Amanda Gorman, a 23-year-old Black woman and the nation’s first-ever youth poet laureate, read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the Biden inauguration. She finished writing her poem after the riot at the Capitol, referencing scenes directly in the text (NYTimes). Her delivery of words captivated the nation and thrust her work into the spotlight. And recently, she revealed that she was afraid that she might be murdered at the event. “I was going to be highly visible,” she wrote, “a very dangerous thing to be in America, especially if you’re Black and outspoken” (N.Y. Times). Gorman is the third Black poet to read at an inauguration (following Maya Angelou in 1993 and Elizabeth Alexander in 2009) and by far the youngest. All of this is reason to celebrate. But Black poetry has historical significance as a written form of protest that has outlasted unbeatable odds. By understanding how Black poetry has shaped our nation, we can appreciate Gorman and her words even more.
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• Bring poetry into your workplace or classroom. Alternatively, consider attending a poetry workshop by yourself or as a team.
Black poetry began in the U.S. before it was even founded. In 1773, Phillis Wheatley became the first Black person and the second woman to publish a book of poetry. An enslaved woman from the Gambia renamed after the slave ship she arrived on, Wheatley learned to read and write English from her captors. Throughout her teenage years, she used poetry as a way to question political and social injustices. No one in the U.S. was interested in publishing an enslaved woman’s work, though some of her “less controversial” works were published in London (National Women’s History Museum). Read one Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America.”
Poetry has been critical in Black history ever since. During the Civil Rights Movement, poets like Margaret Walker, Nikki Giovanni, and June Jordan used their work to “instill a sense of pride in one’s identity, to praise freedom fighters and honor fallen leaders, to chronicle acts of resistance, and to offer wisdom and strength to fellow activists” (Poetry Foundation). Consider “Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall, a response to the Birmingham Church Bombing by white supremacists in September 1963. Or “Riot” by Gwendolyn Brooks, commissioned by Black magazine Black Expressions in response to protests after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination (The Stranger). “Afterimages” by Audre Lorde is a moving narrative of grief and despair after the brutal murder of Emmett Till.
Even today, Black literary leaders offer poignant narratives of the liberation we all strive for. I recommend “Trojan” by Jericho Brown, Lee Mokobe’s “Surviving Blackness,” or “Immigrant” by Nayyirah Waheed. But that doesn’t come without a cost. Black literary leaders were routinely censored and banned. Many people don’t realize that poet Maya Angelou is one of the most banned authors in the U.S. due to the topics in her autobiographical work, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” (New African). A school board in Alaska just banned this book in 2020 (NBC News).
The FBI profiled dozens of prominent African American writers between 1919 and 1972 (The Guardian). One was Claude McKay, a Harlem Renaissance poet whose works like “America” protested racial and economic inequities (Poetry Foundation). The FBI recorded their travel, reviewed their works before publication on the sly, and apparently considered “whether certain African Americans should be allowed government jobs and White House visits, in the cases of the most fortunate,” and “what the leading minds of black America were thinking, and would be thinking” (The Guardian). Surveillance of Black leaders is still happening today. It is nevertheless encouraging to see Gorman sharing her work.
“Poetry is a tool for liberation. It is access that can not be taken away. The act of writing is an act of manifestation. It is communing with the creator. It is one of our most powerful tools. Perhaps that is why it is not celebrated and elevated as it should be.”
“And that is up to us – to celebrate it and elevate it, particularly for the next generation. It doesn’t just connect them to our history but gives them the tools to write their own. Patterson reflects on her work: “I think of the many young people I have taught, particularly the ones who were incarcerated. I think of how giving them a single sheet of paper and a pen allowed them to come to terms with some things, make peace, discover new things about themselves and the world. I think about how that is perhaps the best teaching I’ve ever done, to give them the tools, permission to be honest, and then get out of their way.
“Storytelling is in our DNA. It is our inheritance and legacy.”
- Black poetry in the U.S. has been a revolutionary space throughout history.
- Black writers have been subject to censorship and harassment for their views.
- Black youth are a critical component to the future of Black poetry – and it’s our responsibility to invest in it