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Celebrate Black poetry and add these influential figures from California to your reading list.
7 min read
February 25, 2021
It comes as no surprise that California is home to a diverse array of accomplished poets. The Golden State’s literary geniuses remind us that works by Black poets are masterful in form and inspirational in their nature. Not only have they boldly proclaimed their triumphs and struggles, but they’ve also captured the complexity of community, love, and humanity along the way.
Whether they’re telling stories about loss, joy, grief, beauty, or racism, there’s no denying that the contributions of Black poets have irreversibly enriched the literary world. Celebrate Black poetry and add these influential figures to your reading list.
Amanda Gorman made everyone’s heads turn when she delivered “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration of President Joe Biden in 2021. Born in Los Angeles, Gorman enjoyed reading and writing as a child and was further encouraged by her mother to pursue her passion. Though the Black female poet had a speech impediment during her childhood, she viewed it as a gift and a strength rather than a crutch.
Soon, she began writing poetry focused on issues of oppression, feminism, race, marginalization, and the African diaspora. Her first poetry book, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, was published in 2015. In no time, Gorman became the first person to be named National Youth Poet Laureate and the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history. After the 22-year-old African-American poet recited her inauguration poem, she received international acclaim and two of her books became best-sellers.
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Black female poet Wanda Coleman was the “unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles.” Also known as the “L.A. Blueswoman,” the African-American poet received critical acclaim for her remarkably perceptive and creative work. The characters in Coleman’s poetry, prose, and books aim to bring racism, poverty, and social inequalities to light. Coleman is unapologetic when it comes to her art—the controversial subjects illustrate the lives of the underclass and the disenfranchised.
As she became more active in the L.A. poetry community, Coleman drew inspiration from poets like Henri Coulette, Charles Bukowski, and Diane Wakoski. The Black poet’s most famous works include Mag Dog Black Lady, Imagoes, Heavy Daughter Blues, and African Sleeping Sickness: Stories and Poems.
Born in Massachusetts and raised in California, Tracy K. Smith served as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States from 2017 to 2019. The Black poet has four poetry collections: Duende, Life on Mars, Wade in the Water, and The Body’s Question—the latter of which received the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for the best first book by an African-American poet.
Smith also won the Pulitzer Prize for Life on Mars and the James Laughlin Award and the Essense Literary Award for Duende. She has even written a memoir titled Ordinary Light—she was inspired to write it after her mother passed away in 1994.
Morgan Harper Nichols draws inspiration from everyday conversations and stories to create her art. The Black poet and L.A. native initially started out as a musician and songwriter but eventually shifted her focus to poetry. In 2017, she came up with the idea of writing personalized letters for strangers, with the goal of writing 1 million poems in her lifetime. Now, people submit stories on her website, and she responds back with a short letter of encouragement along with visual art.
The famous Black poet has since gained a loyal audience. Her debut book, Storyteller—featuring 100 poems written as letters—was released towards the end of 2017. Harper Nichols’ most popular book is All Along You Were Blooming: Thoughts for Boundless Living, which is a striking collection of illustrated Black love poems and prose. Whenever you stumble upon a Black-owned bookstore, make sure to check out this Black writer’s works and include them in your reading list.
Al Young is an African-American poet, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and professor with an original voice. The Poet Laureate of California has a strong passion for music—namely jazz and blues—which is eminently apparent in his works. Young also frequently alludes to his life in California through his poetry.
His first poetry collection was published in 1969; it was titled Dancing. Since then, he’s written many notable works, including The Song Turning Back Into Itself, The Blues Don’t Change: New and Selected Poems, and Something About the Blues: An Unlikely Collection of Poetry. The Black poet received the American Book Award twice—once for The Sound of Dreams Remembered: Poems 1990-2000, and the other for Bodies & Soul: Musical Memoirs.
Thea Matthews—a Black, Indigenous, Mexican-American poet, scholar, and activist—was destined for greatness. Born and raised in San Francisco, she attended UC Berkeley and ended up teaching June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program there.
The Black poet’s first collection of poetry, Unearth [The Flowers], depicts a journey through the various stages of grief and healing—all while celebrating life. Upon reading the book, you’ll realize that each written poem is a hymn for resilience detailing a mind, body, and flower that meet at the crossroads of the personal and the political. If you’re compiling a list of Black History Month poems to read, Unearth [The Flowers] is a great addition.
Shonda Buchanan first started writing poetry at the age of 8. The mixed Black female poet used words to express how she felt as a young girl. Since then, Buchanan has published five books as well as several poetry collections; she’s also taught writing workshops at multiple universities, including a few in the Golden State. She claims that she strives to express herself in a world that sometimes doesn’t want to hear what Black women or women of color are feeling.
Buchanan was nominated for the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and the Library of Virginia Book Awards for her poetry collection Who’s Afraid of Black Indians? The book showcases Buchanan’s Black-Indian heritage and celebrates her ancestry. The California poet is also known for Equipoise: Poems from Goddess Country and Black Indian.
There isn’t a single person in the world who hasn’t heard of the iconic Maya Angelou. The Black poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist is an influential figure who helped shape the Golden State. Angelou’s poems are so epochal that they’re considered the anthems of African Americans. Named the “Black woman’s poet laureate,” this prolific writer used poetry to cope with her traumas.
Her works explore several themes, including love, loss, music, discrimination, racism, and struggle. Like her autobiographies, Angelou speaks on behalf of her entire race and gender in her poems. Angelou recited one of her most well-known works, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Alice Walker is one of the most prominent Black poets and writers who coined the term “womanist”—meaning a Black feminist or a feminist of color. While she is best known for the novel The Color Purple, Walker is also an exceptionally talented poet whose works focus on the treatment of African-American culture.
The African-American poet and Northern California resident published Once, her first book of poetry, in 1968. All the poems from the book were written during her senior year at Sarah Lawrence College and during the time she spent in East Africa afterward—the works explore the themes of life, loss, and love. Her most famous poetry collection is The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers, which is composed of 60 poems.
Originally from San Francisco, Tongo Eisen-Martin is a Black poet, educator, and movement worker whose writing centers on human rights, issues of mass incarceration, and extrajudicial killings of Black people. His most famous work is Someone’s Dead Already, which was published in 2015 and earned him a California Book Award nomination. The collection of striking, complex, and polyphonic poems result in a labyrinth of doubt, insight, threat, and survival.
Eisen-Martin has educated people in several detention centers and designed curricula for oppressed people’s education projects in different countries. “We Charge Genocide Again”—his most recent curriculum regarding the extrajudicial killings of Black people—is used as an educational and organizing tool across the nation.
Black female poet June Jordan is one of the most widely published and highly acclaimed Jamaican-American writers of her generation. The bisexual poet, essayist, teacher, and activist first started writing poetry when she was only 7 years old. Throughout her career, she produced 27 volumes of poems, essays, libretti, and work for children. She explored issues of gender, race, immigration, and representation in her works. Her writings are often autobiographical, too.
Considered one of the leading figures in the mid-century American social, political and artistic scene, the former Berkeley resident used conversational English to discuss racial identity, inequality, political oppression, and more. Kissing God Goodbye: Poems 1991-1997, New Days: Poems of Exile and Return, and Haruko: Love Poems are a few of her many poetry collections.
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