120 Years of Poetry: 16 Influential Black Women Poets From Then to Now
As a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual woman who grew up in middle-class, Christian suburbia, I spent most of my life not knowing much else other than the experiences of those I was raised around. But I was always a poet. I’d read works by Audre Lorde (who is one of my favorite poets of all time), Gwendolyn Brooks, and Maya Angelou, and I’d be inspired by the emotional wrath of each woman, the integrity of their honesty, the poetic devices that could rip your heart out and then mend it again.
But I still didn’t quite get it then. I didn’t understand that black women’s voices have been marginalized and silenced in literature and society. I didn’t grasp the magnitude of their efforts to challenge dominant narratives and offer the world perspectives about race, gender, class, sexuality, and identity in ways that could only be experienced by Black women.
Since developing my own voice and womanhood in a contemporary society that still hasn’t caught up to the gender and racial issues we’re facing, I get it now. I get that poetry by Black women is a record that amplifies the necessity of their experiences being at the forefront. I understand that now, more than ever, society needs to reflect on the portrayals of Blackness through the influential women of the community, to push back on the social issues and stereotypes that have remained in the shadows for Black women who have carried communities on their backs without recognition.
In honor of National Poetry Month and in tribute to Black women in Art & Literature, I’m sharing with you a timeline of some of the most impactful Black women poets over the past 100+ years. Each of these women offers readers inspiration and motivation to take action, make a difference, and feel inclined to be educated about the complexities of Black culture and their monolithic experiences.
An educator, author, and poet, Gwendolyn Brooks is known as one of the most influential poets of the 20th century for the way she shed light on the challenges of Black culture in America. Her work discusses inequality, racism, and drug use along with feminist topics revolving around motherhood, art, and the woman’s experience.
Some of her most notable works include “We Real Cool” (1959), Maude Martha (1953), and Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956). In 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize for her work in Annie Allen (1949).
St. Louis, Missouri
A civil rights activist, memoirist, playwright, and well-renowned poet, Maya Angelou worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X during the height of the Civil Rights movement. Her work closely focuses on the social and sexual oppression of Black women and the economic and racial disparity experienced by Black people.
Some of her most notable works include I Know the Caged Bird Sings (1969), And Still I Rise: A Book of Poems (1978), and Heart of a Woman (1969). In 2010, Maya Angelou won the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Harlem, New York
A lesbian feminist, poet, essayist, and advocate, Audre Lorde is a pioneer in the Black lesbian community. Her work challenges many stigmas faced by black women and lesbians, creating a calling for diversity and inclusion in the radical feminist movement.
Some of her most notable works include The Black Unicorn: Poems (1995), Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984), and Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982). Audre Lorde’s 1988 collection, A Burst of Light: Essays won the American Book Award in 1989.
A poet, playwright, and activist, Sonia Sanchez is a powerful voice in the Black Arts Movement and the feminist movement. Her work closely focuses on political messages about race, gender, and social justice, addressing issues of sexism and misogyny in the Black community.
Some of her most notable works include Home Coming (1969), Does Your House Have Lions? (1997), and Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems (2000). Sonia Sanchez’s 1985 collection, I’ve Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems, won the American Book Award in 1986.
Depew, New York
A poet, writer, and educator, Lucille Clifton’s prolific works are known for exploring the experiences of Black women, celebrating their resilience and strength. Her work discusses race, gender, and spirituality, with the powerful use of metaphor and imagery.
Some of her most notable works include Good Times (1969), An Ordinary Woman (1974), and The Book of Light (1993). Lucille Clifton’s 1983 children’s book, Everett Anderson’s Goodbye, won the Coretta Scott King Award.
A writer, commentator, activist, poet, and educator, Nikki Giovanni is pivotal in moving along the Civil Rights Movement through her writing and speaking. Her works draw attention to the need for the support of Black communities, using her platform to advocate for education and encourage young people to pursue their passions.
Some of her most notable works include Black Feeling, Black Talk (1971), Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1918), and Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems (1991). In 1999, Nikki Giovanni received the Langston Hughes Medal from the City College of New York.
A writer, poet, essayist, and educator, Cheryl Clarke is known for her work in Black feminism and lesbian literature, often addressing race, gender, and sexuality as she explores the experiences of Black lesbian women in America. In the 1970s, she was one of the co-founders of the Women’s PressCollective, aiming to publish works by and for women who wrote about race, class, and sexuality.
Some of her most notable works include Narratives: Poems in the Tradition of Black Women (1982), Living as a Lesbian (1986), and Humid Pitch: Narrative Poetry (1989). In 2019, Cheryl Clarke was awarded the Publishing Triangle’s Leadership Award.
A poet, writer, and teacher, Rita Dove is known for discussing the history of race and identity, drawing on personal and cultural experiences to create vivid poetry about Black communities and individuals. She has been a teacher and mentor to many young writers and is widely recognized for her contribution to American literature.
Some of her most notable works include The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), Through the Ivory Gate (1992), and On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999). In 1987, Rita Rove won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection Thomas and Beulah (1986).
A poet, essayist, playwright, and editor, Claudia Rankine uses poetry, prose, and visual art to create a portrait of the Black experience by exploring race and racism in America. Her work is recognized for its social and political commentary intertwined with resonant language, film, and performance art.
Some of her most notable works include Plot (2001), The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue (2009), and The White Card (2018). In 2014, Claudia Rankine won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry for her book, Citizen: An American Lyric.
A poet, performer, and LGBTQ rights activist, Staceyann Chin moved to the U.S. after coming out as a lesbian in her 20s to offer America some of the most electrifying performance poetry that addresses race, gender, sexuality, and social justice. She has worked alongside Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations to advocate for humanitarian efforts and LGBTQ issues.
Some of her most notable works include The Other Side of Paradise: A Memoir (2019) and Crossfire: A Litany for Survival (2019). In 2007, Staceyann Chin won the Power of the Voice Award from the Human Rights Campaign.
Tracy K. Smith
A poet, teacher, and memoirist, Tracy K. Smith’s works focus on race, religion, history, and the natural world. She discusses mortality and transcendence, along with issues such as racism, police brutality, and the environment.
Some of her most notable works include Duende (2007), Life on Mars (2011), and Wade in the Water (2018). In 2006, Tracy K. Smith won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets for her first book, The Body’s Question.
A poet, essayist, and professor, Yona Harvey is best known for works that explore family, identity, race, and history. She is an English professor teaching creative writing and African American Literature who also has written essays about race and culture for The New Yorker and The Washington Post.