Ok, so you posted a black square on Instagram. You retweeted an Angela Davis quote. You ordered How to Be an Anti-Racist from a Black indie bookstore. You signed a Change.com petition. Now, what else are you doing to promote and spread Black art instead of just Black suffering and struggle? Black female poets have been dominating the literary scene for centuries. These are just 21 of the thousands of Black women who are writing about race and social justice.
1. Morgan Parker
Morgan Parker (b. 1987) is the author of three poetry collections Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (2015), There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce (2017), and Magical Negro (2019), the winner of the National Books Critics Circle. Her poems intertwine contemporary pop culture references, Black history, and her personal life. In an interview with The Paris Review, Parker articulated her commitment to capturing the Black experience in her writing: “I am hyperaware of patterns and repetition in society. The way that history repeats and rewrites. It’s a way of connecting with other people who are here, and also with people who are no longer here.”
2. Jamila Woods
Jamila Woods (b. 1989) is both a singer-songwriter and a poet. Once described as a “modern-day Renaissance woman, Woods has released two albums titled Heavn (2016) and Legacy! Legacy! (2019) where each song is named after and dedicated to prominent artists of color. Her poetry has been featured in Muzzle, Third World Press, and Poetry magazine. Woods serves as the Associate Artistic Director of the non-profit youth organization called Young Chicago Authors and helps design curriculum for Chicago Public Schools.
3. Aja Monet
Aja Monet (b. 1987) is a surrealist blues poet and community activist from Brooklyn, NY. She is the youngest poet to ever have won the Nuyorican Poets Café Grand Slam Champion, winning the competition at only 19. Monet was awarded the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Award for Poetry in 2019. Her first poetry collection, titled My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter, dives into the traumas and passions of Black women during their battles for liberation. Monet founded “Voices: Poetry for the People” and “facilitate workshops in collaboration with Dream Defenders and Community Justice Project in South Florida.”
4. Maya Angelou
Born in St. Louis, Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a prominent civil rights activist, poet, essayist, movie director, actress, composer, and more. Angelou joined the Harlem Writers Guild in the 1950s. She worked for both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X during the Civil Rights Movement. Her poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, which was published (1971) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010.
5. Wanda Coleman
Known as the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles, Wanda Coleman (1946-2013) is the author of more than 20 books of poetry, including Mercurochrome, a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001. Coleman’s poetry touches upon Black poverty, womanhood, and racial inequalities in Los Angeles. She received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the California Arts Council, and won an Emmy for her scriptwriting.
6. Gwendolyn Brooks
Arguably the most renowned Black poet in American history, Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) was born grew up in the South Side of Chicago. Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for her poetry collection Annie Allen, which details the life of a young Black girl growing up in Chicago, making her the first Black author to win a Pulitzer Prize. Brooks was chosen as the first Black Poet Laureate of the United States for the 1985-1986 term and was the first Black woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts in 1976.
7. Lucille Clifton
Lucille Clifton’s poetic talent (1936-2019) was first featured in Langston Hughes’s renowned anthology The Poetry of the Negro (1970). Clifton was the first poet to have two poetry books chosen for finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 (1987), and Next: New Poems (1987). Her poetry celebrates and discusses the Black female body, motherhood, and family life.
8. Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith served as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States from 2017-2019 and has published four poetry collections, including Life On Mars, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Her poetry has been lauded for its incorporation of magical realism, space, and science to articulate her grief, mundane experiences, desire, and dystopian fears.
9. Audre Lorde
A self-labeled “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde (1934–1992) was a poet, essayist, and feminist theorist. Her poetry reflects her work as an activist during the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lesbianism, and her rage towards the injustices against Black people. An advocate for intersectionality, Lorde published several essays and theories on the Black female experiences, the power of sexuality, and differences between men and women.
10. Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine (b. 1963) is the author of five collections of poetry, two plays, and an array of essays. Her book Citizen: An American Lyric is a genre-defying collection of poetry and reflection that incorporates images and videos to reflect the violence and microaggressions faced by Black Americans. Citizen won the NAACP Image Award in poetry and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2015.
11. Rita Dove
Rita Dove (b. 1952) was the second Black woman after Gwendolyn Brooks to win the Pulitzer Prize for her collection Thomas and Beulah, a semi-fictionalized poetical account of her maternal grandparents. Dove’s poetry is both minuscule and omnipresent. Her writing traverses through the banal aspects of her daily life while also providing a reflection on racial and social injustices.
12. Natasha Tretheway
The Poet Laureate of the United States in both 2012 and 2013, Natasha Tretheway (b. 1966) is a contemporary poet and professor. Tretheway is of mixed race and her parents were married illegally in the 1960s due to anti-miscegenation laws. Tretheway turned to poetry when her mother was murdered in 1986. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for her poetry collection Native Guard, an elegiac reflection of her mother’s life, the racial history of slavery in the South, the Civil War, and her childhood.
13. Anne Spencer
Anne Spencer (1882-1975) was the daughter of former slaves and Harlem Renaissance poet and activist. She was the first Black person and Virginian to have her poetry included in the Norton Anthology of American Poetry. She was friends and worked with authors such as Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois, and founded the Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP with James Weldon Johnson. Her poetry consists of themes of religion, race, the South, and her relationship with the natural world.
14. Nikki Giovanni
Nikki Giovanni (b. 1943) has been awarded for both her poetry and her activism. As one of the most critical and influential poets of the Black Arts Movement, she was awarded the Langston Hughes Medal and the NAACP Image Award. Her writing has been described as “epitomizing the defiant, unapologetically political, unabashedly Afrocentric, BAM ethos.”
15. Sonia Sanchez
Sonia Sanchez (b. 1934) was another prominent figure of the Black Arts Movement. She was awarded the Robert Frost Medel in 2001 for her distinguished service to American Poetry. She is the author of more than a dozen poetry books, including Does your house have lions? (1995), which was nominated for the NAACP Image and National Book Critics Circle Award.
16. Elizabeth Alexander
Elizabeth Alexander (b. 1962), as a contemporary poet, essayist, and playwright. She serves as the President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and a Professor of Poetry at both Yale and Columbia University. Her poetry collection The Sublime (2005) was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, and the themes in work include motherhood, political history, and race. Alexander wrote and read a poem for President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
17. Yona Harvey
A poet, professor, and comic writer, Yona Harvey (b. 1974) became one of the first Black women to write for Marvel comics. Harvey describes her artistic interest in “the diverse lives and experiences of Black American women through literature…the visibility and invisibility of Black women, our mental health and self-care, and the evidence of our imaginations in society.” She is the author of Hemming the Water (2013), a finalist for the 2014 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in poetry.
18. Margaret Walker
Margaret Walker (1915-1998) was part of the Chicago Black Renaissance. Her poetry collection For My People (1942) won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition, making her the first black woman to win a National Writing Prize. She is also the author of Jubilee (1966), a novel that details the life of a slave family during the Civil War.
19. Porsha Olayiwola
Porsha Olayiwola is the current Poet Laureate of Boston, Massachusetts. She is the 2014 individual World Poetry Slam champion and the 2015 National Poetry Slam champion. Olayiowla’s poetry uses “afro-futurism and surrealism to examine historical and current issues in the Black, woman, and queer diasporas.” She is the artistic director at MassLEAP, a literary youth organization, and published her first poetry collection i shimmer sometimes, too in 2019.
20. June Jordan
June Jordan (1936-2002) was a bisexual, Jamaican-American poet and activist. She was committed to using Black English and vernacular in her poetry. Her writing encompasses themes of family, sexuality, divorce, and oppression. Jordan was also a feminist theorist and wrote children’s books that touched upon race and social justice.
21. Eve L. Ewing
Eve L. Ewing (b. 1968) is a poet, visual artist, and a sociologist of education. Ewing has been a Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the Pamet River Prize. She has published two poetry collections, Electric Arches (2017) and 1919 (2019), based on the Chicago Race Riots of 1919. She is a writer for the Marvel comic Ironheart and is the author of Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, a sociological study of public school closures in Chicago.
From sonnets on Black freedom to free verse about womanhood and sexuality, these poets possess a robust and passionate lexicon of emotions and subjects. The range of their artistic capability is incredible, and their grandeur has often been left out of history books. We should forever be celebrating these Black female poets for their impact on Black liberation, and for the sheer beauty of their lyrics.
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