African American Cultural History and the Black Poetry Tradition

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Dr. David Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

African Americans have long expressed themselves through various artistic and literary traditions. A great example of this is the tradition of Black poets, which dates back to antebellum times when few African Americans were literate. In a previous post we shared information about this tradition highlighting the poetry of poet laureate Amanda Gorman. Let us further explore examples of beautiful Black poems of past and present that fit in this tradition. At the end we will provide some resources for educators to use in their classrooms to teach about Black poetry. Meanwhile, here are some examples of classic inspiring and beautiful African American poems that can be used in classrooms and add insight into the Black experience.    

We Real Cool
By Gwendolyn Brooks

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool.
We Left school.
We Lurk late.
We Strike straight.
We Sing sin.
We Thin gin.
We Jazz June.
We Die soon.

Sympathy
By Paul Lawrence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!


Ballad of Birmingham
By Dudley Randall
(On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963).

Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?

No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.

But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.

No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?


The poems above evoke African American history and culture and are indicative of much of the writing within the Black poetry tradition. Brook’s beautifully written piece uses African American vernacular to highlight Black culture but also offers a warning to youth of the consequence of living life in “the fast lane.” The Dunbar poem entitled “Sympathy” (Made popular by Maya Angelou’s book whose title comes from the first line) is a metaphor expressing the enslaved person’s longing for freedom. Randall’s piece -Like Dunbar- hearkens to African American historical trauma and the freedom struggle. Below we have shared more poems from African American poets and will also include teaching resources and lesson plans for educators who want to teach about the Black poetry tradition in their classrooms.

Other Works By African American Poets

Phillis Wheatley
Nikki Giovanni
Maya Angelou
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Robert Hayden
Lucille Clifton
Langston Hughes
Rita Dove
James Emanuel
James Weldon Johnson
Audre Lorde
Kwame Dawes
Sonia Sanchez
Elizabeth Alexander

Lesson Plans and Teaching Resources
Celebrate Black Poets – Poems for Black History Month and All Year Long
Lesson Plans Celebrating Black Poets
Lesson Plans for Black History Month- Teaching about Black Poets
What is blackout poetry and how to teach it?
Nine Poems from Black Poets to Teach
34 Powerful Black History Month Poems for Kids of All Ages
Black Poetry Day is celebrated
African American Poets- Lesson Plan

Please share what resources you find useful for your teaching.

We are open to feedback and discussion. If you see any typos or grammatical errors please feel free to email the author and editor at the address below:

Dr. David Childs
childsd1@nku.edu 

2 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading this article because when I was in fifth grade, my teacher was obsessed with African American Poetry. Every couple weeks we would have to memorize and recite a poem to the class. I enjoyed this very much, because every poem felt so real and raw. I will never quite understand what the people who wrote them went or go through, but it is a way to look at someone else’s life through their eyes and words. Everyone should be educated in other peoples cultures, so familiarizing people with poems, literature, or other forms of entertainment made by people who may not look like you is important. 

  2. The article that I selected was “African American Cultural History and the Black Poetry Tradition.” This article speaks about how African Americans have always been artistic. One outlet that African Americans used was poetry and this dates back to the early 1800s. This article highlight many black poets like Gwendolyn Brooks and Dudley Randall.  These poems are present to help teach people about black experiences. 

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