A History Of African American Poetry

African American poetry has a rich history, tracing its roots and influences from the poetry written by African Americans in the 19th century and evolving ever since. Its expression speaks to the experience of African Americans and is closely intertwined with social movements such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Harlem Renaissance.

Slavery has long played a significant role in the development of African American poetry. The Middle Passage, which was a period in history where Africans were forcibly taken from their homeland and transported to North America, Europe and South America, was in part an integral influence for many pieces of African American poetry. Many of these works document the struggles and tragedies of enslavement, and also emphasize the religious aspects of resistance and perseverance.

In the 19th century, there was a growing number of African American poets drawing attention to the plight of Black Americans and their heritage. The first African American literature periodical, The Freedom’s Journal, was founded in 1827, and many poets published in it during the 19th century, such as Phyllis Wheatley, James McCune Smith, and Isaac W. Young.

The mid-late 19th century is also noted for the development of spirituals, hymns, and other church songs written by African Americans. These spirituals often contained coded messages of resistance to oppression and served as an inspiration for poets such as Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes.

The early decades of the 20th century saw an explosion of African American poets who were boldly expressing their experiences on the page. This became known as the Harlem Renaissance, which was a period of great cultural and artistic output among African Americans in Harlem. Figures like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and Jean Toomer wrote works that illustrated the vibrancy and dynamism of the African American experience.

After the Harlem Renaissance, the second half of the 20th century saw Black Arts Movements, which sought to use the power of poetry, music, literature and art to push against racial oppression. Poets such as Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and Etheridge Knight were at the forefront of this movement. They used their poetry to express their anger and indignation at the injustices African Americans had been facing in the U.S. for centuries. Baraka’s poem “Black Art” is a prime example of this expression.

The modern age of African American poetry has seen the emergence of more diverse poets and styles. Poets like Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks and Ishmael Reed are some of the most influential contemporary poets who are popularly known and widely read. The success of these poets has had a lasting effect on the African American poetry landscape and has positively influenced an entire generation of poets.

Relationship to Music

The relationship between African American poetry and music has had a long history, which can be traced back to the spirituals and hymns created by African Americans in the 19th century. Music was often used by African American poets to express themselves and their experiences, which was true of early figures like Paul Lawrence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson. These poets and many more after them made use of musicality and rhythm in their works, which helped to bring their works to life.

The influence of the spirituals and hymns was particularly felt during the Civil Rights Movement and Black Arts Movement, where the African American community found strength in music and poetry. Musicians like Bob Dylan and Nina Simone incorporated political themes into their work and played a significant role in advancing the civil rights struggle. Similarly, poets like Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka also wrote works that were deeply intertwined with music, highlighting the power of words to create an impact.

Today, the connection between African American poetry and music can still be seen in the works of modern poets and musicians. Rappers such as Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Jay-Z incorporate poetic elements into their lyrics, while poets such as Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni continue to this day to produce works that reference music. This connection is a testament to the unique power of African American poetry and its ability to drive social change through its ability to communicate emotions and experiences in a powerful and moving way.

Rise of Spoken Word Poetry

The emergence of spoken word poetry in the early 1990s was an important milestone in the history of African American poetry. It was a new way for poets to express themselves and their experiences, as it enabled them to add a layer of emotion and energy to their work.

Spoken word poetry only gained wider recognition in the early 2000s, with the release of the movie “Love Jones“. This ushered in a new phase of spoken word poetry, as artists like Saul Williams, Jessica Care Moore, Ursula Rucker and AYSHA gained more attention and recognition. The emergence of this genre also paved the way for spoken word venues, poetry slams, and poetry festivals to become more popular. The rise of spoken word poetry has been an important turning point in the history of African American poetry and has helped to reinvigorate the genre.

The popularity of spoken word poetry and its growing presence in popular culture has served to open up new avenues of expression for African American poets. Spoken word poetry has enabled poets to create works that can be as political and emotional as they wish, because there are no barriers or limitations to their creativity. Furthermore, spoken word poetry has allowed poets to connect with new audiences, which has helped to spread their message and influence a generation of people.


The impact of African American poetry on the world has been nothing short of remarkable. From the spirituals and hymns of the 19th century to the modern-day works of spoken word poets, the genre has been an outlet for writers to express their experiences and address issues of injustice. African American poets have sparked conversations on topics like race, oppression, and identity which have had far reaching implications on society.

The legacy of African American poetry has been carried on throughout the years, and its influence is still being felt today. Poets like Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni are just a few of the writers whose works have left an indelible mark on American culture. They are credited with inspiring a generation of writers and bringing attention to the struggles and victories of African Americans.

The impact of African American poetry has been international as well. African American poets have been acknowledged by writers, scholars, and audiences around the world. Places like the United Kingdom, Nigeria, and South Africa have embraced and celebrated the works of prominent African American poets, highlighting the reach and universality of African American poetry.

Modern Innovations

Modern day African American poetry is a thriving and vibrant genre and is constantly being pushed to new levels by poets who are finding innovative ways to express and explore the African American experience.

The advent of new technology has enabled African American poets to access new platforms and audiences. Social media, for example, has allowed African American poets to share their works with the wider world and engage with global conversation. Many poets have used their platforms to speak out against injustices and advocate for social causes, highlighting the power of words to drive change.

The popularity of spoken word poetry has also enabled many poets to reach wider audiences. Poets like Saul Williams and AYSHA have become well known for their dynamic and riveting performances, and have been able to gain recognition both online and in person. What’s more, their presence in popular culture has created new opportunities for African American poets to gain exposure and recognition.

As African American poetry continues to evolve and adapt, African American poets are embracing new forms and techniques that go beyond traditional writing. They are actively pushing boundaries and demonstrating the versatility of the genre. African American poetry today is a far cry from what it was during the 19th century, and its future is looking brighter than ever.

Black Women Writers

Black women writers have long played an important role in the development of African American poetry. Writers like Phillis Wheatley, Frances Harper, Angelina Weld Grimke and Alice Dunbar Nelson were some of the first Black women poets to have their work published, paving the way for poets of future generations.

In the 20th century, African American women poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou made huge waves in the literary world. Their works were unapologetic and deeply personal, as they explored themes of race and identity in powerful and captivating ways. Countee Cullen and Jean Toomer were also important figures in the Harlem Renaissance, producing works that had a lasting impact on their peers.

In the present day, Black women poets continue to be leaders in the genre. Poets like Elizabeth Acevedo, Kocoumbo Cissoko, AYSHA and Morgan Parker are just a few of the African American women poets who are paving the way and redefining the boundaries of the genre.

Black women writers have long been an integral part of African American poetry. Their courage and originality have enabled them to thrive in a largely male-dominated literary world, and their works will continue to serve as a source of inspiration for generations to come.

Continued Legacy

The legacy of African American poetry first began in the 19th century and has been passed on from generation to generation ever since. From the spirituals and hymns of the enslaved to the spoken word performances of today, African American poetry has always been an important part of the African American experience.

The works of African American poets have inspired a generation of writers and have left an undeniable impact on American culture. From the literature of the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movements, the power of African American poetry has always been deeply embedded in the history of the United States.

Today, African American poets are still making their mark on the world and pushing the limits of the genre. While the future of African American poetry is uncertain, its continued legacy as a form of artistic expression and source of empowerment will surely remain.

Minnie Walters is a passionate writer and lover of poetry. She has a deep knowledge and appreciation for the work of famous poets such as William Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and many more. She hopes you will also fall in love with poetry!

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