Today, is Black Poetry Day and I wanted to write something to commemorate the day because I love poetry. I love that the way poems can communicate specific ideas with their shapes on the page and their space in the air and the empty spaces between words and lines is particular to poetry. Whether spoken or written, performed or found tucked away in loud books in quiet corners of quiet libraries, poems have a way of sharing experiences of humanity in beautiful, heartbreaking, immediate, and intimate ways.
Born October 17th, 1711, Jupiter Hammon lived his entire life enslaved by white New Yorkers. An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries was written on Christmas Day in 1760, when he was forty-nine years old. The 1761 broadside on which the poem was published—making Jupiter Hammon the first published Black poet in the United States—also listed, in a disgusting but unsurprising move, the man who called himself Hammon’s “owner.” Stanley A. Ransom, a folk musician in addition to editor and folklorist, published America’s First Negro Poet: The Complete Works of Jupiter Hammon of Long Island; he proposed in 1970, the year the book was first published, that October 17th be observed as Black Poetry Day to “”to recognize the contribution of Black poets to American life and culture and to honor Jupiter Hammon, first Black in America to publish his own verse.”
“Hammon, Jupiter.” (2018). Poetry and Songs. 6. http://dh.howard.edu/og_poetry/6
Beginning with Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley—stolen from the area of the west African coast that is now Senegal and The Gambia at roughly seven years old and enslaved by the Wheatleys in Boston, becoming a renowned poet with an elegy written when she was sixteen—and continuing on through the years of institutional slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. Through movements for the liberation of Blacks, women, Queers. Through the AIDS epidemic and the not-so-thinly-veiled coding of “the war on drugs.” Through the decades and centuries from the American colonies of Hammon’s time to now, Black poets have been putting pen to paper and crafting poems that speak to about an experience of America that is vastly different from that of white folks. And while Black poets are, generally, not writing to or for white people, we can learn a lot by hushing up and listening.
Langston Hughes was one of the central figures of the Harlem Renaissance. – GPA Photo Archive
The twentieth century opened alongside the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar who, in addition to being considered the nation’s “foremost Black poet,” was also a prolific author; he wrote the lyrics for In Dahomey published a play, four compilations of short stories, four novels, and a dozen collections of poetry in his short thirty-three year life. His poetry and prose addressed the stories and lives of Black Americans, pre- and post-emancipation, it took to task the brutality of US chattel slavery, and it confronted the violent racism of white Americans. There’s no denying that Dunbar paved the way for the Harlem Renaissance, which saw the rise of poetry luminaries like Langston Hughes (the first Black writer to earn a living with only his writing), Countee Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Claude McKay.
James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry had a powerful friendship and profound intellectual partnership. – Well-Read Black Girl™
The Harlem Renaissance created the space for poets, writers, and intellectuals like Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry (a gifted poet, she’s best known for her play A Raisin in the Sun), and Pauli Murray (who makes my gender nonconforming heart so happy! Representation matters!). The storied relationship between James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry was a thing of beauty: two young, Queer, Black writers supporting and guiding one another—though Hansberry’s life was cut short, there is no question that she shaped Baldwin and his writing profoundly. Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lourde, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou (who borrowed a line from Paul Laurence Dunbar to title her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) came on the scene soon after the towering figures of Baldwin and Hansberry. Their poems spoke to the myriad experiences of being a Black woman in the Unites States and they each took up the mantle of social justice, participating in and vocally supporting the Civil Rights Movement.
Rita Dove, the United States’ first Black poet laureate, speaking at “Legacies: A Conversation with Sandra Cisneros, Rita Dove and Joy Harjo” in 2017. – Gage Skidmore
The 1980s and 1990s saw poets, cultural critics, and authors Rita Dove, June Jordan, and bell hooks hit the scene in major ways. Each of these women tackled misogyny, anti-Blackness, the struggles of the working poor, and discussed means of resistance and the fight for equity. In 1993, Rita Dove—at forty years old—was the youngest person ever named United States poet laureate and was also the first Black poet laureate the nation had seen.
A poster announcing a meeting of a “FemClub” which will focus on the work of bell hooks. – spirobolos
And that decidedly non-exhaustive history brings us, rather roughly, to today. There are so many gifted contemporary Black poets whose works I want to wrap myself up in for days at a time: poems honoring Black mothers, tackling police brutality, celebrating Blackness, celebrating Queerness, demanding a national reckoning with our violent and hateful history, praising love and lust and family and chosen family, calling out the casual cruelty of the US’s rampant anti-Blackness, redefining masculinity and challenging misogyny. Every bit as much like the voices that came before, these poets sculpt such richness with their words. It is impossible for me to choose a favorite poet, let alone a favorite poem, but I really want you to check out these folx: Danez Smith, Sonya Renee Taylor, Aja Monet, Kai Davis, Porsha Olayiwola, Alysia Harris, Javon Johnson, Arisa White, and Ebony Stewart. Each of these incredibly talented poets can be found on YouTube performing their works. Also, check out the YouTube channel for the Cave Canem Foundation, an organization dedicated to Black poets and Black poetry.
This year—the Maude-forsaken year 2020—in the wake of protests and police brutality and state-sanctioned murder and a complete lack of accountability, it is time for us white folks to stop just tweeting #BlackLivesMatter and actually prove that we stand by that. The very best place to start is by listening. I hope that Black Poetry Day will be a good way for us to jump into the work of actively listening and, to that end, I’m going to leave you with a list of virtual events (because, y’know, 2020 and COVID-19) that will be commemorating Black Poetry Day, celebrating Black poets, and encouraging Black writers and poets.
Be well. Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Enjoy some poetry.
2:00 PM – 3:30 PM (EDT) – Jupiter Hammon Literary Landmark Virtual Celebration
2:00 PM – 3:30 PM (EDT) – Anything Else Under Heaven: A Writing Workshop
7:00 PM (EDT) – AKA Omega Omega Poetry Night
8:00 PM (EDT) – House of Blues, The Poetry Edition: a celebration of Black poets
8:00 PM – 9:30 – Writing for Healing & Self-Care Workshop
8:00 PM – 9:15 PM (EDT) – The Root Slam: Working People’s Section
6:00 PM – 7:00 PM (EST) – Poetry & Black Lives Matter
Now through 12/1/2020