19 Black Women Poets of Today and Yesterday | Women's History Month 2022
When I think of Black female poets, I think of Maya Angelou. I think of Audre Lorde. I think of Toni Morrison. While these women were some of the greats, regardless of their gender or race, they are joined by a ton of other great women. The poetry world might seem small, but it’s not as small as you think. There are tons of amazing Black female poets from the past and present, and we’re here to share them with you today. From the classics to newer poets like Jamilla Woods and Mahogany L. Browne, here are 19 amazing Black female poets to look into.
One can’t talk about poetry without talking about Phillis Wheatley and her contributions. She was the first African-American author of a published book of poetry. Born in the 1750s, you can imagine what her history looked like. Wheatley was born in West Africa before she was sold into slavery as a young child.
She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston who not only taught her to read and write, but they encouraged her poetry as well. It was her master’s son who sought to get her work published and her first work, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in London in 1773.
Before her death, she was emancipated from the Wheatleys, but her former owner's death left her in poverty. She died in 1784 at the young age of 31.
If you think “Black female poet,” the first name for many will be Maya Angelou. Singularly, she did so much for poetry as a whole. Born in Missouri, Angelou moved around before resettling back in St. Louis. Early childhood trauma left her mute for five years, but as we know, she eventually blossomed into a celebrated wordsmith.
Angelou has an endless number of celebrated works including the novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Her collection of great works include I Shall Not Be Moved, Phenomenal Women, and And Still I Rise.
Jessie Redmon Fauset
Jessie Redmon Fauset came from humble beginnings. The poet was one of seven children before the passing of her mother and the remarrying of her father. Both of her parents died young, and while she experienced poverty growing up, she attended a prestigious high school in Philadelphia. Graduating as their valedictorian, she had dreams of studying at Bryn Mawr College.
Because of the racial injustice at the time, they did not accept her and instead found her a scholarship to another university - Cornell. After gaining a degree in classical languages, she became a teacher and then a literary editor. Her work as an editor helped foster many names of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly Langston Hughes. Some works to look into are Rondeau and La Vie C’est La Vie.
Gwendolyn Brooks is another prolific name in poetry. Born in1917 in Kansas, her family moved to Chicago when she was just six weeks old. Brooks began writing at an early age and even began submitting her work to publications as a teenager. By the time she graduated high school, she was a regular contributor to The Chicago Defender. Her career would continue to grow from there.
In May 1950, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, making her the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize. Gwendolyn Brooks, without a doubt, helped open doors for other Black poets, male and female.
Nikki Giovanni’s journey begins in Tennessee before it would lead her to numerous states. She finally landed back in Tennessee when she began attending Fisk University as an early entrant.
After clashing with the Dean of Women, Giovanni was kicked out of the university before she was later asked to return. Soon after her graduation in 1967, she experienced the loss of her grandmother which led to her turning to write to cope.
These poems can be found in her collection Black Feelings, Black Talk. She would also play a major role in the Black Arts Movement which led to her being recognized and celebrated with an NAACP Image Award as well as a Grammy Award nomination for her poetry album The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection.
Elizabeth Alexander was born in New York City and raised in Washington, D.C. At just one year old, the future poet witnessed MLK’s I Have A Dream speech. Alexander’s youth continued with early education at Sidwell Friends School before she attended Yale University. Later, she would attend Boston University where she studied poetry and gained her Master’s in 1987.
Elizabeth Alexander furthered her education with a Ph.D. in English from UPenn. She published her first poems in 1990 and has continued to periodically release poems since then. Alexander has taught poetry at Yale University and chaired the African American Studies department. She is currently faculty at Columbia University and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Lucille Clifton was born in Depew, New York before her education took her to Howard University and ultimately back to the Buffalo area where she continued her studies at the State University of New York at Fredonia.
She worked as a claims clerk and literature assistant before she was introduced to community theater. Clifton’s poetry career began in 1969 when she published her first collection, Good Times, which was listed by The New York Times as one of the year’s best books.
She has since served as poet-in-residence and Poet Laureates for several colleges and universities. The poet has received an Emmy Award and was nominated for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.
Staceyann Chin, born in Jamaica, now lives in New York City. Her career truly began in 1998, and she is recognized as both an “out poet” and political activist. Demonstrating her writing chops, she co-wrote and performed in Russell Simmons’ Tony-nominated Def Poetry Jam while it was on Broadway.
She has numerous chapbooks and anthologies that demonstrate her work. In addition to her poetry, she has hosted Logo’s After Ellen and co-hosted Centric’s My Two Cents. She’s also had her work published in The New York Post and The Washington Post.
Born in Akron, Ohio, Rita Dove excelled in education early on in her life. She graduated from Buchtel High School as a Presidential Scholar and would later get her Bachelor’s Degree from Miami University and her Master’s degree from the University of Iowa. Her career is quite an amazing one.
She served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1987, making her the second African American to do so. To read some of her amazing poetry, check her collections like Sonata Mulattica, American Smooth, and Mother Love.
Cheryl Clarke was born and raised in Washington, D.C. Clarke’s education would find her attending Howard University where she received a B.A. in English literature. She would then earn her Master’s degree from Rutgers University.
Clarke continued her education at Rutgers and gain a Master’s in Social Work in 1980 and a Ph.D. in 2000. She has four collections of poetry, many of which explain her experiences as both a Black woman and a lesbian.
Two of her most notable poems include Lesbianism: an Act of Resistance and The Failure to Transform: Homophobia in the Black Community.
Mahogany L. Browne
Mahogany L. Browne is a poet who currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. Not only is she the Executive Director of Bowery Poetry Club, but she’s also the Artistic Director of Urban Word NYC and Poetry Coordinator at St. Francis College.
The poet has received several fellowships and is the author of quite a few works. Often writing on how society and social injustice affects women and children, some of her works are Woke: A Young Poets Call to Justice, Woke Baby, and Kissing Caskets.
Born in Chicago, Jamilla Woods is not only a poet, but she’s also a singer-songwriter. Woods is a graduate of Brown University, where she received a Bachelor’s degree in Africana Studies and Theater & Performance Studies. She released her first chapbook in 2012 entitled The Truth About Dolls.
When asked about her influences, she includes many of the names on this list like Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Toni Morrison. Woods is also known as a community organizer and singer.
She has worked with Chance the Rapper and has appeared on the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis song “White Privilege II.”
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Ava Monet is of Cuban-Jamaican descent. In 2007, she was the youngest poet to become the Nuyorican Poet Cafe Grand Slam Champion at the age of 19, and she has been the last woman to win since then.
She participated in the 2019 anthology New Daughters of Africa, where it features poems about the role of love and intimacy in freedom fighting. Some of her poetry that you can look into are My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter, The Black Unicorn Sings, and Chorus.
Audre Lorde is another poet on this list whose career precedes her. Lorde described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” The child of Caribbean immigrants, she grew up in New York City. Nearsighted to the point of being legally blind, Lorde taught herself to read and talk at the age of four.
Her mother also taught her to write around the same time. Lorde wrote her first poem when she was in eighth grade and the rest would be her story. She used her words to confront and address racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.
A hero for Black people and the LGBTQ+ community, she has received numerous accolades for her work. Her poetry can be found in books like The First Cities, Cables to Rage, and Between Our Selves.
Born in Birmingham Alabama, Sonia Sanchez was a leading figure in the Black Arts Movement. After studying at Hunter College and NYU, she would go on to become a teacher and activist. Naming influences like Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown, one can experience her poems in anthologies like 360 Degrees of Blackness Coming at You!
While you might recognize the name Alice Walker for her novel, The Color Purple, the writer is a celebrated poet as well. Born in Georgia, Walker would attend Spelman College before earning her degree from Sarah Lawrence. Her career began with her writing poetry and led to her releasing the popular novel The Color Purple in 1982.
The book would earn her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1982 as well as the National Book Award the year after. If you’d like to see her poetry, you can find them in collections: Once, Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth, and Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart.
Another Jamaican-born poet on this list, Rankine would go on to be educated at Williams College in Massachusetts and Columbia University. Rankine is extremely decorated and has had her poems published in many journals. Her most popular work is her book of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric.
It won both the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Award and the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. Rankine is also the winner of the 2015 NAACP Image Award in poetry. Lastly, her book Citizen is the only poetry book to be a New York Times bestseller in the nonfiction category.
Another woman who is known for her work outside poetry, you probably recognize Ntozake Shange’s name from the play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf.
Shange was born in New Jersey to an upper-middle-class family. Taking an early interest in poetry, Shange would attend poetry readings with her younger sister. She attended Barnard College at Columbia University where she got her B.A. and would earn her Master’s from USC.
Having received numerous awards including nominations for an Emmy Award, Tony Award, and Grammy Award, she is one of the most recognized Black female poets.
Toni Morrison is another great name in poetry.
Born in Ohio, Morrison’s education would take her to Howard University where she got her Bachelor’s in English, and Cornell University where she earned her Master’s in American Literature.
Her prolific career includes her becoming the first black female editor at Random House in the late 1960s. A decade later, Morrison would focus on her writing. One of her most celebrated works is her novel Beloved, which was made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.
Her works also include The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Soloman, and Tar Baby. She also received the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. After she died in 2019, she was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Black women continue to push the envelope in every single industry. They’re pushing themselves to the forefront of every imaginable field. You can’t talk about poetry without naming women on this list. In the comments, let us know some of your favorite poets, men and women.