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African-American Poetry

African American poetry developed in a straight, if sometimes discontinuous, line from Phillis Wheatley. In 1855 Lucy Terry became the second African American poet when her “Bars Fight” appeared in Holland's History of Western Massachusetts. However, her poetry was very different from Wheatley's heroic couplets:

What's the Word?

The Harlem Renaissance was a remarkable outpouring of creativity in many branches of African American art, and particularly poetry and prose, that occurred between the early 1920s and the middle 1940s in and around New York City. Major figures of the Harlem Renaissance included the critic Alain LeRoy Locke; social activist Marcus Garvey; magazine editor W. E. B. DuBois; the poets Langston Hughes, Counteé Cullen, and Angelina W. Grimke; fiction writers Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larson; and painters William H. Johnson and Palmer Hayden, among many others.

Eunice Allen see the Indians coming
And hoped to save herself by running
And had not her petticoats stopped her
The awful creatures had not cotched her
And tommy-hawked her on the head
And left her on the ground for dead.

Paul Laurence Dunbar's Lyrics of Lowly Life, which appeared in 1896 with an introduction by the novelist William Dean Howells, paved the way for the attention which the writers of the Harlem Renaissance would garner. Dunbar was celebrated not only in the United States, but also in England. The transplanted Jamaican sonneteer Claude McKay's 1919 “If We Must Die” struck a new note of defiance:

On the March

Rita Dove served as poet laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995.

If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs…
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die….

This Renaissance, which occurred in the period roughly between 1920 and 1945, saw an explosion of writing, particularly poetry, by African American men and women based in New York City.

Gwendolyn Brooks' second book of poetry, Annie Allen, was published in 1949, earning her the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1950. It marked the first time an African American had won the award.

Poet Jean Toomer published his collection Cane in 1923. Counteé Cullen followed with his own collection, Color, in 1925. Langston Hughes brought out The Weary Blues in 1926, in which he tried to capture the rhythms of African American speech and jazz. Gwendolyn Brooks published A Street in Bronzeville, with characters such as “Satin Legs” Smith, in 1945.

The energy generated by the Renaissance continued in the latter part of the twentieth century, if more diversely expressed. LeRoi Jones, playwright, poet, and author of the 1961 Preface to a 20 Volume Suicide Note, changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka. (Imamu is a title of respect, as in teacher or leader.) Nikki Giovanni's Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968) revealed the inner life of the contemporary, professional African American woman. Maya Angelou, author of Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water Before I Die (1971) and other collections of poetry, read at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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