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African American Poets

Setting the Standard

As with many areas of life for African Americans, acceptance and equality have been an issue. The Arts are no exception and therefore it is interesting to take a look at some of the significant contributions made by African Americans throughout recent history.

Gwendolyn Brooks was an unassuming girl born in Kansas in 1917. Her mother recognized a talent for writing at an early age and encouraged this love of literature and expression. Leading a fairly isolated life with a strict upbringing Gwendolyn had time to indulge her imagination and thus her creativity blossomed. Writing initially for the black community her work was variously published in local newspapers but by 1945 her first book appeared, followed in 1949 by ‘Annie Allen’ a series of poems centered on growing up black in Chicago. This work was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950 making Brooks the first African American to receive this prestigious accolade. Her writing continued to flourish as she published various works of literature alongside a successful teaching career. Her various encounters with people both black and white shaped her view of the world and impacted her writing style which became more free form and expressive over time. Gwendolyn set the bar high with her many achievements as a woman of color, receiving the role of poet laureate for the state of Illinois in 1968 and becoming the first African American to receive an Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1976.

Others Who Followed

Maya Angelou, born in 1928 in Missouri, is perhaps one of America’s best known and loved poets regardless of gender or ethnicity. She has a plethora of talent that expands across a multitude of disciplines from poetry and dance to activism. As an African American and a woman, she has been instrumental in addressing many of the social issues that continue to plague American communities, as well as speaking to the needs of women in general. The list of her theatrical and cinematic accomplishments is impressive, but the content of her writing is what speaks to the heart for so many people and will be her legacy I’m sure. Few will forget the poem she wrote and delivered at the inauguration of President Clinton entitled, ’On The Pulse of the Morning’ and without a doubt Maya remains one of the most diversely talented and influential artists of our time.

Etheridge Knight, like many accomplished artists, found his way to writing via a life course of turmoil and pain. Following stints in the army in Korea he became embroiled with drugs and finally in 1960 landed in jail for robbery. Whilst incarcerated Knight took to writing and discovered a talent for poetry, no doubt enhanced by his experiences to date. He corresponded with among others Gwendolyn Brooks and was encouraged to pursue this new path to great effect. Publishing his first work from prison Knight symbolizes the determination of the human spirit and gives hope of change in a dark world. Sadly, he succumbed to lung cancer in 1991 but his legacy and inspiration survives for those who follow.