African American Poems: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

For hundreds of years, African-Americans have contributed to the art of poetry by writing verses, poems, and songs that touch on subjects ranging from humor to complex issues of race. Learn about famous African-American poets and their works in this lesson.

Poet and Didn't Know It

What are some of your favorite rhyming words? There's lots of potential to get a few funny lines - ''mutt'' and ''butt'' go together very well - but poetry can be a way to express something more than simple laughs or comparisons.

One of the most powerful uses of poetry is to use it to identify parts of society that are unequal. African-Americans have produced a number of famous poems over hundreds of years, many of which deal with topics like slavery, segregation (laws that previously restricted the rights of blacks), and unique aspects of black culture.

An African-American soldier recites poetry for Black History Month.
African-American woman reciting poetry

Starting Off

One of the first African-American poems we know of is actually older than America itself. Written by an African slave named Lucy Terry, the poem tells about the experience of a fight with Native Americans in Massachusetts.

Another black woman named Phillis Wheatley wrote a poem with the line ''first in peace,'' a phrase borrowed by George Washington to describe the United States' role in the world. In fact, George Washington wrote an invitation to Wheatley, saying that he would like to meet the woman who was ''so favored by the Muses.'' (Muses were inspiring figures from ancient myths.) Phillis Wheatley was well-known for writing a book called Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

Drawing of Phillis Wheatley, early black poet.
Picture of Phillis Wheatley

Many early black poets wrote frequently, or even entirely, about slavery. A slave named George Moses Horton wrote a book in 1829 named The Hope of Liberty while he was still the property of a slave owner in North Carolina. Horton had hoped to sell enough books to earn his freedom, but they never sold well enough. However, he became free at the end of the Civil War in 1865. Other black poets of the 1800s did better: a free black woman named Frances Harper sold 50,000 copies of her books.

20th Century

With the end of slavery after the Civil War, many blacks still faced discrimination, meaning unfair treatment, by white Americans. African-American poets continued to write about race issues and the inequality of blacks, though some wrote about black culture itself. A book of poems written by Paul Dunbar attempted to re-create the songs, hymns, and chants unique to African-Americans living in the South that would not be known elsewhere. One of the most famous black poets, Langston Hughes, wrote a number of poems (as well as books and plays) about the experience of African-Americans during the 1900s.

Maya Angelou at the inauguration of Bill Clinton.
Photo of Maya Angelou

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