The voices of black female poets have resounded in America for more than 250 years. Ideas about race and equality, love and death have been clearly heard from the slave girl Phillis Wheatley to the Harlem Renaissance figure Jessie Redmon Fauset, to the strong voices of the black women poets of the 20th and 21st centuries: Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni.
Considered America’s first black poet, the 7-year-old Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston from Senegal in 1753 to became John and Susannah Wheatley’s slave. Recognized for her intelligence and her ability to write, she was educated with the Wheatley’s children. A poem she wrote as a young girl about the death of an evangelical preacher brought her acclaim and encouragement to continue writing. “On Being Brought From Africa to America” focuses on the idea that “Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land.” Wheatley died in 1784.
Jessie Redmon Fauset
In 1905, Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961) graduated from Cornell University; soon afterward she became the literary editor of the NAACP journal “The Crisis,” when W. E. B. Du Bois was editor. Fauset wrote poetry that appeared in the magazine and received acclaim for such poems as “Enigma,” “Oblivion” and “Dead Fires.” She also encouraged many of the Harlem Renaissance’s poets throughout her career.
Although Maya Angelou might be best known for her autobiographical work, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” it is her 1971 volume of poetry, “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie” that won a Pulitzer Prize. Angelou, who was born in 1928 and died in 2014, wrote poetry throughout her life, including those collected in “I Shall Not Be Moved,” which deals with the struggle to be free in the face of racism, and “Phenomenal Women,” which is a poem assessing the place of women at the beginning of the 21st century.
Gwendolyn Brooks’ book of poetry “Annie Allen (1949)” won the Pulitzer Prize and was just one of more than 20 books of poetry she wrote over a 50-year period, including "Riot," "The Bean Eaters" and "In the Mecca." Born in Chicago, Brooks was named Poet Laureate for the state of Illinois in 1968 and received numerous other awards. including fellowships from the Academy of American Poets and the Guggenheim Foundation. Brooks died in 2000 at the age of 83.
The author of 17 books of poetry, Nikki Giovanni’s work often focuses on the quest for equality, beginning with “Black Feeling, Black Talk,” published in 1968. She has created spoken word recordings of many of her works, including “Truth Is On Its Way,” which features a background of gospel music. Giovanni, who was named one of Oprah Winfrey’s “Living Legends,” is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech.