And a celebration of Black writing
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” -James Baldwin
Do you know a writer by the name of James Baldwin?
He was an American essayist, novelist, and playwright whose unwavering passion for the subject of race in America made him one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.
And he is also, perhaps, my favorite writer of all time.
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Baldwin wrote about the Black and gay experience with searing honesty and vision throughout his life. His essays explored Black-white race relations, class systems, and American culture, among other controversial topics. He amassed popularity due to his unwavering dedication to the civil rights movement and its progress, to the point where he actively spent his time debating both white politicians and Black activists like Malcolm X. He was unflinchingly assertive, eloquent, and concise in his discussions, making him a prime target for the FBI, who labeled him a threat.
I learned about him for the first time while still in college; I even took an entire semester studying him. And throughout the whole course, I kept asking myself one question:
How come I had never heard of him before?
James Baldwin, to this day, is one of the most influential Black writers in history. And he is very rarely if ever, taught in our schools.
Why do you think that is?
Today, I wanted to dedicate my blog to some of my favorite Black writers and poets, James Baldwin included. I hope that when seeing this list, you will be introduced to at least one new writer you did not know before, perhaps even more.
For each writer, I'll tell you a little about them and then share some of their writing. Sound good? Lovely. First, we must talk about
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” - Baldwin speaking to LIFE magazine in 1963
I've already told you a little about James Baldwin's life, but let me share some of his works with you.
In 1955, he published a series of essays called Notes of a Native Son. Eight years later, Baldwin published another collection of essays, The Fire Next Time, perhaps his most influential work. In it, Baldwin suggested the best way to combat America's ignorance was by educating white Americans on the Black experience.
Perhaps my favorite piece of writing by James Baldwin is a novel titled If Beale Street Could Talk, a love story about two young Black people growing up in New York named Tish and Fonny. In it, Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. It is a beautiful story about affection, pain, loss, and, ultimately, hope.
Recently, this book was also made into a fantastic movie directed by Barry Jenkins, which, of course, I also have to recommend:
“Hold fast to your dreams, for without them life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.” – Hughes in Montage of a Dream Deferred, 1951
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1901. He was a playwright, poet, activist, novelist, and columnist known for innovating poetry and its relationship to music during The Harlem Renaissance.
For context, The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theater, and scholarship centered in Harlem, Manhattan, during the 1920s and 1930s.
Hughes' writing centered on the rises and falls, joys and hardships of working-class Black Americans. More than anything, he sought to bring brutal sincerity to the daily lives of Black working-class citizens, both by avoiding sentimental idealization and negative stereotypes. The result was nuanced, faithful, deeply musical recreations of Black life and its many frustrations.
Throughout his life, Hughes wrote several books, plays, and poems. Some of his most notable plays include Mulatto and Tambourines to Glory. However, Langston Hughes was most known for his poems.
The poem I would like to share with you is perhaps his most influential. It's his poem titled: "I, Too":
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
“I am a writer perhaps because I am not a talker.” ― Gwendolyn Brooks
Where do I even begin with Gwendolyn Brooks?
She's another one of my favorite poets.
She was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, and is one of the most highly regarded, influential, and widely read poets of the 20th century. Additionally, she was the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. She was a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (the first Black woman to do so) and the poet laureate of the State of Illinois.
Her works were strong reflections of the Black political consciousness and an even stronger reflection of the civil rights activism of the 1960s. Her first poetry collection was called A Street in Bronzeville (which she is holding in the picture above), published in 1945, and instantly brought her critical acclaim for its portraits of life in the Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago. In 1949, she published her second book of poetry, Annie Allen, about the experiences of a young Black girl growing up in Bronzeville. A year later, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Brooks described her poetry style as "folksy narrative," but she often experimented and varied the form of her poems. Today, the poem I want to share is one of my all-time favorites. It's titled "We Real Cool":
THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
"I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life's a bitch. You've got to go out and kick ass."—Maya Angelou
If there's a poet on this list that you recognize, I'd be willing to bet it would be Maya Angelou.
Born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou held a career in almost every artistic profession, including singer, dancer, actress, composer, Hollywood's first female Black director, writer, editor, essayist, playwright, poet, and civil rights activist.
While as a civil rights activist, she worked for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She also served as a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. She received several honors, including the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.
Her most famous work is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), Angelou's memoir about the longing of lonely children and the impact that intense bigotry has on growing up.
However, for the purposes of our discussion, she was, perhaps most importantly, a prolific poet who explored themes of love, loss, music, struggle, and racism. She has been referred to as the "people's poet," and you might know her from when she recited "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993:
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.
The Rock cries out to us today,
You may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.
“While we might feel small, separate, and all alone, our people have never been more tightly tethered. The question’s not if we will weather this unknown, but how we will weather the unknown together.”- Amanda Gorman's The Miracle of Morning
Born March 7, 1998, Amanda Gorman is the youngest poet on this list. She was born and raised in Los Angeles and eventually attended New Roads in Santa Monica and Harvard University.
In 2014 she became the first Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, and in 2017 she was named the first US National Youth Poet Laureate. Additionally, she founded a non-profit organization called One Pen One Page, where young aspiring writers can work on their writing and leadership skills. In 2021, she was selected by President Joe Biden to read her poem, "The Hill We Climb," at his inauguration.
Gorman's poems and art focus on issues of oppression, feminism, race, marginalization, and the African diaspora. Many of her poems focus on the impact of hope and healing and offer ourselves hope and laughter in communities of color, as well as how activism and art play a part in shaking the conventional power structures in American society.
Below is Gorman's "The Hill We Climb":
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.
We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.
And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose.
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true.
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.
That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemption.
We feared at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour.
But within it we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So, while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.
We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation, become the future.
Our blunders become their burdens.
But one thing is certain.
If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.
So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left.
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the golden hills of the West.
We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked South.
We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.
The new dawn balloons as we free it.
For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
These are just a few of the many, many, many Black voices that are out there. And if I were given the chance, I'd probably spend the next few weeks of my life compiling and sharing more of my favorite poems and works here for you to peruse.
However, I hope you found a new favorite poet here today. And if not, no worries. If you're interested in learning more, The Poetry Foundation has a list of Black poems, articles, and podcasts that explore African American history and culture that is definitely worth checking out. You can find that link here.
If you made it this far, feel free to let me know who your favorite Black writer is down below.
Until next time,