Teaching with Poetry: Amanda Gorman and the Historic Black Poetry Tradition

Poet Amanda Gorman performs "The Hill We Climb" during the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images

Dr. David J. Childs, Ph.D.

“We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always just-ice. And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow we do it. Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”

-Amanda Gorman, US Presidential Inauguration 2021

Introduction
The whole world cheered her on as Amanda Gorman became the youngest poet to ever share a poem at a US presidential inauguration and the first person to be named the National Youth Poet Laureate. Gorman’s poem entitled The Hill We Climb in her own words “represented a moment of unity for our country” and “spoke to a new chapter and era for our nation.” Her words were well received by the nation and helped to re-elevate the status of poetry in US society. Her performance pointed to the fact that poets can find the right words to define key moments, struggles and concepts in time. Poetry can even describe ordinary life phenomena that cannot be articulated adequately through other artistic or literary forms.    

The Historic Black Poetry Tradition
Poetry has long been a part of the intellectual tradition in the U.S. But often the most celebrated poets are those of European descent such as William Wordsworth, Emily Dickson, Robert Frost, Edgar Allen Poe, or Henry David Thoreau. However, just like other aspects of the black experience, African American poets have often been overlooked. Like their white counterparts in the US, there has also been a long tradition of poets throughout African American history as well. One of the most well-known black poets of the eighteenth century was the enslaved woman Phyllis Wheatley. Langston Hughes as well as other Harlem Renaissance poets, has been one of the most articulate voices in the struggle for freedom in the African American community. And perhaps the poet with the most fame in recent history is Maya Angelou. Other black poets that also deserve honorable mention are Paul Laurence Dunbar, Zora Neal Hurston, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker and Nikki Giovanni. They all fall into that long tradition of eloquent black poets in the US.

Below are great examples of African American poetry, many of the words were written by those who passed on decades or even centuries ago but are still relevant for today.
In This Place by Amanda Gorman
Other Poems by Amanda Gorman
5 more poems from Amanda Gorman to share with your kids
Inaugural Poet Amanda Gorman reads “Talking Gets Us There” | PBS KIDS
Poems by Phyllis Wheatley
Poems by Langston Hughes
9 Inspiring Maya Angelou Poems You Can Read Online
Paul Laurence Dunbar Poems
LISTEN: Zora Neale Hurston Performs Folk Poetry and Song from her Native Florida
Alice Walker Poems That Everyone Needs to Read
Five Politically-Inspired Poems by Audre Lorde
The Best Poems by Nikki Giovanni That Made Her a Legend

Here we have included lesson plans and teaching resources that allow educators to integrate the work of African American poets into their teaching.
Lesson Plan: Discuss Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem “The Hill We Climb”
Teaching Guide: Exploring the Poetry of Maya Angelou
More Teaching Resources for Nikki Giovanni
Various Works by Nikki Giovanni
Alice Walker Teacher Resources
Paul Laurence Dunbar Teacher Resources
Lesson Plan: Zora Neale Hurston Resource Page
Phillis Wheatley Lesson Plans and other Teaching Resources

4 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed this article. While I had heard and read about Ms. Gorman’s poem for the inauguration, I really appreciated the highlight of other African American Poets. This is something that really was brought to my attention while reading this; I knew every single poet on the list of European Poets, but yet I couldn’t identify a single one from the black poets list. While this is really unfortunate that I had not learned about it while I was in school, it is something that I can keep in mind when I am teaching in my own classroom to draw upon other poets rather than just the European famous.

  2. I think it is key to note how in so many aspects, black people are overlooked. I hear so often “do not make everything about race” (from white people, of course) when there is a clear racial issue is so many aspects of life. I had heard of every single white poet listed and many of their poems, but I have not heard of even half of the black poets or poems you gave resources to. Part of this I believe is my own fault for not educating myself more, but after reading and looking into some of the black poets- their words are so beautiful, it makes me upset I was not given assignments in school to analyze their poetry instead of only white authors. I feel so proud of Ms. Gorman and am hopeful that the next generation of teachers (including myself) will begin to educate our future students on these poets and no longer let them fall between the cracks.

  3. I watched the inauguration but unfortunately missed hearing Amanda Gorman’s poem. Hearing so many people rave about how amazing her poem was inspired me. It makes me think abut when I was in School I don’t recall reading many poems or stories from black authors or any people of color. This is something that as I start teaching next year I want to change. I would love to have as many books in my classroom from authors of all different races, religions, and sexes to be able to represent all of my students. After the year we have had I found it so relieving to not only have a new president in office but to hear a talented, young, black poet being represented on such a large platform. I have heard of Maya Angelou but I can’t remember any of her poems. I think that as a teacher we can and should do better to have these available and read to our students all year long.

  4. I didn’t get to see the inauguration live but looked up videos later in the day. When I watched Amanda Gorman recite her poem it gave me chills. I watched it several times and then searched the internet for other poems by her. When I picked up my 16-year-old daughter from school later that day, we both went on and on about how moving her poem was. It was especially meaningful to my daughter who is biracial, to see such a young woman of color up there and inspiring so many. She herself writes poetry so it made it even that much more inspirational to her. I think as educators it is important to teach poetry from all races, cultures, and religions. I think with the introduction of Amanda Gorman it can help to get students excited about poetry. It is then important to go back and look at other black poets and how their poetry is still so relevant today. It is important to make this apart of the regular curriculum, not just mentioned for Black History Month. The article gave some great resources for educators to use in the classroom to help with this.

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