15 Black Women Poets Everyone Should Know4/28/2014
As National Poetry Month comes to a close, we're celebrating these Black women poets who have changed us with their work. They help us ...
As National Poetry Month comes to a close, we're celebrating these Black women poets who have changed us with their work. They help us to see ourselves and make sense of the world. They inspire us to be better and to make a difference. Here are the 15 Black women poets you should know.
Professor Alexander is the first recipient of the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that “contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.” She is the 2007 winner of the first Jackson Prize for Poetry, awarded by Poets & Writers, Inc. Other awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the George Kent Award, given by Gwendolyn Brooks, a Guggenheim fellowship as well as the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at University of Chicago. She is currently chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale University.
Among her volumes of poetry are A Brave and Startling Truth (Random House, 1995); The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (1994); Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993); Now Sheba Sings the Song (1987); I Shall Not Be Moved (1990); Shaker, Why Don't You Sing? (1983); Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975); and Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie (1971), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1959, at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From 1961 to 1962 she was associate editor of The Arab Observer in Cairo, Egypt, the only English-language news weekly in the Middle East, and from 1964 to 1966 she was feature editor of the African Review in Accra, Ghana. She returned to the U.S. in 1974 and was appointed by Gerald Ford to the Bicentennial Commission and later by Jimmy Carter to the Commission for International Woman of the Year. She accepted a lifetime appointment in 1981 as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In 1993, Angelou wrote and delivered a poem, "On The Pulse of the Morning," at the inauguration for President Bill Clinton at his request. In 2000, she received the National Medal of Arts, and in 2010 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
The first black woman director in Hollywood, Angelou has written, produced, directed, and starred in productions for stage, film, and television. In 1971, she wrote the original screenplay and musical score for the film Georgia, Georgia, and was both author and executive producer of a five-part television miniseries "Three Way Choice." She has also written and produced several prize-winning documentaries, including "Afro-Americans in the Arts," a PBS special for which she received the Golden Eagle Award. Maya Angelou was twice nominated for a Tony award for acting: once for her Broadway debut in Look Away (1973), and again for her performance in Roots (1977).
Openly lesbian, she has been an "out poet and political activist" since 1998. In addition to performing in and co-writing the Tony-nominated Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, Chin has appeared in Off-Broadway one-woman shows and at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. She has also held poetry workshops worldwide. Chin credits her accomplishments to her hard-working grandmother and the pain of her mother's absence.
Chin's poetry can be found in her first chapbook, Wildcat Woman, the one she now carries on her back, Stories Surrounding My Coming, and numerous anthologies, including Skyscrapers, Taxis and Tampons, Poetry Slam, Role Call, Cultural Studies: Critical Methodologies. Chin's voice can be heard on CD compilations out of Bar 13- Union Square and Pow Wow productions. In 2009, Chin published her autobiographical novel, The Other Side of Paradise: A Memoir.
She is a host on Logo's After Ellen Internet show, "She Said What?" and a co-host of Centric's My Two Cents.
In 2009, Chin performed in The People Speak, a documentary feature film that uses dramatic and musical performances of the letters, diaries, and speeches of everyday Americans, based on historian Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.
Clifton remained employed in state and federal government positions until 1971, when she became a writer in residence at Coppin State College in Baltimore, Maryland, where she completed two collections: Good news about the earth and An ordinary woman.
She has gone on to write several other collections of poetry, including Voices; Mercy ; Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000 , which won the National Book Award; the terrible stories , which was nominated for the National Book Award; The Book of Light; Quilting: Poems 1987-1990; Next: New Poems , Her collection Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; TWO-HEADED WOMAN., also a Pulitzer Prize nominee, was the recipient of the University of Massachusetts Press Juniper Prize. She has also written Generations: A memoir and more than sixteen books for children, written expressly for an African-American audience.
Her honors include an Emmy Award from the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, a Lannan Literary Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Shelley Memorial Award, the YM-YWHA Poetry Center Discovery Award, and the 2007 Ruth Lilly Prize.
In 1999, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She has served as Poet Laureate for the State of Maryland and Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary's College of Maryland.
After a long battle with cancer, Lucille Clifton died on February 13, 2010, at the age of 73.
Ms. Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952. A 1970 Presidential Scholar as one of the hundred top American high school graduates that year, she received her B.A. summa cum laude from Miami University of Ohio in 1973 and her M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1977. In 1974/75 she held a Fulbright scholarship at the Universität Tübingen in Germany. She has published the poetry collectionsThe Yellow House on the Corner, Museum, Thomas and Beulah, Grace Notes: Poems, Selected Poems, Mother Love (1995), On the Bus with Rosa Parks: Poems, American Smooth: Poems, a book of short stories, Fifth Sunday, the novel Through the Ivory Gate: A novel , essays under the title The Poet's World (1995), and the play The Darker Face of the Earth, which had its world premiere in 1996 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and was subsequently produced at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Royal National Theatre in London, and in many other venues. Seven for Luck, a song cycle for soprano and orchestra with music by John Williams, was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood in 1998. For "America's Millennium," the White House's 1999/2000 New Year's celebration, Ms. Dove contributed — in a live reading at the Lincoln Memorial, accompanied by John Williams's music — a poem to Steven Spielberg's documentary The Unfinished Journey . She is the editor of The Best American Poetry 2000, and from January 2000 to January 2002 she wrote a weekly column, "Poet's Choice," for The Washington Post. Her latest poetry collection, Sonata Mulattica: Poems, was released by W.W. Norton & Co. in 2009, and in 2011 she published The Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry.
A member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Rita Dove holds the chair of Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Jessie Redmon Fauset
Fauset attended the esteemed Philadelphia High School for Girls, where she was likely the sole African American in her class. She wanted to go on to Bryn Mawr College. However, the institution was reluctant to accept its first black student, choosing instead to help Fauset get a scholarship to attend Cornell University.
Fauset did well at Cornell and was selected to join Phi Beta Kappa (some sources have incorrectly identified her as the first African-American woman to become a member of the academic honor society). After graduating in 1905, Fauset's race kept her from being hired as a teacher in Philadelphia. Instead, she taught in Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
In 1912, while still teaching, Fauset began to submit reviews, essays, poems and short stories to The Crisis, a magazine founded and edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois convinced her to become the publication's literary editor, a position she took up in 1919.
Fauset was active during the Harlem Renaissance, an awakening of artistic output within the African-American community. In her editorial role, she encouraged a number of writers, including Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer and Claude McKay. She also continued to write her own pieces for the magazine.
In addition to her work at The Crisis, Fauset served as co-editor for The Brownies' Book, which was published monthly from 1920 to 1921. The publication's goal was to teach African-American children about their heritage, information Fauset had wished for during her own childhood.
Fauset was inspired to write a novel after reading an inaccurate portrayal of African Americans in a book penned by a white author. Her first novel, There Is Confusion (1924), featured African-American characters in a middle-class setting. It was an unusual choice for the time, which made it more difficult for Fauset to find a publisher.
Fauset left her position at The Crisis in 1926. She looked for work in publishing—even offering to work from home so that her race wouldn't be a factor—but was not successful. She then returned to teaching. Fauset also wrote three more novels: Plum Bun (1929), The Chinaberry Tree (1931) andComedy: American Style (1933).
Fauset's mostly bourgeois characters continued to deal with prejudice, constrained opportunities and cultural compromises. Some of her contemporaries appreciated her focus on a previously unexamined slice of African-American life, but others scorned her genteel settings. Her last two novels were less successful, and Fauset's formerly prodigious writing output began to taper off.
Fauset had married a businessman, Herbert Harris, in 1929. The two lived together in New Jersey until Harris died in 1958. Fauset then returned to Philadelphia. She died in that city on April 30, 1961, at the age of 79.
With her support for up-and-coming writers, Fauset was responsible for the development of many new African-American voices, while her novels, essays, poems and other work meant that she was a prolific author in her own right. Though not as well-known as many of her contemporaries, Fauset was an important part of the Harlem Renaissance.
In her first two collections, Black Feeling, Black Talk (Harper Perennial, 1968) and Black Judgement (Broadside Press, 1969), Giovanni reflects on the African-American identity. Recently, she has published Bicycles: Love Poems (William Morrow, 2009); Acolytes (HarperCollins, 2007); The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968-1998 (2003); Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not-Quite Poems (2002); Blues For All the Changes: New Poems (1999); Love Poems (1997); and Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni (University Press of Mississippi, 1996).
A lung cancer survivor, Giovanni has also contributed an introduction to the anthology Breaking the Silence: Inspirational Stories of Black Cancer Survivors (Hilton Publishing, 2005). Her honors include the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Dedication and Commitment to Service in 2009, three NAACP Image Awards for Literature in 1998, the Langston Hughes award for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters in 1996, as well as more than twenty honorary degrees from national colleges and universities. She has been given keys to more than a dozen cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami, and New Orleans. Several magazines have named Giovanni Woman of the Year, including Essence, Mademoiselle, Ebony, and Ladies Home Journal. She was the first recipient of the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award. She has served as poetry judge for the National Book Awards and was a finalist for a Grammy Award in the category of Spoken Word. She is currently Professor of English and Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies at Virginia Tech, where she has taught since 1987.
Born in Harlem in 1936, Jordan was the child of West Indian immigrant parents, who raised her in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, where she began writing poetry at the age of seven. In her teens, she attended the Northfield School for Girls in Massachusetts, and in 1953 enrolled at Barnard College, where she would earn her B.A. She was married in 1955, and divorced after having one child.
Jordan was active in the civil rights, feminist, antiwar and gay and lesbian rights movements, even as she became known as a writer. In 1967, after running poetry workshops for children in Harlem, Jordan began her teaching career at the City College of New York. She taught at Yale University and Sarah Lawrence College, and became a professor of English at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she directed The Poetry Center. In 1988, she was appointed professor of African-American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she founded the influential poetry program Poetry For the People.
June Jordan was the author of more than twenty-five major works of poetry, fiction and essays, as well as numerous children's books. Jordan wrote the librettos for the operas Bang Bang Uber Alles with music by Adrienne Torf, and I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, with music by John Adams; she wrote lyrics frequently for other musicians, as well as plays and musicals. Her journalism was published widely in magazines and newspapers around the world, and she was a regular columnist for The Progressive. An electrifying speaker, Jordan collected many of her most influential speeches and addresses in her books of essays.
Jordan earned numerous honors and awards, including a 1969-1970 Rockefeller grant for creative writing, a Yaddo residency (1979), a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship (1982) and the Achievement Award for International Reporting from the National Association of Black Journalists (1984). Jordan also won the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Writers Award (1995-1998), the Ground Breakers-Dream Makers Award from The Woman's Foundation (1994), the Chancellor's Distinguished Lectureship from the University of California at Berkeley, the PEN Center USA West Freedom to Write Award (1991) and a congressional citation for her outstanding contributions to literature, the progressive movement and the civil rights movement.
Her first volume of poems, The First Cities, was published in 1968. In 1968 she also became the writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where she discovered a love of teaching. In Tougaloo she also met her long-term partner, Frances Clayton. The First Cities was quickly followed with Cables to Rage (1970) and From a Land Where Other People Live (1972), which was nominated for a National Book Award. In 1974 she published New York Head Shot and Museum. Whereas much of her earlier work focused on the transience of love, this book marked her most political work to date.
In 1976, W.W. Norton released her collection Coal and shortly thereafter published The Black Unicorn. Poet Adrienne Rich said of The Black Unicorn that "Lorde writes as a Black woman, a mother, a daughter, a Lesbian, a feminist, a visionary; poems of elemental wildness and healing, nightmare and lucidity." Her other volumes include Chosen Poems Old and New (1982) and Our Dead Behind Us (1986). Poet Sandra M. Gilbert noted not only Lorde's ability to express outrage, but also that she was capable of "of rare and, paradoxically, loving jeremiads." Although her work gained wide acclaim, she was also sharply criticized. In an interview in the journal Callaloo, Lorde responded to her critics: "My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds. . . . Jesse Helms's objection to my work is not about obscenity . . .or even about sex. It is about revolution and change. . . . Helms knows that my writing is aimed at his destruction, and the destruction of every single thing he stands for."
Lorde was diagnosed with cancer and chronicled her struggles in her first prose collection, The Cancer Journals, which won the Gay Caucus Book of the Year award for 1981. Her other prose volumes include Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984), and A Burst of Light (1988), which won a National Book Award.
In the 1980s, Lorde and writer Barbara Smith founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. She was also a founding member of Sisters in Support of Sisters in South Africa, an organization that worked to raise concerns about women under apartheid.
Audre Lorde was professor of English at John Jay College of criminal justice and Hunter College. She was the poet laureate of New York from 1991-1992. She died of breast cancer in 1992. The Collected Poems Of Audre Lorde was published in 1997.
In April 2013, Shire was presented with Brunel University's inaugural African Poetry Prize, an award earmarked for poets who have yet to publish a full-length poetry collection.She was chosen from a shortlist of six candidates out of a total 655 entries. In October 2013, Shire was also selected from a shortlist of six young bards as the first Young Poet Laureate for London. The honour is part of the London Legacy Development Corporation's Spoke programme, which focuses on promoting arts and culture in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the surrounding area.
Under the family's direction, Wheatley (who, as was the custom at the time, adopted her master's last name) was taken under Susanna's wing. While Wheatley suffered from poor health, her quick intelligence was hard to miss, and as a result, Susanna did not train her to be her servant.
Instead, Wheatley received lessons in theology, English, Latin and Greek. Ancient history was soon folded into the teachings, as were lessons in mythology and literature. Additionally, Wheatley, while still a slave, enjoyed limited restrictions on her life and became a part of the family. At a time when African Americans were discouraged and intimidated from learning how to read and write, Wheatley's life was an anomaly.
Wheatley wrote her first published poem at age 12. The work, a story about two men who nearly drown at sea, was printed in the Newport Mercury. Other published poems followed, with several also being published, further increasing Wheatley's fame.
In 1773, Wheatley gained considerable stature when her first and only book of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published. Susanna Wheatley helped finance its publication. As proof of her authorship, the volume included a preface in which 17 Boston men claimed that she had indeed written the poems in it.
Poems on Various Subjects is a landmark achievement in American history. In publishing it, Wheatley became the first African American and first U.S. slave to publish a book of poems, as well as the third American woman to do so.
Following the publication of her book, Wheatley traveled to London to promote her poems, and received medical treatment for a health ailment that she had been battling.
After her return to Boston, Wheatley's life changed significantly. While ultimately freed from slavery, she was devastated by the deaths of several Wheatley family members, including Susanna (d. 1774) and John (d. 1778).
In 1778, Wheatley married a free African American from Boston, John Peters, with who she had three children, all of whom died in infancy. Their marriage proved to be a struggle, with the couple battling constant poverty. Ultimately, Wheatley was forced to find work as a maid in a boarding house.
Wheatley did continue to write, but the growing tensions with the British and, ultimately, the Revolutionary War, weakened enthusiasm for her poems. While she contacted various publishers, she was unsuccessful in finding support for a second volume of poetry.
A strong supporter of America's fight for independence, Wheatley penned several poems in honor of the Continental Army's commander, George Washington. It's not certain whether Washington ever read her work.
Phillis Wheatley died in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 5, 1784.