14 Amazing Black Poets to Know About Now
Their words cut to the core of the human experience and the realities of being Black in America.
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Poets are interpreters
There are many types of poetry in the world—from love poems that will make you swoon to nature poems and protest poems that examine the world around us in very different ways. But all poems, even funny poems and short poems for kids, have a common thread: The poets who write them are interpreters. They take an honest look at events and emotions and boil them down to some essential truths. That is particularly true for Black poets, who write about myriad topics, of course, but also often bring the realities of race and racism into their work.
The following 14 Black poets are elevating the conversation around social justice, equality, education, and hope. Their insightful, sometimes harsh, and often inspiring poems provide essential perspective, offer a way to make sense of the seemingly inexplicable, and serve as catalysts for change. Trust us: You will be thinking about their words long after you finish reading this story and their poetry, similar to these novels, memoirs, and other books by Black authors you won’t be able to put down.
Poetess and Harvard graduate Amanda Gorman may be just 23 years old, but she has already used her gift with words to elevate America’s consciousness. As the nation’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, Gorman personifies the possibility of the next generation of leaders. Her poem “The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country,” which she read at President Biden’s inauguration, speaks of hope, the past, the future, and the reality that “a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming a president, only to find herself reciting for one.” With a regal presence and poise well beyond her years, Gorman—who recently became the first poet to grace the cover of Vogue—does not shy away from using her poetry to speak about the social injustices happening in the world today.
While there are many poems by Amanda Gorman you’ll want to read, here’s a memorable excerpt from her inaugural poem:
“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…”
With his new book Bleed: Poems, Aaron Pitre is putting himself on the map as a Black, queer poet who is not afraid to place generational trauma, sexual orientation, shame, and neglect front and center. Pitre uses his poetry to empower others to embrace the pain that they may be feeling in order to heal.
An excerpt from the poem “A Half-Life” reads:
“To keep myself safe,
I’ve learned to blur the lines around an identity prohibited from fully forming.
Half of me repeatedly under the influence,
seized until I learned to give it away for free. Or what I thought was love…”
C.I. Aki weaves together words that tug at the core of your soul and show that there’s so much more to the human spirit than just examining racial identity. His forthcoming book of poetry, The World Black, Beautiful, and Beast, delves into themes of racial bias, discrimination, and injustice, but it also poses the question, “Is this all Black poetry is to function as?” This notion is powerful because Black artists have often grappled with the conflict between their artistry and social responsibility. His work poignantly and beautifully exemplifies the concept that the soul cannot be solely defined by social and ideological constructs.
Aki’s poem “The Sad Love Songs” reads:
“what point should i make of justice
if they say beauty and love are dead?
if I plan to drink to the oblivion of dancing,
why then must i wait on the coming
there are red rooms filled with seductive
questions, playing music painful and pensive,
with corners of moving diagonal lights, sharing
lyrics you can sing but not explain, refrains
you can repeat but not remember. interested,
i wish to attend…
but I am being ushered to the white open scene
crowded with well-spoken gestures towards conclusions
and commonalities incommensurate of the mutual
and the deferring.
but it is said that everything is political;
therefore, i must follow…”
Nzinga Lejeune gives a voice to the disenfranchised and marginalized, using her platform in activism for education reform, water rights, and creating an empowered and informed curriculum for schools. Her documentary short, #WaterInjustice, brought awareness to the Flint water crisis, gentrification, and capitalism’s effect on Detroit’s predominantly Black communities. Her newest book of poems, Plandemic, features 60 poems that tackle America’s health crisis and systemic racism within the country’s infrastructure.
An excerpt from one poem reads:
“Variant changing genes;
23 times binding on cells
inmates infected with air
mentally physically isolated
mandated mask to house arrest
so fact checkers fact check the fact
chinese virus, corona virus, virus attacks
but now we have a new strain songbirds singing
fear rises of covid-23 dominating the planet in fear crises
as we shop, clear shelves of alcohol, tissue, and bleach
mandatory vaccination is the only solution seeked
travel restrictions forced testing crises on immune
systems in warp speed; people can’t breathe
taking vitamin d and c no hydromorphone
killing super antibodies, John Hollis gene
billionaire funded covid-19
In The Butterfly Effect: A Poetic Call to Action, Butterfly Thomas covers the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and it’s an essential book for understanding race relations in America. Bold, audacious, and historical in context, many of her poems have the lingering essence of trauma, awareness, and discernment that pierce through any forms of denial that may exist about America’s past and present. In the context of the current social, cultural, and political climate, this book provides the perfect allegory for how everything is so intricately connected.
The foreword to The Butterfly Effect reads:
“I love words.
I love word play.
I love simile and metaphor, double entendre and innuendo.
I love reference and inference.
I love writing poetry.
Khalisa Rae is a Black poet, journalist, and educator who uses her passion for the written and spoken word to inspire, educate, and uplift others, particularly BIPOC women. With her monthly reading series, WomenSpeaks, which she co-curates with Gaia Rajan, Rae aims to provide a space for poets and writers at various stages in their careers. While Rae’s essays, poems, and other works have been published in several publications, her debut poetry collection, Ghost in a Black Girl’s Throat, was just released.
An excerpt from her poem “Mermaids & Ghost Ships” delves into ancestral trauma and showcases the reality that blood carries memory. It reads:
“Ask Olaudah Equiano, he will tell you of the bloodlines scattered.
The Atlantic carrying the putrid waste, the bile & disease, the screams of women and children who were raped purely to pass the time.
Their cries muffled by the crashing of the waves.
Whips, boots, jaws and teeth settled beneath the hull; each limb proof that we were stolen cargo.”
Reginald Dwayne Betts
We hear a lot about the problems with the prison system in America, but we often don’t take the time to fully understand the lasting impacts that incarceration has not only on former inmates but also on families and communities. Reginald Betts speaks to that truth, which he knows a lot about. He went to prison for carjacking when he was 16, but after his release, he attended Yale Law School. He went on to write the poetry collection Bastards of the Reagan Era, the memoir A Question of Freedom, and, most recently, Felon: Poems, which provides a candid glimpse into the experiences of those who are “released” back into the world.
An excerpt from his poem “Secrets” reads:
“At two a.m., without enough spirits,
spilling into my liver to know enough to call my tongue to silence,
Miles learned of the years I spent inside a box: a spell, a kind of incantation I was under;
not whisky, but history: I robbed a man…”
Renee Daniel Flagler
Renee Daniel Flagler is a New York-based professor, writer, and speaker who uses her platforms to inspire girls and women to step into their purpose; she also helps provide literary opportunities and scholarships for them. Her 2014 novel Society Wives has been optioned for a film. Flagler’s forthcoming book of poetry, Asylum, touches on themes of race, bias, injustice, and hope. It’s “the telling of autobiographical experiences of a singular Black woman, mother, and professional; and a haven for the joys and pains of being African American and woman in America.”
Douglas Kearney is a poet, librettist, and performer, and he has received honors including the National Poetry Series and Whiting Awards. His most recent book, Sho, explores “Black vernacular traditions,” history, folklore, a “play on words,” and the interconnectivity—or maybe even the disconnectivity—between entertainment and violence.
An excerpt from “Sho” reads:
“Some need some Body
or more to ape sweat
on some site. Bloody
purl or dirty spit
hocked up for to show
who gets eaten…”
Aside from being a poet, D.B. Mays is an educator who is committed to promoting education equity for students in disenfranchised communities. She has spent many years advocating for these communities, as well as shifting the narrative in the educational system by writing curriculum and staff development content for departments of education. Her newest book of poetry, Black Lives, Lines & Lyrics, was inspired by the experiences of her own students, as well as her own.
Her poem “The Little Girl on Lillibridge Street” delves into the impact of racially motivated assaults on girls and women of color in disenfranchised communities. It reads:
“And where there was once a bright-eyed, little, brown-skinned girl,
there is now a restless soul who has nowhere to go…”
The author of Houses and Crawlspace is out with a new collection of poems called Waterbaby, which turns to “water” and its symbolism for grief. Her publisher, Copper Canyon Press, says, “Waterbaby is a book about Blackness, language, and motherhood in America; about the ancestral joys and sharp pains that travel together through the nervous system’s crowded riverways; about the holy sanctuary of the bathtub for a spirit that’s pushed beyond exhaustion. Waterbaby sings the blues in every key, as Wallschlaeger uses her vibrant lexicon and varied rhythms to condense and expand emotion.”
Wallschlaeger definitely has a fluid, ethereal knack for expressing not-so-pretty truths, like in the poem “I’d Come Back from the Grave to Celebrate the End of Capitalism.” Here’s an excerpt:
“A sweating flowerbed where my fantasies are thinning.
I’m a light sleeper, too many asters, taxonomies of sound.
I’d come in blue wide leg Jncos like I was meant to be.
Curious, maladaptive, suffused with unrationalized hope.
I’d listen and be with my people. No one is concerned with
honoring success because the concept of success is gone…”
Jasmine Mans is a spoken-word poet, and her brand-new poetry collection, Black Girl, Call Home, centers on race, feminism, and identity from the perspective of a queer, Black woman. Mans has established herself as a well-respected voice that does not shy away from using words to cut to the heart of a matter. In the following poem, “Footnotes for Kanye,” she highlights the mindset of “otherness” toward Blackness that some successful Black men adopt towards Black women, in addition to the disconnect that happens to many people of color as they assimilate or climb the ladder of success. Here’s an excerpt:
“You look hungry,
like that girl don’t make you no fried chicken
or macaroni & cheese
like she don’t feel you on the inside,
like you haven’t had a home-cooked-meal
since your momma died.
You look like
you lost the Psalm in your own song—
like you want to talk to God
but you’re afraid
because ya’ll ain’t spoke in so long …”
Michael Kleber-Diggs’ debut poetry collection, Worldly Things, will be published in June. In this insightful work, which has already won the 2021 Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, Kleber-Diggs examines institutional racism and the many ways in which America consistently and systemically fails “those who call it home.”
His poem “America Is Loving Me to Death” speaks to the country’s current social and political climate—especially with the recent deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Daunte Wright. It reads:
“America is loving me to death, loving me to death slowly, and I
Mainly try not to be disappeared here, knowing she won’t pledge
Even tolerance in return. Dear God, I can’t offer allegiance.
Right now, 400 years ago, far into the future―it’s difficult to
Ignore or forgive how despised I am and have been in the
Centuries I’ve been here—despised in the design of the flag
And in the fealty it demands (lest I be made an example of).
In America there’s one winning story—no adaptations…”
Morgan Harper Nichols
Already a Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly best-selling author, Morgan Harper Nichols’ forthcoming poetry and essay collection, How Far You Have Come: Musings on Beauty and Courage, aims to inspire others to be who they are and embrace the possibilities of the present and future with childlike wonder. A description of the book by her publisher states: “Morgan weaves together personal reflections with her signature poems to share her journey to reclaim moments of brokenness, division, and pain and re-envision them as experiences of reconciliation, unity, and hope.” Nichols is known for dispersing honest reflections and hope. One of her unnamed inspirational poems includes this line you won’t be able to stop thinking about:
“You are free to
have peace without