The Best Of African American Poetry

Throughout history, centuries of oppression against African Americans have inspired some of the greatest poems of all time. These poems perfectly capture the emotions of those who were enslaved, ripped from their homes, or simply not provided with the same freedoms and privileges as everyone else. 

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Sympathy has been read by hundreds of millions since it was written, and you probably recognize the final line even if you’re not familiar with the entire poem: “I know why the caged bird sings!” The phrase was made famous by Maya Angelou, who was inspired to write Caged Bird.

Angelou didn’t simply write about what it was like to enslaved literally, but figuratively as well, and through stark contrasted with what it was like to be free — or to yearn for freedom. She described a “bird that stalks / down his narrow cage / can seldom see through / his bars of rage.” You might also recognize those lines, even if you don’t recognize the entire poem. Although her poetry uses imagery to show us the effects of slavery, most of it is figurative in the sense of generalization.

Phillis Wheatley wrote On Being Brought from Africa to America, a poem that still resonates with people today. She was born and died in the latter half of the 18th century, and is famous for not only her beautiful poems, but because she was one of the first African Americans to publish such a book of poetry — and while she was still very young at that. Perhaps more astoundingly, she was given her freedom shortly after its publication.

Langston Hughes wrote I, Too during the Harlem Renaissance in the early 1900s. His poetry bears in mind the struggles of African Americans growing up and surviving in the United States, and reminds readers that it was never easy. This is especially recognizable when he describes the impact of segregation.