Black Lives in Poetry

June 9, 2020

I don’t remember meeting or having a conversation with anyone black as I was growing up in Salt Lake City, even though I see a few African American faces in my high school yearbooks.  My friends were mostly white, but also included Greeks and Italians (considered exotic for the time and place), Japanese-Americans and Mexican-Americans.  What little I knew must have come from books, but I’m not sure which ones–To Kill a Mockingbird, at some point, a few others by white authors.  I was really curious to know what black lives were like, but I didn’t know where to look.  I had no sense of details, just the largest generalizations–slavery, prejudice, Jim Crow south, segregation.

I wanted to know what they wore, how the ate, how they dressed, what their houses looked like.  I think the first poem that gave me a glimpse, a little window into actual lives, was Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Bean Eaters.”  I could picture that couple, and their little apartment.  I liked them, and wanted to know more.  Sometime later, Robert Hayden’s poems did the same, then Lucille Clifton’s filled me with joy and anguish. I went back in time: Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Sterling Brown, Countee Cullen.  Then forward from them: Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Al Young, Nikki Giovanni.

Then all the way back to Phillis Wheatley’s poetry and terrible story.  She was kidnapped from her home in West Africa in about 1760,when she was eight years old, and brought to this country on a slave ship.  In Boston, John Wheatley purchased her–I can barely make myself type that–as a servant for his wife Susanna.  When they realized how intelligent she was they gave her a classical education and encouraged her to write.  She was the first African American woman to publish poems here, and her work was widely known.  Almost all of it is based on her education in western history and mythology, except for one piercing passage in a poem titled  “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth.”  I think these are the only lines in her work that speak out of that moment when a stranger stole her from her life and family, and out of the unbearable pain and loss that rang through the rest of her life.  I wonder if her work would have been so popular if she’d written more of her story.

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?


In recent years there’s a dazzling range of black lives in poetry, from Marilyn Nelson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Terrance Hayes, Natasha Tretheway, Elizabeth Alexander, Derek Walcott, Claudia Rankine, Carl Phillips, Ross Gay, Tim Seibles, Danez Smith.  The list goes on and on and on.  Here are just a few examples.



They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.

Gwendolyn Brooks


(there is a girl inside)


there is a girl inside.

she is randy as a wolf.

she will not walk away

and leave these bones

to an old woman.


she is a green tree

in a forest of kindling.

she is a green girl

in a used poet.


she has waited

patient as a nun

for the second coming,

when she can break through gray hairs

into blossom


and her lovers will harvest

honey and thyme

and the woods will be wild

with the damn wonder of it.


Lucille Clifton






(Kittery Point, Maine, 1958)


Mama’s rented a colonial house

a block from the ocean, in a village

where we’re the First Negroes of everything.

We’re the First Negro Family in Town,

the First Negro Children in the Town’s School.

The Baylisses live in the house next door;

their mantel has photos of dead people

in their coffins.  Uncle Ed sits all day

in their bay window with binoculars,

then comments on what we had for dinner.

Aunt Flossie asks us over for cookies.

Sometimes Mama lets me and Jennifer cook.

Tonight we made a Caucasian dinner:

cauliflower, broiled cod, and mashed potatoes.


Marilyn Nelson, from her memoir in poems about her childhood, How I Discovered Poetry






This ink.  This name.  This blood.  This blunder.

This blood.  This loss.  This lonesome wind.  This canyon.

This / twin /swiftly / paddling / shadow blooming

an inch above the carpet–.  This cry.  This mud.

This shudder.  This is where I stood by the bed,

by the door, by the window, in the night / in the night.

How deep, how often / must a woman be touched?

How deep, how often have I been touched?

On the bone, on the shoulder, on the brow, on the knuckle:

Touch like a last name, touch like a wet match.

Touch like an empty shoe and an empty shoe, sweet

and incomprehensible. This ink.  This name.  This blood

in the body.  This wind in the blood.


Terrance Hayes






First snow—I release her into it—

I know, released, she won’t come back.

This is different from letting what,


already, we count as lost go. It is nothing

like that. Also, it is not like wanting to learn what

losing a thing we love feels like. Oh yes:


I love her.

Released, she seems for a moment as if

some part of me that, almost,


I wouldn’t mind

understanding better, is that

not love? She seems a part of me,


and then she seems entirely like what she is:

a white dog,

less white suddenly, against the snow,


who won’t come back. I know that; and, knowing it,

I release her. It’s as if I release her

because I know.


Carl Phillips




summer, somewhere (first section)


somewhere, a sun.  below boys brown

as rye play the dozens & ball, jump


in the air & stay there.  boys become new

moons gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise


-blue water to fly, at least tide, at least

spit back a father or two. i won’t get started.


history is what it is.  it knows what it did.

bad dog, bad blood, bad day to be a boy


color of a July well spent.  but here, not earth

not heaven we can’t recall our white shirts


turned ruby gowns.  here, there’s no language

for officer or law, no color to call white.



if snow fell, it’d fall black.  please, don’t call

us dead, call us alive someplace better.


we say our names when we pray.

we go out for sweets & come back.



Danez Smith



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  • Reply Grace schulman June 9, 2020 at 11:01 am

    To add: by Rowan Ricardo Phillips, below. Also, not given here, the rich, accurate perceptions of Rita Dove.

    He never saw a violin.
    But he saw a lifetime of violence.

    This is not to presume
    That if he had simply seen

    A violin he would have seen
    Less violence. Or that living among

    Violins, as though they were
    Boulangeries or toppling stacks

    Of other glazed goods like young adult
    Fiction, would have made the violence

    Less crack and more cocaine,
    Less of course and more why god oh why.

    More of one thing
    Doesn’t rhyme with one thing.

    A swill of stars doesn’t rhyme
    With star. A posse of poets doesn’t rhyme

    With poet. We are all in prison.
    This is the brutal lesson of the 21st century,

    Swilled like a sour stone
    Through the vein of the beast

    Who watches you while you eat;
    Our eternal host, the chummed fiddler,

    The better tomorrow,
    MMXVI. — Rowan Ricardo Phillips

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet June 9, 2020 at 11:56 pm

      Thanks for this, Grace. It’s brutal and beautiful. “We are all in prison.” And of course I meant to include Rita! Thanks for the reminder.

      Rita Dove

      (Independence Day, 1964)

      On her 36th birthday, Thomas had shown her
      her first swimming pool. It had been
      his favorite color, exactly—just
      so much of it, the swimmers’ white arms jutting
      into the chevrons of high society.
      She had rolled up her window
      and told him to drive on, fast.

      Now this act of mercy: four daughters
      dragging her to their husbands’ company picnic,
      white families on one side and them
      on the other, unpacking the same
      squeeze bottles of Heinz, the same
      waxy beef patties and Salem potato chip bags.
      So he was dead for the first time
      on Fourth of July—ten years ago

      had been harder, waiting for something to happen,
      and ten years before that, the girls
      like young horses eyeing the track.
      Last August she stood alone for hours
      in front of the T.V. set
      as a crow’s wing moved slowly through
      the white streets of government.
      That brave swimming

      scared her, like Joanna saying
      Mother, we’re Afro-Americans now!
      What did she know about Africa?
      Were there lakes like this one
      with a rowboat pushed under the pier?
      Or Thomas’ Great Mississippi
      with its sullen silks? (There was
      the Nile but the Nile belonged

      to God.) Where she came from
      was the past, 12 miles into town
      where nobody had locked their back door,
      and Goodyear hadn’t begun to dream of a park
      under the company symbol, a white foot
      sprouting two small wings.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet June 9, 2020 at 11:58 pm

    from Ernie Hebert: “Thanks so much for this essay, Sharon. I posted the Wheatley passage on my Facebook page and also thanked you for bringing it to my attention.”

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet June 10, 2020 at 12:00 am

    You’re welcome. And of course some version of that passage about her kidnapping is true for ever single person who was brought here as a slave.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet June 10, 2020 at 12:16 am

    from Peter Macuck; Ages ago I met Marilyn Nelson when I gave a reading at UConn, and she graciously invited me to stay overnight at her house. I also met Lucille Clifton when she came to read at Eastern Carolina University. The first thing she said when I picked her up at the airport was, “How did you recognize me?” The only black person who got off the plane. We both stood there laughing. There was one scary moment during her visit. When we were coming into Greenville she said, “Can you show me where my people live?” This was West Greenville, where there were frequent shootings and all kinds of crime. A white man and a black woman slowly driving through neighborhoods in this section of town at 11 o’clock at night? But I held my breath and did it and never said anything to her. Marilyn and Lucille–wonderful people, wonderful poets.

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