These past few months have been difficult even for those of us who haven’t been sick or lost loved ones or been laid off, and on top of the coronavirus pandemic there have been a spate of tragic killings of Black people by police, as well as other racist incidents like the confrontation in Central Park, culminating in ongoing nationwide protests. Unfortunately, there is nothing new about these killings. The only thing that has changed is that people in power are actually beginning to pay attention to them.
My White peers and I are all working to better educate ourselves about White supremacy, racism, and the legacy of slavery in the United States. I have come across some terrific resources out there compiled by Black activists and artists, like this list of anti-racism resources compiled by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein, this anti-racist book list from the Books Are Magic bookstore in Brooklyn, this list of racial justice organizations from the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, and the Community Justice Exchange’s directory of community bail funds across the country working to release protestors from jail.
As my contribution to the conversation, I’d like to share with you a list of Black poets who are living and working today, and who could use your support. I find that poetry continues to be one of the most salient ways in which people articulate their experiences with oppression, violence, and trauma. And for readers like us, poems–compared to intimidating history textbooks or longform journal articles–are bite-sized, leaving time and energy for contemplation during and after reading.
This list is by no means exhaustive; instead, I chose to focus on younger, up-and-coming Black poets, as well as Black poets whose work has profoundly touched me. At the end of this post, I’ll include a handful of resources if you’re looking to do a deeper dive into Black poetry. Please feel free to comment to share poems by Black poets that have touched you as well!
Black Poets You Should Be Reading
- Hanif Abdurraqib was born in 1983 in Columbus, Ohio, where he grew up and lives to this day. He often writes about music, soccer, and pop culture. Start with his poem “all of the black boys finally stopped packing switchblades,” in Winter Tangerine: “the bodies of black boys thrash against what / little life they have left tethering them to the earth / and isn’t that what we’ve always been fed?” Or with “just like that, a new black child is born to replace the buried one” in the Adroit Journal: “no one calls the murdered boy a boy and so i imagine i, too, have always been a man. never anyone’s child. even when I was small and knew nothing of this violence that ransacks our eternal youth.” Abdurraqib’s most recent poetry collection is A Fortune for Your Disaster (Tin House Books). Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.
- You might recognize Elizabeth Alexander from President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration ceremony. She was born in Harlem in 1962. She has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and has received many awards for her writing. Start with her poem “The Venus Hottentot” about Sara Baartman, a South African Khoikhoi woman whose body was featured as a freak show attraction in Europe in the early 1800s: “He complains / at my scent and does not think / I comprehend, but I speak // English. I speak Dutch. I speak / a little French as well, and / languages Monsieur Cuvier / will never know have names.” Then buy her 2012 New and Selected Poems, Crave Radiance (Graywolf Press).
- Joshua Bennett is a professor at Dartmouth, and his first poetry collection, The Sobbing School (Penguin), was a National Poetry Series selection in 2016. Start with his poem “Owed to the Durag”: “a long-lost colleague / at Princeton who once reached wide-eyed / for my high top fade before a swift rebuke, / marked by my striking his wrist as if some large / though distinctly non-lethal mosquito, surely a top six / proudest moment of anti-colonial choreography / I have dared call mine in this odd, improbable / life I hold to my chest like a weapon.” Dr. Bennett’s next poetry collection, Owed, will be published this September, and is available for preorder now here. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
- Jericho Brown just won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry this year for his latest book, The Tradition (Copper Canyon Press), so it’s obviously a must-read. Brown grew up in the South, and still lives there today, where he is a professor at Emory University. Brown writes about racism, homophobia, sexual violence, HIV/AIDS, religion, and American systems of oppression. Start with his poem “The Tradition”: “Summer seemed to bloom against the will / Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter / On this planet than when our dead fathers / Wiped sweat from their necks”; or his illuminating interview last year with Krista Tippett for the NPR show and podcast On Being. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
- Cortney Lamar Charleston grew up in Chicago, and now lives and writes in New Jersey. He is the poetry editor for the Rumpus. His first and most recent poetry collection, Telepathologies (Saturnalia Books), was published in 2017. Start with his poem “‘… Everyday Something Has Tried to Kill Me and Has Failed'” in Waxwing: “Maybe hipsters have moved into this neighborhood, / made it safe, as danger always begins, or I’ve breathed / in the legacy of industry for too many years, / to the point this economy of blood must collapse.” Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
- Tyree Daye is from central North Carolina, like me, and when I read his first and most recent poetry collection, River Hymns (American Poetry Review), it felt like a homecoming. He is a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, my alma mater, and his next book is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press this year. Start with his poem “From Which I Flew” in Virginia Quarterly Review: “We have nowhere to go, but we’re leaving anyhow, / by many ways. When they ask, Why / you want to fly, blackbird? Say, // I want to leave the South / because it killed the first man I loved / and so much more killing.” Follow him on Twitter.
- I was extraordinarily lucky to study with Camille T. Dungy at Colorado State University in graduate school. Start with her poem “Frequently Asked Questions: #7,” which you can read and hear read aloud by Tracy K. Smith (more on her below!) on her podcast The Slowdown here: “Then he is holding his throat // the way we hold our throats when we think we are going to die. / I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. He is crying. My God. What they did to us.” Follow Dungy on Instagram, then buy her latest poetry collection, Trophic Cascade (Wesleyan University Press), in which “Frequently Asked Questions: #7” appears.
- Safia Elhillo is a Sudanese-American poet who grew up in Washington, DC and currently studies at Stanford University. Start with her poem “From ‘Girls That Never Die'”: “[what if i will not die] // [what will govern me then] // [how to govern me then].” Her first and latest poetry collection, The January Children (University of Nebraska Press), came out in 2017. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
- Eve Ewing is a sociologist as well as a poet and writer. Her most recent poetry collection, 1919 (Haymarket Books), takes on the Chicago Race Riot that took place during the summer of that year. Dr. Ewing is a professor at the University of Chicago. Start with her poem “I Saw Emmett Till This Week at the Grocery Store”: “looking over the plums, one by one / lifting each to his eyes and / turning it slowly, a little earth, / checking the smooth skin for pockmarks / and rot, or signs of unkind days or people….” Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
- I have had the absolute pleasure of hearing Ross Gay read from his poetry and nonfiction in-person. Gay often writes about gardening, basketball, oppression, joy, and gratitude. He is a professor at the University of Indiana. I won’t include nonfiction for anyone on this list but Gay, because his essay collection from last year, The Book of Delights (Algonquin Books), is exactly the kind of book you need to read right now–trust me. Also start with his poem “A Small Needful Fact”: “Eric Garner worked / for some time for the Parks and Rec. / Horticultural Department, which means, / perhaps, that with his very large hands, / perhaps, in all likelihood, / he put gently into the earth / some plants….” Gay’s next poetry collection, Be Holding (University of Pittsburgh Press) will be published in September and is available for preorder now here.
- Terrance Hayes was born in Columbia, South Carolina, and is now a professor at New York University. His poetry has garnered all sorts of praise, from a National Book Award to a Whiting Writers Award. In his 2018 poetry collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin), every poem is a sonnet, and each one has the same title. Start with one of them here: “But there was never a black male hysteria / Breaking & entering wearing glee & sadness / And the light grazing my teeth with my lighter / To the night with the flame like a blade cutting / Me slack….”
- Kamden Hilliard is a poet whose craft and playful mastery of language I sincerely admire. Originally from Hawaii and the West coast, Hilliard is the author of three chapbooks, which are like mini poetry collections. Their most recent chapbook, henceforth: A Travel Poetic (Omnidawn), came out last year. They will soon begin serving as the Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Writing and Publishing in Cleveland, Ohio. Start with their poem “ERROR 404 BINARIES NOT RENDERED” in Sixth Finch: “multi / culturalism day, crossdress / day, drag day, black history / month, girl’s day– permitted / forms 4 resistance.” Follow them on Instagram and Twitter.
- Donika Kelly‘s most recent poetry collection, Bestiary (Graywolf), was the winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize; find out more about Cave Canem at the end of this post! Dr. Kelly is a professor at Baruch College in New York City. Start with her poem “On Statistics” at Rove Poetry: “what’s worse, / a friend asks, to be in the dark / alone and woman and black or / black and a man, alone, / which is another way of asking, / what’s worse: death or dying.” Follow her on Twitter.
- Robin Coste Lewis is currently the poet laureate of Los Angeles. Her first and most recent poetry collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus (Knopf), was the first poetry debut by a Black writer to ever win the National Book Award. Start with her poem “Math”: “…you and your sister find together the courage to do the math: of all the boys whom you had known as children, at least eighty-percent were all either missing, in jail, or dead. Blood on the streets, bullets in the walls, the police always flying overhead. In your head. You thought it normal. When boys disappeared, were shot, killed, cuffed or thrown onto a black and white hood for simply walking down the sidewalk. Or asking merely: What have I done? Normal.”
- At the 2019 AWP Conference, one of my favorite panels was on how to give a good poetry reading by Angel Nafis, Hieu Minh Nguyen, and Leigh Lucas. Nafis blew the roof off the building. Her poetry has a deep soul-joy driving it. Start with “Woo Woo Roll Deep” up at BuzzFeed: “Gio the 3rd grade teacher / in Bed-Stuy use to end her emails / ‘bet you love could make it better.’ / A week after the 314th police killing this / year, Jenna mixes up a tincture of charcoal, / lemon, and lavender in little spray bottles. / Hands them out to us after burgers in Harlem.” Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
- Morgan Parker‘s poetry is funny and insightful and devastating all at once. I taught several of her poems from the 2017 collection There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Tin House Books) to my undergraduate students at Colorado State University. Start with her poem “The President Has Never Said the Word ‘Black'” in the New York Times: “The president be like / we lost a young boy today. // The pursuit of happiness / is guaranteed for all fellow Americans.” Or her poem “ALL THEY WANT IS MY MONEY MY PUSSY MY BLOOD” up at LitHub: “Okay so I’m Black in America right and I walk into a bar. / I drink a lot of wine and kiss a Black man on his beard. / I do whatever I want because I could die any minute. / I don’t mean YOLO I mean they are hunting me.” Then buy a copy of her latest, Magical Negro (Tin House Books). Parker lives in Los Angeles. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
- I reviewed Maya Phillips‘s first and latest poetry collection, Erou (Four Way Books), for Colorado Review a little while back. Spoiler alert: it’s amazing. Buy it right now. Phillips was born and raised in New York, where she still lives and works as the arts critic fellow at the New York Times. Start with her poem “Haunt” in Wildness: “Because there are so few hobbies left / to the dead, my father gives himself this: / his usual route, the Queens-bound F / to Continental, where he walks with the living / to work.” Follow her on Twitter.
- Khadijah Queen is seriously one of the most impressive people in the poetry community. She is a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the author of several books. Start with “I want to not have to write another word about who the cops keep killing” at LitHub: “…when my beautiful brown boy is laughing in the room down the hall eating caramel gelato and not cleaning his room and I want to not think about my dead brother every time the police kill another of us and then get to pose in front of flags and lie to the cameras like the truth don’t keep….” Dr. Queen’s newest book of poetry, ANODYNE (Tin House Books) is forthcoming this August and is available for preorder here. Follow her on Twitter.
- Claudia Rankine writes poetry, plays, and essays. Her 2014 poetry collection Citizen: An American Lyric won many awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and the NAACP Image Award, and was the only poetry collection to ever make it to the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. Citizen is a necessary read for all Americans–yes, that means you. Rankine is a professor at Yale University. Start with “from Citizen, VI [I knew whatever was in front of me was happening]”: “I left my client’s house knowing I would be pulled over. I knew. I just knew. I opened my briefcase on the passenger seat, just so they could see. Yes officer rolled around on my tongue, which grew out of a bell that could never ring because its emergency was a tolling I was meant to swallow.”
- Alison C. Rollins grew up in St. Louis, but now lives and works in Colorado as a librarian. Start with her poem “Why Is We Americans” in Poetry magazine: “We is hooded ghosts / and holy shadows roaming Mississippi / goddamned. We is downbeats and / syncopation’s cousin. We is mouths / washed out with the blood of the lamb.” Then buy a copy of her first poetry collection, which just came out last year, Library of Small Catastrophes (Copper Canyon Press). Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
- You might recognize Warsan Shire‘s poetry from Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade. Shire is a Somali-British poet and writer whose family immigrated to the UK with her when she was a baby, and she was named London’s first Young Poet Laureate in 2014. You can buy an audiobook of her first poetry pamphlet, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, here. Start with her poem “The House”: “Show us on the doll where you were touched, they said. / I said I don’t look like a doll, I look like a house. / They said Show us on the house. // Like this: two fingers in the jam jar / Like this: an elbow in the bathwater / Like this: a hand in the drawer.” Follow Shire on Twitter and Instagram.
- If you don’t know about Danez Smith‘s poetry, you’re welcome. They grew up in Minnesota, where they still live today. Smith is the author of three acclaimed books of poetry, most recently, Homie (Graywolf Press). Start with their poem “not an elegy for Mike Brown” in Split This Rock: “…isn’t that what being black is about? / not the joy of it, but the feeling // you get when you are looking / at your child, turn your head, / then, poof, no more child.” Follow them on Twitter and Instagram.
- Tracy K. Smith was the US Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019. Check out her terrific podcast The Slowdown, on which she features a new poem every weekday. Her 2011 poetry collection, Life on Mars (Graywolf Press), won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, but you might also be interested in a slim but arresting anthology she put together in 2018, American Journal: Poems for Our Time (Graywolf Press). Start with her poem “Declaration,” which you can also hear a recording of here: “He has // sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people // He has plundered our– // ravaged our– // destroyed the lives of our– // taking away our…”
- Natasha Trethewey is biracial. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning book Native Guard (Mariner Books) was one of the first contemporary poetry collections I ever read. Trethewey grew up along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Like Tracy K. Smith, Trethewey also served as the US Poet Laureate. Her most recent collection, Monument (Mariner Books), includes new and selected poems. Start with “Incident,” an incredible pantoum about when the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in her family’s front yard: “At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree, / a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns. / We darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps, / the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.”
If you’d like to further support Black poetry, consider donating to the Cave Canem Foundation (pronounced KAH-vey KAH-nem), a nonprofit founded in 1996 by two Black poets “to remedy the under-representation and isolation of African American poets in the literary landscape” and serve as “a home for the many voices of African American poetry” in addition to their commitment “to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets,” according to their website. So many of the amazing poets on this list have received essential financial and artistic support from Cave Canem. It’s a fantastic organization. You can donate to Cave Canem through PayPal here.
For further reading, consider the fantastic BreakBeat Poets series from Haymarket Books, which includes volume 1, The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop; volume 2, Black Girl Magic; and volume 3, Halal If You Hear Me, edited by Safia Elhillo, who’s on this list!
Two more amazing anthologies you should consider buying or checking out from your local library: Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (University of Georgia Press) edited by Camille Dungy (she’s on this list!), an amazing collection of Black ecopoetry, and Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Triquarterly), which just come out a few months ago and includes so many of the poets on this list as well.
Thank you for reading. Please keep sharing and buying and uplifting the writing of Black poets, whose voices are essential for all Americans to hear in order for us to do the work of purging racism from our society.
Be well out there, and take care of yourselves.