I was 7-years-old when I encountered Phillis Wheatley’s poetry.
Our assignment was to write a report about a famous historic figure. I chose Wheatley because she had brown skin like me and wrote poetry during the 18th century when it was against the law for enslaved people in the United States to read or write.
I also liked her because the antiquated encyclopedia I used to write the report referred to Wheatley as a “poetess.” Being a poetess seemed wild and dangerous to an imaginative kid growing up in southern New Jersey in the 1980s. Then I read the following, which sealed my love for Wheatley and poetry:
“In every human Breast,
God has implanted a Principle,
which we call Love of Freedom;
it is impatient of Oppression,
and pants for Deliverance.”
Love of freedom guides my work as a writer and independent film producer. It is also a central theme of many black American poets – whether they wrote and published in the 18th century or the present.
Here are five of my favorite poets whose words guide me back to a love of freedom when all seems lost.
By no means is it an exhaustive list. Extraordinary poets like Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovani, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Weldon Johnson and others aren’t included in this article. Consider their omission here as an invitation to discover and share their poetry.
Jaki Shelton Green
A North Carolina native, Jaki Shelton Green is currently the state’s ninth Poet Laureate and the first black person to receive this recognition. She also teaches Documentary Poetry at Duke University within the school’s Center for Documentary Studies.
Her publications include: Dead on Arrival, Dead on Arrival and New Poems, Masks, Conjure Blues, singing a tree into dance, breath of the song, Blue Opal (a play), and Feeding the Light.
Green’s poetry is epic. It sweeps entire historic vistas and places them in the palm of your hand to sort and savor. This excerpt from “who will be the messenger of this land” is a great example:
“who will be the messengers
of this land
harvesting its truths
bearing unleavened bread
burying mutilated crops beneath
who will remember
to unbury the unborn seeds
bent, layered in its
Born in 1921 in Eatonton, GA, Alice Walker is a writer and social activist best-known for her seminal novel, The Color Purple.
Passages from the 1985 film adaptation starring then unknowns Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey have become their own encoded love language among black women. But Walker displayed uncommon courage for writing and publishing a novel about a person (Celie) who is unseen in her own family and community because she represents the things – being black, poor, and a woman – they hated about themselves.
Walker faced a firestorm of controversy and praise for The Color Purple. Nevertheless, Walker began her career as a poet and published her first poetry collection, Once, in 1968. Since then, Walker has written and published 10 poetry collections. My favorite of her poems is “Be Nobody’s Darling.”
“Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like a shawl…”
Music infuses Langston Hughes’ poetry.
Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. After an itinerant youth that transported him to Mexico, the Caribbean, Europe, and Russia, Hughes landed in Harlem, New York during the 1920s. He earned his place among the vanguard of writers, artists, intellectuals, and musicians whose work formed the basis of a black cultural and artistic movement known as the “Harlem Renaissance.”
Jazz was the soundtrack of the era. It permeated Hughes’ poems, which rejected the respectability politics of the day. His love of freedom was synonymous with his love of black people, whose joy, pathos, and dreams deferred he captured in his poetry.
“The rhythm of life
Is a jazz rhythm
The gods are laughing at us.”
— From “Lenox Avenue: Midnight”
Hughes published 18 poetry collections, in addition to plays, novels, short story collections, children’s books and nonfiction. In each work, Hughes gave voice to the forgotten and transformed their lives into a song.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar is a controversial inclusion on my list of favorite poets because his African and American selves seemed to be at war with each other in his poetry.
It was more than just code switching. Born in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio, Dunbar was one generation from slavery. His parents were enslaved in Kentucky before the American Civil War.
Dunbar wrote in standard English and in “negro dialect” that won praise from white critics and derision from black contemporaries for reinforcing negative stereotypes about black people. Nevertheless, both linguistic styles landed his poetry in leading publications of the era such as Harper’s Weekly, the Saturday Evening Post and the Denver Post.
His classic poem, “We Wear the Mask,” is a melodic convergence of Dunbar’s African and American selves. The poem unflinchingly examines the cost of survival of being black in the United States.
“We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!”
Ntozake Shange’s award-winning “choreopoem”, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf cracked me open in places I forgot were broken.
For Colored Girls combines poetry, dance, and movement. First performed in 1976, it paints searing portraits of seven women, each identified by a specific color. The women experience rape, loss, abandonment, abortion, domestic violence, and rebirth.
In the dozens of poems, novels, and children’s books Shange wrote during her lifetime, she created a “special aesthetic” to illustrate the experiences of black women, which were deemed unimportant at the time by the gatekeepers of the western literary canon. Within her aesthetic, Shange found freedom. She inspired “colored girls” like me everywhere with these words from her poem, “A Laying on of Hands”:
“i waz cold
i waz burnin up
& endlessly weavin garments for the moon
wit my tears
i found god in myself
and i loved her
i loved her fiercely”