African American Poetry – The Players, The Times, The Themes, The Struggle!


African American Poetry is a form of literature that is basically an expressive and colorful form of the emotions of the black and enslaved populations of America. Many of the themes of early African American Poetry revolve around issues such as slavery, murder, familial problems, and lifestyle. The tone of most of the literary works of this era entertain an emotional tone rather than reserved philosophical style. This allows the poems to be more personal and engaging. The journey of African Americans in America from the days of slavery until now can be traced through the history of these poems.

This genre found its roots during the 18th and 19th centuries with poets such as Phillis Wheatley and orator Frederick Douglass, reaching an early high point with the Harlem Renaissance. It continues today with well known authors such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Walter Mosley. Many of issues explored in African American literature are the role of African Americans within the larger American society, African American culture, racism, slavery, and equality.

One of the first most famous African American authors was poet Phillis Wheatley. She was well known for her book Poems on Various Subjects in 1773 which was published three years before American independence. Originally from Africa, Wheatley was captured and sold as a slave at the tender age of seven. She was then brought to America and owned by a Boston merchant.

At first she spoke no English, but by the time she was sixteen she had mastered the language. Her poetry won praises from many great leaders of the American Revolution, including George Washington. Despite this, many white people found it hard to believe that an African American woman could be so intelligent as to write poetry. Thus, Wheatley found herself in court trying to prove that she actually wrote her own poetry. Perhaps Wheatley’s successful defense can be regarded as a true recognition of African American literature.

Jupiter Hammon was another early African American author who was actually considered the first published Black writer in America for his poem “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries” in early 1761. He was well remembered for his Address to the Negroes of the State of New York in 1786. This speech also planted the idea of a gradual emancipation as a way of ending slavery. According to public records, Hammon remained a slave until his death.

Another great poet was Paul Laurence Dunbar who was known for his poem, “The Poet”. He wrote this a mere three years before his untimely death in 1906 at the age of 34. Dunbar was not only the most famous African American poet, but was also one of the most famous American poets, of his time. He was celebrated for his folk poetry about African Americans which was written in dialect–the “jingle in a broken tongue.”


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