12 Poems to Read for Black History Month
February is Black History Month, and to celebrate the contributions black poets have made, and continue to make, to the richness of American poetry, we asked twelve contemporary black poets from across the country to choose one poem that should be read this month and to tell us a bit about why.
"We Real Cool" is the poem so many of us know from grade school: the Seven (that sacred number of the seeker, the thinker, the mysterious) at the Golden Shovel (the shovel be golden but be ready to dig your grave). Them lounging streetcornerwise in our consciousness under some flickered neon of mannish-boy dream. A Chicago/Detroit/Harlem/St. Louis/L.A./Gary/... corner. Someplace where the rhyme is always as good as the reason, anyplace where the cost of gin is precious enough to thin but solemn enough to pour on the sidewalk for the departed, anyplace where the schools are overcrowded and underfunded and black and brown enough to not really miss the Seven, who were underperforming on the standardized tests and had been diagnosed as ADD or BDD status anyway. Anyplace where sin gets hymned out—straitlaced into storefront chapels on Sunday mornings—but sewn back into Saturday night doo-wopped breakbeats, finger-snapped shuffles of promise.
We know the Seven. Know them like our neighbor's boy gone bloodied to bullets. Like our cousins nodded off into prison terms or hyped into the ground. Like our brothers gone homeless. Like our fathers gone missing. Like ourselves when we look in the blurry mid-morning mirror. One for every day of the week, one for each of our deadly sins. One waiting around the bend of each American corner. We stand in the June of our lives and try to sing it all the way through each season, always ending each line on the word that brings us together as much as it pivots us into new revelations: We. We. We. We. We. We. We.
What a balm and a blessing this poem has been to me. I have carried this sonnet—both an ode to the self and also an act of resistance—inside me like gospel, like armor. Against a world that has marked us invisible and unworthy, black joy is important. Self-love is imperative. And here Lucille Clifton shows us that both joy and self-love radiating from a black woman is also a kind of defiance.
When I was growing up there were so few examples of what a strong, successful black woman could look like, much less a black woman poet—how could we, the unseen and unconsidered, find a place of our own not just to exist, but to thrive?
For all of us, black women born in Babylon, with our meager inheritance of oppression and the diminishment of our selfhood and a world that turns its back to say, “You are not enough as you are”—for a black woman to stand in exaltation of herself is radical, is necessary. This poem gave me a voice and a crucial model to carve out my own world, to know it is possible to sing a self.
Here is Clifton stepping inside the American poetic tradition—a tradition that never considered her, however multitudinously it declared itself—and fashioning a new mold for her life, for black womanhood in all its broad fields and rivers of wonder. Here, “on this bridge between / starshine and clay,” she not only beams out a nation that has tried to snuff her out, but knowing that the black woman must nurture and cherish her own self in the world, she divines this life as a rebellious necessity. To be black in America is to be endangered. To be a black woman in America is to be the unsung casualty. To be a black woman alive in America and writing poetry is miraculous. Here I am, she says—despite a fight against my selfhood and survival at every turn, here I am—in radiant joy, in full bloom, in celebration of myself, and despite you, I’m still alive and alive and alive.
“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,” said Dickinson, “I know that is poetry.” But how does it feel to be exiled from your own heart—and not just artfully, but literally, from your real and fallible heart? This is the question I return to, a quality of thought and careful sensation I find in Melvin Dixon’s “Heartbeats” and the steady patient-turned-at-moments-
Michael S. Harper’s “American History” is one of the great poems of our or any other language. The stunning ease with which the poem juxtaposes, in a highly compact form, grandeur and minutiae, consequence and cause, content and technique (in other words, big idea and meager action), and the sad, suffocating ease with which poems written by poets of color tend to read as mere reflex of a social gland have unfortunately conspired against it. But this is a poem that in its brevity and power stands tall with the epitaph of Simonides, the haiku of Bashō, Blake’s “The Sick Rose,” Keats’s “The Living Hand,” Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” and Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” to name but a few.
A great poem releases the language it uses from the tether of its normal terms—not to destroy language but to reveal the wounds therein and enliven them and, in turn, the entire language. That the explosive first line carries five stresses in its six syllables; that the poem posits a “me” and the possibility of multiple “yous” (an addressed second person and a rhetorical one); that the net is torqued into an embedded clause you have to see and swallow before moving on to the drowning; that we lose a sense of protagonist and antagonist, moral gravity; that the poem is in search of gravity among its tragic parts and dangling question—what to say but to read it, parse it, memorize it, and pay it forward? Why is it not in every canon? Can't find what you can't see, can you?
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of two books of poetry, Heaven (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) and The Ground (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). He divides his time between New York City and Barcelona, Spain.
In “Hurricane” by Yona Harvey, a mother focuses on the time in her daughter’s life when the girl begins to move from childhood into adulthood. The poem considers two events, two hurricanes that have had an impact on the daughter—one, Hurricane Katrina, the event of enormous proportions that occurred when she was an infant living in New Orleans, and the other her first ride alone on a scary amusement park ride called “Hurricane.” The poem celebrates the practice of strength and independence in the daughter and captures the mother’s joy in supporting these characteristics. The poem also points to the impact of the mother’s choices as a model for her daughter’s courageous actions. “I did so she do,” the mother says.
I love the playful leaps in the poem, the shifting dramas, the changes in voice, syntax, and diction, how the poem pulls the rug out under us as it breaks out into song, “Ahh awe & aw.” I love the way the poem uses black vernacular, repeating “she/Do” instead of “she/Does.” The two quick and clear syllables perfectly capture the sound and sense of an explosive action, and the repetition of the phrase creates the feeling of an action that keeps happening. The kind of power urged in this poem is not a list of accomplishments, but a way of being alive.
More than anything, I love the engaging uniqueness of a Yona Harvey poem, how her poems weave elements that, in the end, come together with emotional and intellectual resonance. In the last two lines, all four forces in the poem—the mother, daughter, the hurricane, and the ride—seem to merge and become the one source of an indomitable female nature.
Toi Derricotte is the author of five poetry collections, including The Undertaker’s Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). She is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and lives in Pennsylvania.
"Middle Passage" is one of the major landmarks of modern American poetry, right up there with "Prufrock" and "Sunday Morning." Its grand ambition, its researched knowledge, the range of its literary allusion, its handling of many diverse voices, and its achievement of deep wisdom are, well, I can't think of words right now to describe my admiration of this beautiful masterpiece.
Marilyn Nelson is the author of nine poetry collections, including Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems, 1996–2011 (Louisiana State University Press, 2012). She is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and lives in Connecticut.
Sitting in a circle around a table outside of a southern hotel this fall, I played and lost several games of spades with black writers I love. The cards, themselves, were a language. But we added our own seasoning, as the children of black people who also moved cards along tables know to do.
What I love about the work of Terrance Hayes is how interested it is in the freezing of the small nuances of the moment. He does it without sacrificing the history that, perhaps, occupies any table of black people playing any game. In this poem there are slave ships. There is Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. But more than anything, the poem is an instruction on the interior of the game and the stakes associated with it—the stakes of pride, of family.
Resting in the middle of the poem, almost surprising, is the line, “My mother did not drink / and that’s how I knew something was wrong with her.” And yet, there is a dry spot on the table when couples come to play spades at his mother’s table. The way we make room for one another to revel in these small humiliations that pull us closer. More than anything, the poem’s work is in this: speaking in a language heard only among friends. Spades, of course, is not a game our enemies play.
“Let America Be America Again” has been ringing in my ears for months now. It snaked its way into the back of my mind when the Trump campaign rolled out its red-hatted slogan: “Make America Great Again.” The first time I saw those words, I knew exactly what they meant, and that they weren’t meant for me. I knew that the great America hoped for within those words was one where I’m a little less free, where the patriarchal grip on every system of power is white, white-knuckled, and unassailable. For a person of color in America, there is no greater time than a hopeful future; there are no good old golden days of yore. I don’t do nostalgia. I don’t long for anything before, because life becomes more dangerous for me the further back I go.
After Trump’s victory, I watched the liberal flank of white America shimmering in its astonished disbelief, feeling betrayed by a place they thought they knew. What had this country become? “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed.” Hughes’s words rolled over and over in my head. “There’s never been equality for me, / Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’” The violent white male supremacy that Trump traded on throughout his campaign is embedded in the foundation of this place. The country we all woke to on November 9, 2016, was the same one it’s always been. Black America has been living in that reality all along. And we’ve been trying to show you. The first dream of this country didn’t see me free within it. I draw my veil across the stars. “America never was America to me.”
Jamaal May dissects the many limbs of the assault of an oppressive system and the resilient resistance of an oppressed people in the five-act poem “A Brief History of Hostility”:
The war said let there be war
and there was war.
The war said let there be peace
and there was war.
Like a surgeon with a sturdy hand, May pens a succinctly textured psalm, birthing light and life against the landscape of a machine designed to punish and wound until extinction. The poetic craft of chant and righteous rage finds a delicate balance on the page as May threads together repetition and steel and nature as comforting as any lullaby. This is no easy feat: writing about life and fire and death and the desire for peace through air and flowers birth graveyards without the promise of losing interest, a privilege for some.
Is it still cliché to say that you can read a poem and be inspired? Or is it still cliché to say that you find something like hope in language? In a time when some of us feel that we are post-hope, Claudia Rankine’s poem “Coherence in Consequence” realigns the subtle shift that determines whether the reader is in step with the poem, or at odds.
Rankine begins the poem by collaborating with her reader. She asks us to “Imagine them in black, the morning heat losing within this day / that floats. And always there is the being, and the not-seeing / their way.” I love these lines and use them at times to help students understand that issues of accessibility in poetry have much to do with how we read as opposed to what we read. If we trust this poem and this poet, we can immerse ourselves in the effect of the language here as opposed to the direction of the narrative. And when that trust comes into play, the rest of the poem holds greater rewards.
My favorite lines in the poem are, “Never mind / the loose mindless / grip of their forms reflected in the eye-watering hues of the / surface. These two will survive their capacity to meet, / to hold the other beneath the plummeting.” I love how Rankine tells us, essentially, to “Never mind … forms.” The form is elusive and a stumbling block if we cannot first understand what exists within the form and how the form exists out of shear necessity to embody the epiphany therein. How my mind becomes keenly alert when I read, “These two will survive in their capacity to meet.” The language of simple resolve deflects what is often the most salient adversity. To believe that we can overcome “what is” by embracing some faith in “what will be” is the stuff of inspiration and always has been, but to overcome “what is” by understanding the gravity of “what can be” is an animal we don’t often handle adeptly in the serious poem, the poem that resists reduction, the poem that tells us not what to feel but what we already know and have perhaps forgotten. We are more than our forms. We may potentially transcend our constructs. We are light contained and not containment. How can you not relish in such faith?
“For My People" is timeless. When we are reminded now, after eight years with a black president, of the need for vigilance in the ongoing effort for equal access to the American ideal of democracy, Walker’s poem is an accomplishment that grows and grows in value for everyone. The encompassing imagery of a people drawn in the mythic proportions of history is given in language that arouses the spirit. The poem is the gift of a poet’s sincerity.
It is an excellent teaching poem. Students have a chance to explore the period in which the poem was written and published. It was the time of a young Gwendolyn Brooks, who would win the first Pulitzer given to a black writer; a young James Baldwin, who would write foundational essays for the national culture in unequalled eloquence; a mature and accomplished Langston Hughes, the dean of African American letters; and many more.
A poem such as “For My People,” evokes not just the subject but the temper and texture of the time in which it was created. Its creator, Margaret Walker, gave of her heart to touch our hearts and remind us of the necessary work of goodness. She is a poet with a work that celebrates a people and their country. Her vision, courage, and imagination in this work deserve our celebration.
In 1761, when she was about seven years old, the girl we have come to know as Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped from her home on the West Coast of Africa. She was transported to Boston because she was too frail to be of practical use in the physically demanding sugar plantations of the South. She learned English, Greek, and Latin. But she remained enslaved. Twelve years later, in 1773, this same girl would become the first black person to publish a book in English. From that collection comes "On Being Brought from Africa to America" one of the most amazing poems I have ever read.
The poem itself follows the neoclassical model—it’s concerned with order, structure, reason. We see it in the rhyme, the meter, in its controlled organization, and also its logic. There is an orderly series of four heroic couplets. There are the requisite nods to Christian ideals. In the mode of her time, Wheatley's poem is clean, uncorrupted. Practically dismissible, it seems so perfect.
But this is not a poem to be easily dismissed. Scan it with me. In doing so, you'll see some of the ways Wheatley uses the apparent order of the poem to reveal an entirely different line of reasoning than what might be evident at first glance. There is practically a secret code inside this poem. The “save” in “Savior” is stressed, the “Christ” in “Christian,” the word "black" in the penultimate line, and the word "join" at the poem's end. The word "die" at the end of a line about the "diabolic" skin tone of black people is stressed along with the “di-” in “diabolic,” and both syllables are close enough in proximity to create a shocking internal rhyme. This all has something to do with English itself, with where stresses naturally fall in particular words, but the way that these words are put together in Wheatley's poem directs whether and how we attend to them. Wheatley knew this. She uses the logic of the structure of metrical verse as a means toward revelation and resistance.
We see this same thing throughout the poem in her use of punctuation, in her rare enjambment, in the ways she plays with allusions, and especially in the fun she has with the homonymic potential of the English language. Toward the latter two points, I will never cease to wonder at her play on the word “Cain” to indicate the potential for refinement (and, therefore, exalted status) of the darker of the two sons of Adam and Eve, as well as the expected refinement (and, therefore, salvation) of the sugar cane (and sugar cane workers) at the center of the slave trade. Wheatley revels in the ways that something can appear to have one conclusion and also another.
This neoclassical poem, written by an enslaved young woman, barely out of her teens, is rebellious even as it appears to follow all the rules. It is about the complicated blessing of being kidnapped from her home and sold into slavery in a land where she is able to learn about the order and structure of Western traditions (including Christianity), and it has at its heart words, phrases, and lines that can be read (completely logically) in a number of ways. At every turn, she undermines and complicates the logic to which she is bound. I love that! I love her.