Edited by Arnold Rampersad and Marcellus Blount
Illustrated by Karen Barbour
Poetry Picture Book
For ages 9 and up
Sterling, 2012, 978-1-4027-1689-8
The first book of poetry written by an African American was Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The poet was Phillis Wheatley, who as a child was brought to America in a slave ship in 1761, and who became the property of a Boston gentleman. Phillis was lucky to end up in this household because her owners were kind and they encouraged Phillis to educate herself. Phillis made excellent progress with her studies and she began writing poetry in English when she was still very young.
After Phillis’s death in 1784, very few African-Americans were given the opportunity to write poetry, and then a slave from North Carolin, George Moses Horton, began to write poetry and two of his collections were published in 1829 and 1845. Like Phillis, he used his poetry to “defend the humanity of African Americans,” and poets who came after him did the same.
Then, during what came to be called the Harlem Renaissance, many young African Americans began to write poetry, and the words of Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and others delighted both African American and Caucasian readers. After the wounds caused by the Great Depression began to heal, more African American poets began to share their work with the world, using their words to ask for justice for their people, and to also tell their stories.
In this extraordinary collection of poetry the editor presents the poems of African American poets in chronological order, which gives readers a real sense of how such poetry evolved and changed with time. Each poem is prefaced with a note from the editor, and the notes give readers biographical information about the poet and commentary on the poet’s subject and style of writing. The poems included in the collection vary greatly. There are those written in rhyming forms such as one written by George Moses Horton, there are a pair of haiku written by Richard Wright, and there are poems written in blank verse. Irrespective of the form used in their creation, these memorable poems all have strong voices that are rich with imagery and history.