BLACK HISTORY MONTH: FIVE EXTRAORDINARY BLACK POETS

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Submitted Date 02/16/2020
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Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was taken from West Africa as a child and sold to a family in Boston. Her first name came from the slave ship that carried her, and her last name from her master's family, as was the custom back then. She was educated in reading and writing, which was uncommon for her time, being not only a slave, but female. In her youth, her master allowed her to travel to London and assisted her in having a book of her poetry published. She was set free shortly after the publication of "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral." She often wrote elegies and poems reflecting on Christian themes and morals. Suggested reading for BHM: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45465/on-being-brought-from-africa-to-america

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was born shortly after the Civil War. He was the only Black student in his high school, but was encouraged by his peers, becoming editor of the school newspaper and president of the literary society. His first poem was published when he was just a teenager, and he went on to gain the praise of many prominent poets, who financed his books. Though he died at the age of 33, he published a dozen poetry books, writing poems in both the "Negro dialect" and standard English. His line "I know why the caged bird sings" inspired works by Maya Angelou. Today, there are numerous schools and institutions named after him. Suggested reading for BHM: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46459/sympathy-56d22658afbc0

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) grew to love books at an early age. He noted that at least the people in books suffered in beautiful language. He attended Columbia University, but dropped out due to overwhelming prejudice. He later moved to Washington, D.C., and attained fame after working as a hotel busboy and sharing his poetry with a renowned poet who ate at the hotel's restaurant. The D.C. venue "Busboys and Poets" honors this history. He graduated from Lincoln University (later earning an honorary doctorate), and published many poems and articles highlighting the struggle of Blacks in America. He was an integral leader of the Harlem Renaissance. Suggested reading for BHM: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47558/i-too

Robert Hayden (1913-1980) was raised in the ghetto by a foster family, and felt quite isolated from his peers due to his poor eyesight. As a result, he spent much of his childhood reading and developed a love for language. He studied both Spanish and English, and became the first African American U.S. Poet Laureate. He earned a master's degree from the University of Michigan and worked as a professor there and at Fisk University for more than 20 years. As a member of the Baha'i Faith, he promoted the unity of humanity. He did not support Black separatism, and preferred to be known as an American poet rather than a Black American poet. Suggested reading for BHM: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46460/frederick-douglass

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) had a difficult family life, being sent back and forth between her mother and grandmother, and being the victim of rape as a young girl. She used writing to cope with her challenges, and was also a talented singer and dancer. She wrote seven autobiographies, including her most famous work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She has been referred to as the "Black woman's poet laureate" for her powerful themes of Black and female empowerment. Her many accolades include more than 50 honorary university degrees, her performance at former President Bill Clinton's inauguration, and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Suggested reading for BHM: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46446/still-i-rise

 

ANDREA HOPE is a poet, editor, and world citizen, whose works have won acclaim in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. Her poetry book, TO MOTHER, is available on Amazon in paperback and ebook formats.

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