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Lift Every Voice: Why African American Poetry Matters: Spotlight on Women Poets

This guide was created to support the Lift Every Voice initiative and grant. Tarrant County College is one of 49 institutions across the United States chosen to provide programming for this initiative.

Women have had a strong presence in African American poetry from the beginning. From Lucy Terry Prince who wrote the earliest surviving poem by an African American to Phillis Wheatley who published the first book by an African American, they broke new ground. As suffragists and abolitionists, they used their poetry to make their voices heard. They made many contributions to the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Women's Rights Movement. Today, they continue to write about their lives, their experiences, and their hopes for a better world. 

A Timeline of Women Poets

Intro Slide Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou
Lucy Terry Prince (1730-1821) Lucy Terry wrote the first known poem by an African American,
phillis wheatley ca. 1753-1784 Wheatley published individual poems as early as age 13.    In 1773, Wheatley became the 1st African American and the 3rd American woman to publish a book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.  Her work was widely known and read in the American colonies and in Britain.  She was freed in 1774 and married John Peters in 1778. Her last poems were published under the name Phillis Peters.
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:
Charlotte Forten Grimké 1837-1914 Born into an elite family of activists in Philadelphia, Forten Grimké was the niece of fellow poet Sarah  Louisa Forten Purvis. An active abolitionist and suffragist, Forten Grimké became a teacher to recently freed African Americans.  Forten Grimké published poetry and essays during her life. After her death, five volumes of her journals were published that gave insight into her experiences.
May those, whose holy task it is To guide impulsive youth, Fail not to cherish in their souls A reverence for truth; For teachings which the lips impart Must have their source within the heart.  --from
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper  1825-1911 Watkins Harper's
We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.  --from We Are All Bound Up Together, Watkins Harper's speech to the 11th National Women's Rights Convention
Olivia Ward Bush-Banks 1869-1944 Of Montauk Native American and African American descent, Bush-Banks incorporated her biracial heritage into her writing and served as a Montauk tribal historian  She was active in the theater, working as an assistant director, drama coach, and playwright  Her published writing included two books of poetry, Original Poems and Driftwood, and many magazine articles  Though her finances were limited, she was a patron to the arts. She founded the Bush-Banks School of Expression in Chicago to foster talented African American artists and helped develop the Harlem Renaissance.
I said a thoughtless word one day, A loved one heard and went away; I cried: “Forgive me, I was blind; I would not wound or be unkind.” I waited long, but all in vain, To win my loved one back again. Too late, alas! to weep and pray, Death came; my loved one passed away. Then, what a bitter fate was mine; No language could my grief define; Tears of deep regret could not unsay The thoughtless word I spoke that day.  --
Priscilla Jane Thompson (1871-1945) Her parents were runaway slaves who escaped to Ohio on the Underground Railroad She self-published her poetry on her brother's printing press Thompson's goal in her poetry was to show her readers what it was really like to be African American Though little known today, her first book, Ethiope Lays, was featured at the Paris Exposition of 1900 She is credited with being one of the major inspirations for the Harlem Renaissance
Yea, my hidden strength no man may know; Nor myst'ries be expounded; I'll cause the tidal waves to flow, And I shall wane, and larger grow, Yet while man rack his shallow brain, The secrets with me still remain, He seeks in vain, confounded.  from
Gwendolyn Brooks  (1917-2000) First Black author to win a Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen (1949)  First female poetry consultant to Library of Congress  Poet Laureate of Illinois  She published more than 20 books of poetry which focused on politics and daily life
My Poem is life, and not finished. It shall never be finished. My Poem is life, and can grow. Wherever life can grow, it will. It will sprout out, and do the best it can. I give you what I have. You don’t get all your questions answered in this world. How many answers shall be found in the developing world of my Poem? I don’t know. Nevertheless I put my Poem, which is my life, into your hands, where it will do the best it can.  from
Maya Angelou (1928-2014) Maya Angelou was a singer, dancer, actress, composer, editor, essayist, playwright, poet, and civil rights activist She was the first African American female director in Hollywood Her most famous book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is an autobiography of her early years In 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom She recited her poem
Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom? ’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells Pumping in my living room. Just like moons and like suns, With the certainty of tides, Just like hopes springing high, Still I'll rise.  from
Audre Lorde (1934-1992) Lorde was an active poet, prose writer, and academic who often focused on speaking out against racism, sexism, and homophobia She documented her fight with breast cancer in The Cancer Journals (1980), a pioneering illness narrative She won the National Book Award for her collection of essays, A Burst of Light (1988) The year before her death, she was named the Poet Laureate of New York
I have been woman for a long time beware my smile I am treacherous with old magic and the noon's new fury with all your wide futures    promised I am woman and not white.  --from
Lucille Clifton  1936-2010 Clifton's poetry is powerful and spare, often lacking punctuation and capitalization in its short lines    Clifton's mother was also a poet, but was denied her chance to publish her work by Clifton's father  She was Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1974 to 1985   Clifton was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry three times and won the National Book Award for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000
won't you celebrate with me what i have shaped into a kind of life? i had no model. born in babylon both nonwhite and woman what did i see to be except myself?  --from
Nikki Giovanni (b. 1943) While attending Fisk University during the 1960s, Giovanni's political activism was awakened.  Her first poetry collections, Black Feeling, Black Talk and Black Judgement, were highly reflective of her politics and established her as a popular voice in African American literature  She continues to publish both poetry and nonfiction and to promote the work of other African American female authors through her publishing cooperative, NikTom
and I really hope no white person ever has cause  to write about me because they never understand Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy  --from
Elizabeth Alexander (b. 1962) Delivered inauguration poem,
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)  is not all love, love, love, and I’m sorry the dog died.  Poetry (here I hear myself loudest) is the human voice,  and are we not of interest to each other?  --from
Evie Shockley  (b. 1965) Rutgers University professor who publishes literary criticism and poetry  Shockley's book of poetry inspired by Black Lives Matter, semiautomatic, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize  Her work focuses on history, gender, and politics as well as the gothic in African American literature
one vote is an opinion with a quiet legal force :: a barely audible beep in the local traffic, & just a plashless drop of mercury in the national thermometer. but a collectivity of votes /a flock of votes, a pride of votes, a murder of votes/ can really make some noise.
Natasha Trethewey (b. 1966) Trethewey's poetry is influenced by her family life, including growing up biracial, her relationship with her father, and her mother's murder when she was 19  Won Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Native Guard in 2007   Named United States Poet Laureate 2012-2014  She has recently written non-fiction on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a memoir about her mother
Once, he watched over me as I dreamed.          How small I was. Back then,  he was already turning to go, waning          like the moon that night — my father.  --from
Aja Monet (b. 1987) Youngest poet and the last woman to win the Nuyorican Poets Café Grand Slam Champion (2007)  Activist known for her work in the Say Her Name campaign NAACP Image Award nominee for Outstanding Literary Work-Poetry in 2018 Featured speaker at the Women's March on Washington, D.C.
somewhere a little girl is reading aloud in the middle of a dirt road. she smiles at the sound of her own voice escaping the spine of a book. she feeds on her hunger to know herself. she has not yet been taught to dim, she sits with the stars beneath her feet, a constellation of things to come.  --from

Their Lives and Work

Lucy Terry Prince (1730-1821)


Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784)


Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)


Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837-1914)


Olivia Ward Bush-Banks (1869-1944)


Priscilla Jane Thompson (1871-1942)


Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)


Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

Listen to a 1971 reading by Maya Angelou below: