Amanda Gorman, the youngest poet laureate to recite at a presidential inauguration, stunned the crowd with her meaning-filled and impactful word patterns and verse. Black poetry can be described as providing a uniquely crafted collection of words and rhythms which summarize the sentiments of the times or topics from the Black perspective. This post will share memorable moments in Black poetry in hopes of stimulating interest anew in reading these works to accompany us on our journeys now. The poetry of Amanda Gorman. Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, and Gil Scott Heron will be examined.
In her interview on CNN, Gorman also recited her personal mantra of inspiration. It was deeply connected to our history as African people. She said:
I am the daughter of Black writers,
we are descended from Freedom Fighters,
who broke their chains and changed the world
YEEESSS, I screamed when hearing our history lifted to the light. There are giants who came before us like Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, and Gil Scott Heron who have stood as sentinels verbally marking our triumphs and our trials.
In the classroom, I remember poetry as a topic that was dissected as alliteration, iambic pentameter, stanza, verse and theme to name a few. While trying to adhere to these definitions, I got lost in them. Creativity, however, isn't always this pre-constructed nor predictable. It just comes out in very unique ways that hold our attention. We've held several poetry events at Afriware Books, Co over the years and these constructs were never a part of our discussion afterwards. It didn't even matter if there was adherence or not as long as it expressed an idea that caused a unique resonance with the audience.
In fact, as a poet (years ago) myself who also participated and organized these events, it was in the abandonment of the accepted poetic rules and regulations that made it the most fulfilling, freeing and authentically exquisite. The most frequently commented upon characteristic mentioned was the poet's presentation; consisting of tone, volume, and to use a modern term, "swag." And some poets added music and beats and dance; the options are endless as an artform.
Let's analyze some poets in their ability to cause pause in our minds and hearts to connect with the words and meaning.
A line from Gorman's 2021 Presidential Innauguration poem called, "The Hill We Climb," reads "The norms and notions of what "just" is, isn't always just-ice" is a beautiful use of how the syllables of the word "justice" were taken apart to add emphasis to the fact that all do not experience "justice" the same even though the words sound the same. I guess the technical term for this is the use of "justice" and "Just is" as a homophone, but did this really matter? It just mattered that we all got it, right? There's a popular TikTok challenge which easily could be adapted to make this point; "Tell me you believe in justice without saying you believe in justice." That's in essence the goal of the poet. They tell you in a way that is so unique that they are defining it in real time and there is no advanced degree required nor special definitions needed to understand it. And yet, you got the essence of the message in all of its glory.
We all got, Gil Scott Heron's, "The Revolution Will Not be Televised."
Gil Scott Heron
In Scott-Heron's Introduction (press the play button above), he "facts",
"There will be no highlights on the eleven o'clock news,
and no pictures of hairy armed women liberationists and
Jackie Onassis blowing her nose,
The Theme Song will not be written by Jim Web or
Francis Scott Keys, Glenn Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash or
The Revolution will not be Televised."
In an imabic pentameter-less cookie cutter- musician's name-dropping way, Heron compares the raw and real with the stiff and conformed. Brilliant and beyond the scope of the poetic rules' text. You'll find his complete iconic poem, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" in a book re-published for his 70th anniversary. Heron passed on in 2011 and left a massive legacy that has inspired the world.
Afriware Books, Co hosted a poetry event for years around 1995 Our hostess for a few of those years was Virdajean Towns-Collins. She had a female character she embodied who would just comment and gossip on neighbors around town. She seemed to channel her character and had the audience in stitches. We enjoyed and appreciated the time and talents she shared with us; may she rest in power. We also hosted an event that was centered on Langston Hughes. Poets gathered to read his classic works for the entire month in Oak park in 2008. Langston Hughes was prolific in poetry and prose. Uniquely capturing the cultural times and tides was his specialty.
In Hughes' "I Too Sing America" he seems to laugh at racism and carve out a deserving place in the world. It reads,
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.
Tomorrow, I'll be at the table When company comes.
Nobody'll dare Say to me, "Eat in the kitchen," Then.
Besides, They'll see how beautiful we are
And be ashamed--
I, too, am America.
Does it rhyme, no. Does it have iambic pentameter, no. But it sings the song of so many who feel the inner pride and hope for tomorrow. Through our trials, poetry claims what should be rather than what is at present, and in so doing, will inspire some to keep on this journey and moving forward. Others, it will inspire to create a different path which does not culminate in the kitchen, but out the house. Black people are not a monolithic group, and that is ok. What is important is that the range of our thoughts are valid and express in unique ways.
Freedom words are captured by Nikki Giovanni for over 40 years. Even at the age of 77, she has a new book out called "Make Me Rain - Poems and Prose." At one time Giovanni was called, "Poet of the Black Revolution" of her early work which can be found in, "The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni."
Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman" has become this century's lyrics to our love song to Black Women. Recited at almost every school play during Black History Month, it exudes a pride and confidence in the beauty of Black Women. Angelou revived and raised the level of respect around poetry in general and Black poetry in particular when she recited "On the Pulse of Morning" at president Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993. She was the first poet invited to do so in that capacity since 1961and this catapulted her already exciting career into stratospheric heights.
Giovanni, Hughes, Heron, Angelou and now Gorman are all unique in their style. Each one sharing their perspective that resonates with Black people during times of joy and sorrow; times of laughter and ambivalence. Articulating the feelings that some are unable to share is a part of our humanity not often allowed to be seen or heard in mainstream media. The ideas expressed enable and re-activate our fullness, and our grace. Somewhere in the audio stream of words, you will find one that sounds like you, and that can bring about healing.
Thank you as always for reading this post. For more books on poetry, visit our category. If you found this post helpful, we'd also appreciate you supporting our Black owned bookstore, Afriware Books, Co.