as the Harlem Renaissance. Poets such as Claude McKay demonstrated the movement’s themes concerning pride, poverty, racism and rage. In 1950, Harlem Renaissance poet Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize.
The Harlem Renaissance influenced new generations of poets and poetical movements. It was directly influenced by the Negritude movement coming out of French-speaking colonies, which rejected European colonialism. It mixed black pride with Marxist values. In turn, both influenced movements such as the Dark Room Collective and slam poetry competitions.