This is the sort of list that is almost impossible to make, because there are so many noteworthy black poets who have molded, and changed the genre of poetry. Contemporary literature is blessed with an abundance of astounding black poets, still praising, critiquing, and adapting the language and form of poetry. Some of these include Morgan Parker, Amanda Gorman, Ross Gay, and Claudia Rankine.
To better understand how black authors have impacted the genre, you must explore those who set the foundation for those writing today. In honor of Black History Month, let’s explore those who are notably some of the most famous and influential black poets in history.
Phillis Wheatley (1753 – 1784)
Wheatley is considered the first African-American author of a published book of poetry. She was born in West Africa and subsequently kidnapped and sold into enslavement before she was eight years old. From there she was taken to North America, where she was bought by the Wheatley family in Boston, Massachusetts. It was there that she learned to read and write, and when they saw her talent, the Wheatley family encouraged her passion for poetry.
In 1773, she voyaged to London with her enslaver’s son, seeking publication for her work. The publication in London of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral on September 1, 1773, brought her fame in both England and the American colonies. She was publicly praised by prominent figures, including George Washington. All of her wonderful poems can be found in her Complete Writings.
Shortly after the publication of her book she was emancipated, and she married a poor grocer named John Peters. Tragically, Wheatley-Peters died in poverty at the age of 31.
Beyond her first publication, her most notable poems include:
“On Being Brought from Africa to America”
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 – 2000)
Brooks is by far the most decorated poet on this list, receiving awards for her poetry throughout her career. From the National Medal of Arts in 1995 to being indoctrinated into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1988. Most notably, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Annie Allen in 1950, making her the first African American to ever receive a Pulitzer Prize.
Her work often dealt with the personal celebrations and struggles of ordinary people in her community. Brooks began writing at a very young age, with her mother being her biggest supporter and fan. During her teenage years, she began filling books with careful rhymes and lofty meditations, as well as submitting poems to various publications. Her first poem was published in American Childhood when she was just 13 years old.
Gwendolyn Brooks is one of the most highly regarded, influential, and widely read poets of 20th-century American poetry. She was a much-honored poet, even in her lifetime, having even been dedicated to a Junior High School in Harvey Illinois. She was even selected as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, an honorary one-year term, known as the Poet Laureate of the United States.
Some of her best poems are:
“An Aspect of Love, Alive in the Ice and Fire”
Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
Angelou was an acclaimed American poet, storyteller, activist, and autobiographer. She had a broad career as a singer, dancer, actress, composer, and Hollywood’s first female black director, but became most famous as a writer, editor, essayist, playwright, and poet. As a civil rights activist, Angelou worked for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She was also an educator and served as the Reynolds professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.
She served on two presidential committees, for Gerald Ford in 1975 and Jimmy Carter in 1977. In 2000, Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton. In 2010, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., by President Barack Obama. Angelou was awarded over 50 honorary degrees before her death.
Her poetry has often been lauded more for its depictions of Black beauty, the strength of women, and the human spirit; criticizing the Vietnam War; demanding social justice for all, than for its poetic virtue. Yet Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, which was published in 1971, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. She has also won 3 Grammy Awards for best-spoken word album. The first of these she won for the audio version of “On the Pulse of Morning”.
More of her famous poems include:
Beyond her influence in poetry, Angelou is best known for her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which made literary history as the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. In January 2021 she became the first black woman depicted on a quarter.
Derek Walcott (1930-2017)
Born on the island of Saint Lucia, before he found his passion for writing, Walcott was a trained painter. It didn’t take long, however, for him to shift his love to poetry. He published his first poem at the age of 14 in the local newspaper. Not 5 years later did he go on to print his first collection, 25 Poems, distributing it on street corners.
His work resonates with Western canon and Island influences, shifting between Caribbean patois and English, and often addressing his English and West Indian ancestry. For his exemplary control of poetry and language, many readers and critics point to Omeros (1990), an epic poem reimagining the Trojan War as a Caribbean fishermen’s fight, as Walcott’s major achievement.
Throughout his career, Walcott has been met with awards from the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1988 to a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992, the second Caribbean writer to receive the honor. He was even given the honor of becoming a Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Lucia.
His poetry collection includes:
“[The day, with all its pain ahead, is yours]”
Beyond his influence in poetry, Walcott was a renowned playwright, winning an Obie Award for his play Dream on Monkey Mountain, a poem in dramatic form. Walcott’s plays generally treat aspects of the West Indian experience, often dealing with the socio-political and epistemological implications of post-colonialism and drawing upon various genres such as the fable, allegory, folk, and morality play. With his twin brother, he cofounded the Trinidad Theater Workshop in 1950; in 1981, while teaching at Boston University, he founded the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. He also taught at Columbia University, Yale University, Rutgers University, and Essex University in England.
Wole Soyinka (1934-Present)
Soyinka is a Nigerian poet and political activist born into a Yoruba family. He studied at both the University College in Ibadan, Nigeria, and the University of Leeds, England, studying African and British poetry and drama. He was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, the first sub-Saharan African to be honored in that category.
During the civil war in Nigeria, Soyinka appealed in an article for a cease-fire. For this, he was arrested in 1967, accused of conspiring with the Biafra rebels, and was held as a political prisoner for 22 months until 1969. He is an outspoken opponent of oppression and tyranny worldwide and a critic of the political situation in Nigeria. Soyinka has even lived in exile on several occasions.
Soyinka has published many works from dramas to novels and poetry. His literary language is marked by a great scope and richness of words. Nevertheless, his writing is most notably shaped by a diverse range of influences, including avant-garde traditions, politics, and African myth.
His poetry, which similarly draws on Yoruba myths, his life as an exile and in prison, and his politics are a pure reflection of his life and experience in both Africa and Britain. His collections of poetry include Idanre and Other Poems (1967), Poems from Prison (1969, republished as A Shuttle in the Crypt in 1972), Ogun Abibiman (1976), Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems (1988), and Selected Poems (2001). Some of his best poems are:
Beyond poetry, Soyinka has published five memoirs, including Aké: The Years of Childhood (1981) and You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir (2006), the novels The Interpreters (1965) and Season of Anomy (1973), and 19 plays, all of which reflect his morals in a language so meticulous and melodic.
Alice Walker (1944-Present)
Walker is one of the most celebrated novelists in modern history. Her most famous work, The Color Purple, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and it remains one of the bestselling books in the United States.
Born in Georgia, in 1944, at a time when Jim Crow Laws made the world a dangerous place to grow up black, Walker was influenced by her experience with oppression to use her writing as a form of social activism. Luckily, Walker was deeply fortunate to have parents who risked their lives to support her ambitions. Her works, spanning from novels to short stories to poems, all show her dedication to racial equality in America and her gratitude for anyone who helped her express her messages of hope and sorrow.
Walker has been awarded an honorary degree from the California Institute of the Arts. She was also named “Humanist of the Year” by the American Humanist Association in 1997, received multiple fellowship awards from 1967 to 2010, and was given the LennonOno Grant for Peace.
Walker wrote the poems that would culminate in her first book of poetry, entitled Once, while she was a student abroad in East Africa, during her senior year at Sarah Lawrence College. Walker would slip her poetry under the office door of her professor and mentor, Muriel Rukeyser, who then showed the poems to her literary agent. Once was published four years later by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. While Walker is best known for her novels and short stories, some of her most influential poems include:
Some of her other poetry collections are Hard Times Require Furious Dancing: New Poems, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness, and Her Blue Body Everything We Know.
Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011)
Gil Scott-Heron is truly the Godfather of Rap. He was an American singer, author, and jazz poet, best known for his work as a spoken word performer in the 1970s and 80s. His style features a musical fusion of jazz, blues, and soul, overlayed with his views on social and political issues, delivered in a rap-like vocal performance. He often referred to himself as a “bluesologist”, his own term for “a scientist who is concerned with the origin of blues”
He used his work not only as a platform for free-speech and protest but also to influence other artists in the genre. His poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, delivered over a jazz-soul beat, is considered a major influence on hip-hop music. His 1970 album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox preceded rap by nearly a decade and paved the way for modern artists like Kendrick Lamar.
Scott-Heron was able to use his songs and poems as a form of political protest, examining subjects from the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal to alcohol and narcotic addiction, and racial injustices. Given the political consciousness that lies at the foundation of his work, he can also be called a founder of political rap.
Some of his other most famous poems/spoken word performances are:
“I Think I’ll Call It Morning”
After his death, he received the 2012 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to poetry and music. As of 2016, he is included in the exhibits at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Finally, in 2021, Scott-Heron was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a recipient of the Early Influence Award.
Tupac Shakur (1971-1996)
You might be surprised to find Tupac Shakur on a list of the most influential black poets, but beyond his rap career, Shakur wrote and performed multiple political and lyrical poems. If Gil Scott-Heron is the Godfather of Rap, Tupac is his Godson, considered one of the most influential rappers of all time. Shakur is among the best-selling music artists, with almost 75 million records sold worldwide and no less than 10 Platinum Albums. Much of Shakur’s music addresses contemporary social issues that plagued inner cities, and he is considered a symbol of activism against inequality.
Tupac’s acting career began when he was twelve when he enrolled with a Street Repertory Ensemble in Harlem and he performed in A Raisin in the Sun. There he studied acting but also poetry and dance at. Alongside performing in Shakespeare plays, he won multiple rap competitions. It was also there that he found a lasting friendship with Jada Pinkett. He wrote a poem for her called “The Tears in Cupid’s Eyes” which he included in his book The Rose That Grew From Concrete.
Poetically, Shakur turned most of his poems, and the poems of other non-musical artists, into rap songs, as a form of political and emotional expression. Some of his most notable works include:
“Can You See the Pride in the Panther”
After his death, Shakur was inducted into the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame and in 2017 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in his very first year of eligibility. From there he was ranked among the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine.
This Black History Month, Bookstr is celebrating black authors of all genres. Some other articles for you to explore are “These 10 Black Sci-Fi Authors Are Out of This World” and “7 Black Authors Bend the Rules of the Horror Genre”.
If you would like to read about more black voices, click here.