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What Is Black Poetry?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By pastanaga — On Apr 30, 2012

@umbra21 - To some extent I don't think her poetry is very valuable as "Black poetry" for precisely that reason.

While she shared some common experiences with her fellow slaves, such as being wrenched from her homeland, losing her relatives, surviving a slave ship and so forth, she didn't experience the hard work and intolerance that others did because of her luck in ending up with a particular family.

I find the poems that managed to come down to us from slaves who had to struggle to write them to be much more poignant, and I think that black poetry today owes much more to them.

Which is not to say that Wheatley's work doesn't have worth, but read it remembering the circumstances in which it was written.

By umbra21 — On Apr 29, 2012
@browncoat - You can download Phillis Wheatley's book from the Gutenburg website, I think. It's called "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral".

You have to remember that she had huge advantages for a person of her status at the time. The family she lived with educated her and allowed her to live without working so she could concentrate on her writing, which are conditions very few people could have even today. She was gifted, but she was also privileged.

The sad thing is, while she was eventually set free when her master died, she didn't have a happy life after that. She married someone and he ended up going to prison and she and her children died from poverty and disease after that.

I'm not a huge fan of her work myself simply as it's not to my taste, but I can definitely see that she had talent.

It's a tragedy that she never had the chance to write more, or at least to live out her life with stability and peace.

By browncoat — On Apr 29, 2012

If you're interested you can find Phillis Wheatley's poetry online.

I think her poems are amazing and beautiful and even more so when you consider she was made a slave at the age of seven, so she was writing in her second language, and that she only learned to read and write when she was a teenager.

When you add to this the fact that she was a slave (and a female slave at that), even though she was encouraged by her "owners", it's an amazing feat that she managed to write anything that could be published, let alone poems of such beauty.

I would really recommend you take a look at them, either downloading her book or checking out the individual poems online.

It's an example of the triumph of the human spirit, as far as I'm concerned.

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