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African-American Poetry Appreciation: Part One

by Tameko Barnette

Poetry isn't a singular language.  Poetry is a part of everyone's daily life experience, even if one don't read poetry books.   We enjoy  songs with lyrics on the radio and .mp3's, clever sayings that have been passed down, and holy scriptures.  It is an artistic and vivbrant part of human life.

From Lucy Terry Prince to Phyllis Wheatley and a few other African-American poets in the 18th century to a plethora of poets from the 20h century to today who are far too many to name expressing everything from historic discoveries, plantation life, ancient magic and wisdom, aspects o nature, connection to God, politics, racial injustice, and much more.

Many of these poetic souls have inspired each other as well as those of us who are aspiring and seasoned poets and people who just love poetry.   They've made us smile, cry, frown, and get up and do something positive  with our lives for the betterment of this nation and the entire world.

This is a small listing of African-American poets along with questions for thought and discussion, and writing exercises and prompts for inspiration.

African-American Poets and Suggested Poems

Langston Hughes

"Dream Deferred" and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

Consider the dreams of African-Americans and where the state of racial balance is today.  Do the words of Hughes' poem still ring true?  As you read "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" take note of the specific locations of rivers.  Look them up.  Write a poem about a dream you have for yourself and/or humanity.  Write a poem or a piece on a river or body of water you've been to or live near.

Maya Angelou

"Uncle Willie" and "The Mask"

As  you consider the relationship between Angelou and her uncle, have you had or still have a special relationship with a relative or loved one who taught you something important that helps you in some way throughout life.  As you read "The Mask" consider your daily living.  Are you or others you see seem to be wearing a mask?  Even include your imagination as you walk by people or as you talk with others.  Are you speaking, laughing, and truly engaged or are you getting by to get through?  Write a poem about one of these times in your iife inspired by either poem or both.

Gil Scott-Heron

"No Knock"  This is a compelling poem because it does two things:  speak honestly about political issues and expresses a rhythm in his delivery of the poem that can be heard in rap music of Hip-Hop culture, particularly, songs from 1980s.   Write a poem or prose about the current political issues in comparison and contrast to the 1970s.

Lucille Clifton

"Admonition" and "The First"  Clifton in "The Admonition" expresses beautifully her feelings of being Black, even with humor.  The nature of  humor in the face of a horrible truth of racial hatred mirrors "The Mask" written by Maya Angelou.  Have you seen yourself dealing with racial tension in this manner, write a poem or prose about a specific moment.  In her poem, "The First", Clifton speaks on being evicted from her apartment.  Where in life have you seen yourself 'put out' whether it was an apartment or a situation or a grouop?

Oscar Brown, Jr.

"I Apologize" and "Children of Children"   In the first poem, Brown speaks directly to the turmoil of African-Americans with sarcasm and anger.  Research his performance of this poem on Def Poetry.  He sings the poem, but the feeling of 'sick and tired of being sick and tired' is flows throughout.  In his poem, "Children of Children", Brown speaks to us about the gap between generations of Black people and how to help, educate, and yet, not consume the youth with overwhelming fears.  Write a journal entry or poem on this topic as wellfrom your perspective as either the older generation or younger or both perspectives if you've lived long enough to see it from both sides.


This small section will highlight a few contemporary African-American poets.  Please be advised that there is some profanity in a few of the suggested poems listed below.  However, the topics are not lacking in importance to our times and future times.  Take note as you read or listen to the suggested poems listed below of what has changed and what has stayed the same.

Nikki Giovanni

"Ego Trippin'", "Shoulders Are for Emergencies Only", and "We're Going to Mars"   Giovanni has been with us for a long time from 1960s to the present.    "Ego Trippin' (There May Be a Reason Why) is self-explanatory.  However, let's consider the key points of locations and  times within history.  Take note and study these locations and times in our history.  With so many things  around us that chips away at the confidence and at the value of one's Self as a pesonal of African descent, Giovanni poetically reminds us to look throughout history, then look in the mirror.  Write a journal entry or prose of feelings that come through as you read this poem.   "Shoulders Are for Emergencies Only" is a look at poetry itself and its evolution from Gospel to Blues to Hip-Hop.  Write a journal entry on your thoughts or a poem if one is inspired here.  "We're Going to Mars" is inspired by Giovanni's desire to visit the outer space of our Universe and other intersting thoughts.  Check it out.  In addition, consider the new rise in people wanting to visit Mars in the past several years.  In addition, consider that there is a huge volume of science fiction and fantasy writings by African-Americans.  Are we obsessed with leaving planet Earth or just feel a connection to all of our Universe?  Do you believe we have a connection to the Cosmos?  Write about it in your journal and write a poem or prose sharing your thoughts and ideas.

Black Ice

"Lone Soldier"  As you read this poem, do not  consider statistics, but a personal connection either yourself or someone you know.  Write a journal entry or prose on this topic.

Liza Jesse Peterson

"Waitress"  With this poem, Peterson illustrates the frustration that can brew beneath the surface when approached about one's ancestry, oddly enough, while she's working.  Write a jounral entry or prose of a time when you've been approached about your ancestry, if this is not an experience you've had as a person of color, have you questioned your own heritage or the heritage o someone else?  Consider the enormous  rise in DNA testing to find one's tribes/nations.  Even with knowledge of self, do you still find yourself getting ofended about being questioned of who you are?Do you feel who you are is the same as where you're from?  Why or why not?

Saul Williams

"Coded Language" and "Amethyst Rocks"  Once again in contemporary poetry, we are being given a look inside of bieng African, African-American, Black, or as Williams describes in "Coded Language" as 'beings of cound'.  Both poems examines a process of sorts weaving together understanding of one's self, knowledge of one's self, and the realization of Self guided by harmony while being dismantled by disharmony.   Use active listening here, write down phrases and words that really stand out to you.  Then, write a poem or prose about you as harmony and even you entangled in disharmony.

Sarah Jones

"Blood"  In this poem, Jones eloquently speaks on this society's need to saturate our community of Black people all over the nation with materialism as a remedy to the ills inlicted by them.  AS you read or listen to her poem, consider your own feelings where this is concerned.  Do you ever think about it when you're purchasing certain brand names or find yoursel overspending as temporary gratiication?  If not, does Jones' poem make you think about it more?  Do you feel like you can wear any brand or use any brand without being indoctrinated?   Write about it in your journal or write a poem of your feelings on this either way.


To conclude this article of African-American Poetry Appreciation, I'd like to share a poetry form from Kemet/Kush as shared in an excerpt of "Egyptian Divinities:  The All is One" by Mustafa Gadalla.

The poetry form is seven (7) stanzas with four (4) lines in each stanza.

This poetry form was found on a temple wall of Het-Heru.  There was a prayer/invocation written in this form.  In my opinion, this would make a wonderful poetry form to use in our contemporary times - rhyming or non-rhyming.