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What are the Best Poems about the Black Experience in America?

best inspiring, most popular and most iconic poems written by leading black and African American poets

As a nation, we remain in a moment when many people continue to earnestly try to learn more about how black people experience life in America. And many of us who are black are in search of solace, inspiration and reminders of our heritage and the legacy of our forbearers. There are several ways to do that effectively. One is by reading poetry. Our correspondent Abbie Martin Greenbaum has gathered a list of some of the best inspiring, most popular and most iconic poems written by leading black and African American poets. Here you will find voices from many generations of writers, including some who are creating brilliant work today. Any one of these would be perfect poems to read right now to better understand the lived experience of African Americans. And to celebrate the laureates who give voice to our community.

Poems to read now to better understand the black experience in America

Unlike any other form of art, poetry is able to express the inexpressible. It can take an emotion or idea, and through a complex alchemy of language and imagery, transform something ephemeral into something concrete.

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For this reason, poetry exists as an essential tool for gaining empathy and for understanding another person’s experiences. Many of the giants of literature in the black community wrote poetry – sometimes exclusively and sometimes as part of their broader oeuvre. And many would say that rap lyrics are their own essential form of poetry – but that’s for a future post.

What are the best most popular and inspiring poems by Black poets about their experience in America?

In the meantime, here are 15 poems written by African-American poets, all of which speak to the experience of being black in America in different ways.

The best poems by black poets. Courtesy Photos.

What are the best most popular and inspiring poems by Black poets about their experience in America? Courtesy Photos.

Our list can be consumed in small bites – but if you’re voracious for popular and inspiring poems written by Black poets in America, by all means go straight for the magnificent and comprehensive 2020 collection African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song edited by Kevin Young. It is the most extensive collection of work by African-American poets ever published, and for those in search of truth, beauty and inspiration, it’s an essential read.

The best poems about the black experience in America

Here’s our short list of exemplary and iconic poems written by black poets about the experience of African-American people in the United States, from before its founding to the present day.

1. American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin [But there never was a black male hysteria] by Terrance Hayes.

A recipient of the MacArthur Grant, and winner National Book Award for Poetry, poet Terrance Hayes was born in South Carolina in 1971. He has since published numerous volumes of poetry, including the collection that holds this sonnet, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. The book contains seventy sonnets with the same title, all of which explore what it means to be American.

The best books of poetry by black poets about the African-American experience

“But there was never a black male hysteria

Breaking & entering wearing glee & sadness

And the light grazing my teeth with my lighter”

Read the rest here.

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2. A Brief History of Hostility by Jamaal May.

May is the author of two poetry books, Hum and The Big Book of Exit Strategies, and his work can also be found in 2014’s Best American Poetry anthology.

best poems black experience

“In the beginning

there was war.

The war said let there be war

and there was war.

The war said let there be peace

and there was war. “

Read the rest here.

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3. Ballad of Birmingham by Dudley Randall.

Born in 1914, Dudley Randall was the founder of the Broadside Press, a publication that allowed young Black poets to showcase their work. A pioneering poet himself, Randall is best known for this piece, written in response to the 1963 white supremacist attack on the 16th Street Church.

best poems and poets about the black experience in America

“Mother dear, may I go downtown

Instead of out to play,

And march the streets of Birmingham

In a Freedom March today?”

Read the rest here.

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4. Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith.

A writer across many mediums, Patricia Smith is the author of multiple award-winning poetry collections. Published in 2016, Incendiary Art: Poems is a four-part volume highlighting the brutal violence so often enacted upon black men and women by the police and other law enforcement agencies. Smith wanted her work to center the voice of the mother, a perspective she felt was too often ignored, even by other African-American poets.

“The city’s streets are densely shelved with rows

of salt and packaged hair. Intent on air,

the funk of crave and function comes to blows

with any smell that isn’t oil – the blare

of storefront chickens settles on the skin

and mango spritzing drips from razored hair.”

Read the rest here.

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5. Let America by America Again by Langston Hughes.

There are very few poets like Langston Hughes. Legendary Jazz poet and figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes helmed countless collections, novels, short stories, and plays. His poems provide an invaluable lens into black life in America. And perhaps the most iconic of them all is this one.

best poems by black poets about America

“Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain.

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)”

Read the rest here.

6. When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Martyr by Cortney Lamar Charleston.

Born outside of Chicago, Charleston discovered his love of poetry during his time at the Wharton School, at the University of Pennsylvania. He refers to his work as “a marriage between art and activism,” exploring themes related to race and gender, family and friendship.

“is surely a peculiar answer for any teacher to receive when

asking a kindergartner, but on second take, what word best

describes me, crossbreed of butterfly and Super Fly aesthetics,

other than peculiar?”

Read the rest here.

7. Hanging Fire by Audre Lorde.

Writer, activist, feminist, and icon, Audre Lorde confronts in her poetry all of the same injustices that she confronted within her life. This poem takes the perspective of a young girl going through adolescence, grappling with racism and sexism at a young age.

“Nobody even stops to think

about my side of it

I should have been on Math Team

my marks were better than his”

Read the rest here.

8. Still I Rise by Maya Angelou.

Though you have likely already consumed the peerless canon of Maya Angelou, it is always worth rereading one of her most famous poems. Here she writes on the theme of resilience, as she does in so much of her work.

“You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

Read the rest here.

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9. Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander.

Born in 1962 in New York City, Elizabeth Alexander rose to the spotlight as a writer of poetry and essays. Her body of work has made her one of the most revered American American poets today. When listing the most popular and inspiring poems written by Black poets, this is a must. Alexander wrote this poem for President Obama’s Inauguration, and famously read it aloud at the ceremony.

“Each day we go about our business,

walking past each other, catching each other’s

eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is

noise and bramble, thorn and din, each

one of our ancestors on our tongues.”

Read the rest here.

10. Dear White America by Danez Smith.

From Saint Paul, Minnesota, Smith is the author of three books, including Don’t Call Us Dead. Smith is the host of the Poetry Foundation’s poetry podcast and the founder of Dark Noise Collective. They identify as genderqueer.

“i’ve left Earth in search of darker planets, a solar system revolving too near a black hole. i’ve left in search of a new God. i do not trust the God you have given us. my grandmother’s hallelujah is only outdone by the fear she nurses every time the blood-fat summer swallows another child who used to sing in the choir.”

Read the rest here.

11. The Way We Live Now by Evie Shockley.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Shockley is the author of five poetry books, including semiautomatic, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. The work is a reflection on the many grotesque realities of life in America, but also offers to be a balm for processing such trauma. This poem appears within the collection.

“when the cultivators of corpses are busy seeding

plague across vast acres of the land, choking schools

and churches in the motley toxins of grief, breeding

virile shoots of violence so soon verdant even fools

fear to tread in their wake ::”

Read the rest here.

12. blk girl art by Jamila Woods.

A member of the Dark Noise Collective alongside Danez Smith and others, Jamila Woods is a singer-songwriter as well as a formidable poet. Her first album of music features artists like Chance the Rapper and Noname. Her work is included in the poetry anthology Black Girl Magic.

“Poems are bullshit unless they are eyeglasses, honey
tea with lemon, hot water bottles on tummies. I want
poems my grandma wants to tell the ladies at church
about.”

Read the rest here.

13. Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith.

Tracy K. Smith was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts and raised in Fairfield, California. She studied at Harvard University, where she joined the Dark Room Collective. She went on to receive her MFA from Columbia University. Her collection Life on Mars won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In 2017, Smith was appointed poet laureate of the United States and she remains one of the leading contemporary African-American poets.

In the title poem of her collection Wade in the Water, the poet describes a performance of the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters—who perform a ritual first performed by African slaves—and being transformed by watching it.

One of the women greeted me.
I love you, she said. She didn’t
Know me, but I believed her,
And a terrible new ache
Rolled over in my chest,
Like in a room where the drapes
Have been swept back. I love you,
I love you, as she continued
Down the hall past other strangers,
Each feeling pierced suddenly
By pillars of heavy light.
I love you, throughout
The performance, in every
Handclap, every stomp

Read the full poem here.

14. Mothership by Tracy K Smith.

In her 2022 collection, Such Color: New and Selected Poems, the full force of Smith’s writing throughout the course of her career comes into full view. More than two hundred pages long, the volume contains formidable poetry both old and new, speaking to the scope of Smith’s work. Mothership is one of the most powerful in this strong collection.

“You cannot see the Mothership in space,
It and She being made of the same thing.

All our mothers hover there in the ceaseless
blue-black, watching it ripple and dim

to the prized pale blue in which we spin—
we who are Black, and you, too.”

Read the rest here.

15. Nightstick [A Mural for Michael Brown] by Kevin Young

Kevin Young was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. He studied under Seamus Heaney and Lucie Brock-Broido at Harvard University and, while a student there, became a member of the Dark Room Collective, a community of African American writers. His first book of poetry, Most Way Home, was selected for the National Poetry Series by Lucille Clifton, who describes the collection as re-creating “an inner history which is compelling and authentic and American.” Young was the poetry editor of The New Yorker and the director of New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He is currently the Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Nightstick [A Mural for Michael Brown] is from Young’s collection Brown. In it, the poet takes as a starting point James Brown; John Brown’s raid; and Brown v. the Topeka Board of Ed. And meditates on all things “brown.”

A finger
is a gun—
a wallet

is a gun, skin
a shiny pistol,
a demon, a barrel

already ready—
hands up
don’t shoot—

arms
not to bear but bare. Don’t

dare take
a left
into the wrong

skin.

Read the entire poem here.

16. Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1987, Rita Dove is one of the best known and most beloved African-American poet. She served as the United States Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995. Her book-length cycle Thomas and Beulah is comprised of 44 poems; it’s the semi-fictionalized chronological story of her maternal grandparents.

The couple came to Ohio during the Great Migration of blacks from the South to the North during the early 20th century. The poet referred to the poems as “pearls on a necklace, in which each poem stands on its own. But together they form something greater.”

african-american poets

In Dusting, Beulah is tending to housework and lost in a reverie about a long-ago idyll.

Under her hand scrolls
and crests gleam
darker still. What
was his name, that
silly boy at the fair with
the rifle booth? And his kiss and
the clear bowl with one bright
fish, rippling
wound!

Not Michael—
something finer.

Read the entire work here.

17. The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman.

One of the most inspiring and popular recent poems by Black poets in America is one from a young superstar. Amanda Gorman stunned audiences with her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s 2021 inauguration – the youngest person to ever deliver a reading at an inauguration. A 2020 graduate of Harvard University, Gorman has served as the youth poet laureate for the city of Los Angeles, and recently released the bestselling poetry collection Call Us What We Carry.

“When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry. A sea we must wade.

We braved the belly of the beast.

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.

Somehow we do it.”

Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply   unfinished.”

Read the rest here.

18. The Ghosts of Women Once Girls by Aja Monet.

Aja Monet is a writer and activist from Brooklyn, New York. She came into the spotlight as the youngest-ever winner of the Nuyorican Poets Café Grand Slam, when she was only nineteen years old. Recently, she has been known for her work with the SayHerName campaign, and for her 2017 poetry collection, My Mother Was a Freedom FighterHere is an excerpt from her poem The Ghosts of Women Once Girls.

“somewhere a little girl is reading aloud
in the middle of a dirt road. she smiles
at the sound of her own voice escaping
the spine of a book. she feeds on her hunger
to know herself. she has not yet been taught
to dim, she sits with the stars beneath her feet, a constellation of things to come.”

Read the rest here.

19. Button Eyes by Nyarae Francis.

A sixteen-year-old youth poet from Los Angeles, Nyarae Francis was featured in The New York Times special project Young Black Poets. As well as writing poetry, she has written and directed a short film. Here is an excerpt from her poem Button Eyes.

“When I was 5, I believed God made people from

cloth and button eyes.

That we all start off as dolls

and would be dropped into a galaxy.

Each perfect star its own place in the sky,

I was created with wool.”

Read the rest here.

20. Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden.

Born in 1913 in Detroit, Michigan, the legendary Robert Hayden served as the first Black Poet Laureate to the United States, an office then known as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. He was also an author of essays and a renowned professor. Those Winter Sundays is perhaps his best-known poem.

“Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.”

Read the rest here.

21. The Children of the Poor by Gwendolyn Brooks.

We end our list of the best most inspiring, popular and iconic poems written by leading Black and African American poets about their experiences in America with a work by one of the most prolific and celebrated poets of the 20th century. Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas in 1917. She received the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection Annie Allen. As well as writing poetry, Brooks wrote several novels, taught poetry, and served as the US Poet Laureate from 1985 to 1986. Her work The Children of the Poor is one of the most famous.

“And shall I prime my children, pray, to pray?

Mites, come invade most frugal vestibules

Spectered with crusts of penitents’ renewals

And all hysterics arrogant for a day.”

Read this rest here.

The best most popular inspiring poems by black poets about their experience of life in America

Those are 15 of our favorite – and we think some of the best of all time – poems about black America by poets that help inform and speak to the African-American experience in all of its richness, depth and texture. What’s your favorite? Stay safe and strong out there, dear reader.

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Abbie Martin Greenbaum grew up in New York City and currently lives in Brooklyn, where she drinks a lot of coffee and matches roommates together for a living. At Oberlin College, she studied English and Cinema, which are still two of her favorite things, along with dessert and musical theater. She believes in magic.

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