Types of Poetry by African Americans

The contributions by African Americans to the canon of English-language poetry go back at least as far as the mid-18th century. Types of poetry include classical and devotional verse, gospel songs, anti-slavery verse, and meditations on identity.

Classical and Devotional Verse

Some of the earliest surviving examples of African American poetry drew on classical antiquity and personal religious experience. This was true, for example, of Phillis Wheatley, whose "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral" made use of her knowledge of Greek and Latin, and Jupiter Hammon, who wrote a volume of poetry reflecting on Christian themes of forgiveness and salvation.


Spirituals are a genre of song expressing deep emotions about the longing for freedom, release, forgiveness, union with God and vindication from oppression. These songs were popularized in churches and camp meetings and on plantations during the era of slavery. Spirituals such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Gospel Train" use a kind of covert language to refer to the underground railroad.

Anti-Slavery Verse

Some of the greatest works of African American poetry were dedicated to the abolition of slavery. The New Jersey industrialist and publisher Alfred Gibbs Campbell wrote a volume of poetry advocating rebellion against slavery and predicting God's judgment against slave owners. Antislavery songs were also collected in works such as "The Anti-Slavery Harp," published in 1848.

Poems of Identity

The era most associated with poems about African American identity was the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s. Poets such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay wrote poetry about the complexity of mixed identities and the spiritual legacy of the African diaspora. Stylistically such poems often translated the rhythm and style of jazz into the English language.

About the Author

Colby Phillips' writing interests include culture and politics. Phillips received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Oregon and a Master of Arts in philosophy from Boston College.

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