On Thursday, October 17, we celebrate Black Poetry Day! Initially celebrated in 1970 at New York Public Library’s Huntington Library Branch on Long Island, Black Poetry Day awards us a chance to celebrate and recognize African American poets, old and new.
The inspiration for Black Poetry Day was the birth anniversary of Jupiter Hammon, long-considered to be the first published African American poet. In 1761, Hammon published “An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries.” The first written poem by a person of African descent in the British Colonies, however, is generally acknowledged to be “Bars Fight,” by Lucy Terry. In the 1746 poem, Terry describes an ambush by Native Americans on white colonists.
Terry and Hammon are of course remembered alongside the likes of Phyllis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar, as well as the Invisible Poets; Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century. Early on, black poetry in the United States was religious in nature, touching on topics such as salvation and liberation. As time went on, poems expanded to include more fervent demands for freedom and justice.
Notable 20th century poets with Chicago connections include Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Fenton Johnson, Arna Bontemps and Margaret Walker, many of whom gathered at CPL’s George Cleveland Hall Branch or South Side Community Art Center. Others came later, including Third World Press founder and Black Arts Movement poet Haki Madhubuti.
Today, we can rejoice, cry, laugh and marinate in the words of the youth who perform at the annual Louder Than a Bomb events or at CPL’s open mic events. We relish the flow of Nate Marshall or take flight with Eve Ewing or Jamila Woods. Some might even consider an artist like Chance the Rapper to be a poet in his own right. What do you think?
For more 20th and 21st century black poetry recommendations, check out our Black Poetry Day booklist.
Want to learn more about Chicago's black poets? Take a look at some of the more poetry-centric materials in the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection at Woodson Regional Library, including the papers of Useni Perkins, Maria Mootry, Alice Browning and the Heritage Press Archives.
Do you have a favorite poem by a black poet? Please share your favorites in the comments!