5 Black Women Poets You Should Know

Takshi Mehta 8 March 2022

This International Women’s Day, we celebrate Black Women Poets whose striking poems redefined and revolutionised poetry

You may write me down in history, with your bitter, twisted lies. You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust I’ll risewrote Maya Angelou in 1978, and the lines strike a chord till date, for that is the power of poetry. 

This International Women’s Day, we celebrate Black Women Poets whose striking poems redefined and revolutionised poetry.

Audre Lorde

Credit: Elsa Dorfman, Wikimedia Commons

I have a duty,” Lorde once stated, to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigating pain.

Born in New York City, to Grenadan immigrant parents, Audre Lorde was as she would herself say, a ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ and ‘dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism and homophobia’

Known for her passionate commentary on lesbian feminism, Lorde wrote fervently about love, and the complexities of childbirth and homosexuality.

Cables To Rage (1970) was her first formal expression of her homosexuality, which features Martha, a poem where she openly confirms her lesbian orientation.

"Known for her passionate commentary on lesbian feminism, Lorde wrote fervently about love, and the complexities of childbirth and homosexuality"

However, Lorde never confined herself to one topic or theme, instead she wrote about everything ranging from racial discrimination to intersectionality.

Her 14-year long battle with cancer finds itself documented in The Cancer Journals (1980) a monumental piece of work in her illustrious career. In that she examines, the medical profession from a feminist lens, while also shedding light on her tumultuous experience with the disease.

Oscar Wilde, in his book The Soul Of Man Under Socialism, wrote that “Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known” and if there’s any artist who has manifested these words beyond excellence then it is Audre Lorde.

In a time, place and circumstance where being stereotyped was the most natural course of action, Lorde’s refusal to be categorized, irrespective of whether it was socially, or literary, demonstrated her willfulness to come across as an individual rather than a cliche-ridden stereotype.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Credit: John Matthew Smith, Wikimedia Commons

Richard Wright, the author of Native Sons, wrote about Gwendolyn Brooks to an editor at Harper & Brothers who had asked for his opinion on the work of the Chicago poet. Wright responded by writing, Miss Brooks is real and so are her poems.In 1949, Gwendolyn Brooks published Annie Allen, the book that won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, making her the first African-American to win the prestigious award.

That year, in contention with Ms. Brooks was Robert Frost ( by that time, already a four-time Pulitzer winner ), and William Carlos Williams who was an old friend and colleague of Alfred Kreymborg, a poet and member of the Pulitzer Prize Poetry Jury.

Despite these challenges, it was Brooks who bagged the award in the end for her ‘volume of great originality, real distinction, and high value’ as Henry Canby, a member of the jury claimed.

When asked by her editor about what made her write, Annie Allen, Miss Brooks claimed that she wrote, “to prove to others (by implication, not by shouting), and to such among themselves who have yet to discover it, that they are merely human beings, not exotics”.

Gwendolyn Brooks, was an exceptional and powerful voice of 20th century, that wrote about the everyday life of urban Blacks, and had an unwavering grasp of the reality.

June Jordan

Over a career that produced over twenty-seven volumes of poems, June Jordan was a fierce and committed Jamaican-American poet. Her devotion towards political activism, and human rights was reflected starkly in her work.

In an interview with Colorlines, she says that “poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth” and that was a belief she held extremely dear throughout her illustrious career and life.

She used Black English extensively in her writings as an expression of her culture, while encouraging young Black writers to do the same and treat it as a legitimate form of expression instead of believing it to be a ‘broken version’ of another language.

Her faith and pride in her Black identity was what defined her not only as a literary personality, but also personally.

Wanda Coleman

Known as the ‘unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles’, Wanda Coleman was an author of over 20 poetry books that explored the themes of living below the poverty line, racism, outcast status and more.

Tony Magistrale in the Black American Literature Forum wrote that Wanda Coleman, like Gwendolyn Brooks before her, has much to tell us about what is it like to be a poor Black woman in America.

"Known as the ‘unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles’, Wanda Coleman was an author of over 20 poetry books that explored the themes of living below the poverty line, racism, outcast status and more"

Coleman was distinctive in her style of writing, in a manner that often led her to become engrossed in controversies. Her unsettling tone, and unapologetic attitude, often separated her from her colleagues, but it was this fearlessness that makes her legacy unquestioned and extremely significant. Her work illuminated the downtrodden, and forced her readers to confront the injustice that surrounded their worlds.

Phillis Wheatley

Born in West Africa, and sold into slavery at the mere age of seven or eight, Phillis Wheatley has perhaps led the most troubled life in the list.

Enslaved in the household of the commercialist John Wheatley, who had educated her later on after discovering her talent, Phillis was one of the most prominent literary figures in pre-19th century America. She was the first African-American author of a published book of poetry.

Her most notable work, the poem On Being Brought From Africa to America published in her 1773 poetry collection Poems On Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was one of the very few times where she wrote about her slavery. The poem explains young Wheatley’s experience of being enslaved and brought to American colonies in 1761.

Given her circumstances, it is an even more exemplary feat to have achieved what Phillis Wheatley has achieved. Her disdain for slavery, and use of art to abolish the institution is well-known, and must be revered even today, for all that is symbolises.

Read more: Book review: Run Rose Run

Read more: Books to brighten your 2022

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter