quill pen and inkwell on book of poetry to celebrate black history month

This selection of poems to celebrate Black History Month takes a look at the beautiful and insightful work of some of the most famous Black poets! Poetry’s figurative and stylistic nature allows people to capture their emotions, ideas, and memories in a compelling way. Because reading poetry is one of the best ways to gain insight into others’ perspectives, reading the work of Black poets throughout history can help you learn about and honor Black history.

If you’re an educator looking for ways to celebrate Black History Month in the classroom, take a look at our selection of FREE Black History Month educational activities

Table of Contents:

Short Poems by Black Poets

There’s always enough time to enjoy a short poem. These quicker reads from some of the most acclaimed Black poets take considerably less time to read (and analyze) than the longer ones we feature later. Since they’re short and sweet, these poems are great options for teachers looking for poetic Black History Month classroom activities like warm-ups or independent ELA work.

“After the Winter” by Claude McKay

The natural world has always been a source of inspiration for writers. This is especially true for poets, whose craft is perfect for describing the sensory experience of nature and/or using nature as a metaphor. Claude McKay (1890–1948), a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance who published several poetry books and novels while traveling the world, calls on the natural world in “After the Winter”. 

McKay utilizes various types of consonance and an ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GHGH rhyme scheme to develop a positive rhythm. His stylistic choices, together with personification and imagery of peaceful landscapes and birds, enhances his message of hope and optimism for a brighter and warmer future—a spring that comes after winter.

“We’ll turn our faces southward, love,

     Toward the summer isle

Where bamboos spire the shafted grove

     And wide-mouthed orchids smile.” 

(Lines 5-8)

“Democracy Poem #1” by June Jordan

Jamaican-American writer, teacher, and activist June Jordan (1936–2002) advocated for civil rights and women’s rights with the power of the written word. Her poems don’t typically follow a rhyme scheme; Jordan wrote in free verse that better conveyed the pacing and emotional experience of her poems.

Democracy Poem #1” is less than 40 words long but split into three stanzas, inserting significant spacing between short phrases, and it’s unpunctuated. These stylistic choices, together with the subject matter of standing in line to vote, help convey June Jordan’s message about how democracy can be exclusionary.

“Tell them that I stood

in line

and I waited

and I waited

like everybody

else”

(Lines 1-6)

“BLK History Month” by Nikki Giovanni

This next poem is a perfect fit in this collection of poems to celebrate Black History Month, since it directly and clearly addresses why Black History Month is important. Award-winning poet Nikki Giovanni (1943–) gained recognition as a figure of the 1960’s–70’s Black Arts Movement who advocated for racial and gender equality through her many poetry books, novels, and children’s books

Nikki Giovanni’s “BLK History Month” compares the importance of Black History Month to the way nature provides nourishment for the growth of a seed into a plant, but without the use of figurative language like a simile or metaphor. Instead, Giovanni uses a lesser-known device called a “counterfactual conditional” (or “rhetorical conditional”) as the form for her comparison—in order to demonstrate that Black History Month is viable, she describes what reality would be like if it wasn’t viable.

“If Black History Month is not

viable then wind does not

carry the seeds and drop them

on fertile ground…”

(Lines 1-4)

“For the Consideration of Poets” by Haki R. Madhubuti

Poets across centuries have used verse to share their opinions about what poetry should or shouldn’t be like. Haki R. Madhubuti (1942–), a Black Arts Movement poet, founded the largest independent, Black-owned United States press (Third World Press).

Madhubuti used repetition, wholly lowercase letters, and free verse to frame his rhetorical questioning in “For the Consideration of Poets”—in simple language, he asks where the poetry of protest is. By addressing other poets, asking for “poetry of resistance”, and criticizing “official speak void of educated thought”, he develops a message about the responsibility of poets.

“where is the poetry of doubt and suspicion

not in the service of the state, bishops and priests,

not in the service of beautiful people and late night promises,

not in the service of influence, incompetence and academic

         clown talk?”

(Lines 1-6)

More Select Short Poems for Black History Month

If you haven’t had your fill of bite-sized poems from incredible African American writers, take a look into these gems!

Longer Poetry by Black Writers

While the above short poems are great when you don’t have much time for reading and analysis, their brief length doesn’t allow for the majestic storytelling or shifting meanings present in the pieces below.

“The Haunted Oak” by Paul Laurence Dunbar

One of the first African American writers to earn national and international distinction, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) developed a vast repertoire of essays, poetry, and novels over the course of his lifetime. His influence is impressive—Maya Angelou even titled her autobiography (and the next poem in this selection) after a poem of Dunbar’s, citing his works as a major inspiration for her writing.

The form of “The Haunted Oak” is simple: 16 stanzas of four lines each follow an ABCB, DEFE, GHIH (etc.) rhyme scheme to convey this sad story. Dunbar uses anaphora and alliteration to emphasize select aspects, and his use of figurative language enhances the imagery, bringing the events to life and developing a strong emotional impact.

“My leaves were green as the best, I trow,

   And sap ran free in my veins,

But I saw in the moonlight dim and weird

   A guiltless victim’s pains.”

(Lines 5–8)

“Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou

A magnificent storyteller, writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou (1928–2014) is regarded as one of the most famous poets in all of American history. Her body of published work spans more than fifty years, including seven acclaimed autobiographies and movie television screenplays. Recently, the United States Mint began shipping quarters featuring Angelou’s image!

As we mentioned above, Angelou’s autobiography (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) and this poem were both inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”: “I know what the caged bird feels, alas!…I know why the caged bird beats his wing…”. The symbolism of the caged bird versus the free bird is potent and persists across her work.

Caged Bird” is six stanzas—the first two are seven lines, the fourth and fifth are four lines each, and the third and sixth stanzas are eight identical lines. As there is no set, consistent rhyme scheme across the stanzas, this poem is technically written in free verse; however, Angelou integrates a few rhymes that enhance the rhythm of the piece. 

“The caged bird sings   

with a fearful trill   

of things unknown   

but longed for still   

and his tune is heard   

on the distant hill   

for the caged bird   

sings of freedom.”

(Lines 15–22)

“Heritage” by Countee Cullen

Another celebrated voice from the Harlem Renaissance, Countee Cullen (1903–1946) developed an approach to writing that mirrored his identity as a mixed race individual—he stuck to a Eurocentric style inspired by classical and English literature while focusing on or integrating themes of race and identity. 

Growing up in an epicenter of Black art and activism, Cullen was also part of the movement to reclaim African arts and heritage during an era of European colonization of Africa. “Heritage” speaks to this movement, questioning what it means to be part of the global African diaspora. In this poem, Cullen writes in lengthy stanzas with a strict AABBCCDDEE… rhyme scheme, crafts impeccable imagery with precise vocabulary, and uses religious allusions to discuss morality and parallel his Western upbringing with his African heritage.

“What is Africa to me:

Copper sun or scarlet sea,

Jungle star or jungle track,

Strong bronzed men, or regal black

Women from whose loins I sprang

When the birds of Eden sang?”

(Lines 1–6)

“When You Thought Me Poor” by Alice Walker

Writer and activist Alice Walker (1944–) has advocated for civil rights and women’s rights for decades. Her novel The Color Purple won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is one of the most famous books of the late 20th century. 

When You Thought Me Poor” highlights the economic aspect of racism, speaking from a more modern perspective than many of the above poems in this collection of poems for Black History Month. The free verse structure allows Walker to emphasize certain phrases throughout her commentary on the way her success changed people’s perception of her as a Black woman. She draws on the natural world to describe her glowing success in the face of criticism and prejudice.

“Woe is me: I became a

success! Blackness, who

knows how?

Became suddenly

In!”

(Lines 13–17)

More Long Poems to Celebrate Black History Month

Want some more poems to analyze, or looking for something different than what we featured above? Take a look at some (just as incredible) runner-ups for this article:

Sonnets by African American Poets

The sonnet is a popular 14-line form of poetry that originated in Italy with the three-stanza Petrarchan sonnet (which follows the rhyme scheme ABBA, ABBA, CDECDE or CDCDCD). Later, William Shakespeare created the English (or, “Shakespearean”)  sonnet, composed of three quatrains and one couplet (following the rhyme scheme of ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG). The purpose of the final couplet is to be a “twist”, new information that shapes the reader’s perception of the poem as a whole.

While many African American poets (particularly those of the Harlem Renaissance) incorporated rhythms of jazz and blues into their work, others utilized the sonnet and other classical forms of poetry to contrast their unique perspectives and messages against the traditional form. Sometimes, poets also bent the rules of the sonnet, integrating their own rhyme schemes into the classic form.

“First Fight. Then Fiddle.” by Gwendolyn Brooks

The first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize (won for her poetry book Annie Allen), Gwendolyn Brooks is one of the most influential and celebrated poets of the 20th century. Her Chicago upbringing inspired her poetry (particularly In the Mecca, one of her most famous works), which often shines a light of grace on the conflicts and struggles in the lives of everyday people, especially Black women.

In “First Fight. Then Fiddle.”, Brooks mostly embraces the Shakespearean Sonnet (her only variation is that she uses the Petrarchan sonnet rhyme scheme up until the final couplet) to address the relationship between politics and art, inspired by her experience with the Civil Rights Movement and the Harlem Renaissance and/or Black Arts Movement. Brooks snakes alliteration throughout the piece as she draws on medieval or renaissance-era imagery and diction to develop a timeless poem.

“But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate

In front of you and harmony behind.

Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.

Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late”

(Lines 9–12)

“November Cotton Flower” by Jean Toomer

This next piece defies some rules of the sonnet while retaining the tone of the form. Jean Toomer came from both white and Black heritage, but he resisted being classified by race and spent considerable time in both white and “colored” societies. His poetry, considered to be a significant contribution to the cultural movement of Modernism, focused on hopes for racial unity and the African-American experience. Much of his work consists of uplifting poems that have an optimistic focus and tone.

Fun fact: Jean Toomer graduated from a school named after another poet featured in this collection: Paul Lawrence Dunbar!

November Cotton Flower” sticks to the structure of the Shakespearean Sonnet, except for the AABBCCDD… rhyme scheme Toomer implements. Through precise imagery and diction, Toomer paints a picture of the rural South, confronted with a cold winter that makes the flourishing landscape barren. The final two lines reveal Toomer’s metaphor and make apparent the many connections between the wintertime South and the Civil Rights Movement.

“Boll-weevil’s coming, and the winter’s cold,

Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,

And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,

Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow…”

(Lines 1–4)

“Childhood” by Margaret Walker

Margaret Walker (1915–1998) grew up reading the work of figures in this poetry collection, and she worked alongside others (like Gwendolyn Brooks) under the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930’s. Her work received nationwide acclaim for her visionary perspective—especially her first novel Jubilee, which took thirty years for Walker to write.

Walker also draws on the ABBA CDDC… rhyme scheme in place of that of the traditional Shakespearean sonnet to recount a childhood memory in “Childhood“. She uses refined imagery to clearly paint a picture of an evening in the South, contrasting her perspective with what she saw miners experiencing. Like Jean Toomer’s “November Cotton Flower”, “Childhood” also draws connections between the South itself and the experiences of African Americans; however, the two poems have sharply different tones.

“When I was a child I knew red miners

dressed raggedly and wearing carbide lamps.

I saw them come down red hills to their camps

dyed with red dust from old Ishkooda mines.”

(Lines 1–4)

“Sonnets xx” by Langston Hughes

The work of Langston Hughes (1901–1967) is probably what comes to mind first when considering poems to celebrate Black History Month. On top of writing novels, non-fiction books, and children’s literature, Langston Hughes was one of the earliest innovators of jazz poetry and a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. 

Sonnet xx” is distinct from the other featured sonnets in this collection because it completely sticks to the rules of the Shakespearean sonnet. In fact, Hughes fully embraces the language of Shakespeare-era English—if you didn’t know that Langston Hughes wrote this poem, you would likely guess that it was Shakespeare! Of course, hidden within these formatting choices is the poem’s central meaning: self-acceptance, something Hughes emphasized throughout his work.

“POOR soul, the centre of my sinful earth–

My sinful earth these rebel powers array–

Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,

Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?”

(Lines 1–4)

More Sonnets by Black Poets

Looking for more sonnet poems to celebrate Black History Month? The following are more famous sonnets by African American poets.

More Reading and Writing Resources at Piqosity! 

We hope you found this collection of poems to celebrate Black History Month insightful, compelling, and enjoyable. If you’ve had your fill of poetry and want to find your next novel, peruse our collection of incredible books by Black authors for readers of any grade level!

If you’re an educator, we hope these poems have been resourceful for your classroom, both in their historical significance and in the opportunities to sharpen key ELA skills for students. As part of one of our newest ELA courses designed for 11th Grade English Language Arts instruction, we’ve developed an entire unit focused on Frederick Douglass’ memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Teachers looking for a month-long text-based unit will find this perfect for their needs, as it includes unique questions on every chapter, as well as focused question sets on critical excerpts. 

As testing season approaches, you can find English, reading comprehension, and math help in our ELA and math courses! These are full-length courses available online through our app and can be purchased separately or received for free when bundled with our ISEE test prep courses.

Thank You, and Happy Black History Month from Piqosity!