The Library will be closed on Monday, May 27, 2024, in observance of Memorial Day.

From Maya Angelou to Tupac Shakur: Spotlight on African-American Poets

Christa Deitrick, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department,
Maya Angelou and Tupac Shakur
Maya Angelou and Tupac Shakur

Among the many treasures in the Literature & Fiction department is our poetry collection, which clocks in at around 20,000 titles. Since February is African-American Heritage Month, what better time to spotlight a few of these fabulous poets? Read on for a short bio of each, followed by one of their poems.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

Perhaps best known for her 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou was an author, poet, mother and civil rights activist. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize (for poetry), a Tony award (for her 1973 play Look Away), and three Grammy awards (for spoken word albums), she has left an indelible imprint in social, educational and literary circles. Check out the following poem, first published in 1995.

"Phenomenal Woman"

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It's the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can't touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can't see.
I say,
It's in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
The palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

Her poems are tough, electric, spare. They pull zero punches. Born in Kansas but raised in Chicago, Gwendolyn Brooks was the first black person (her preferred term) to win a Pulitzer Prize. It was for her 1950 poetry collection Annie Allen. She was appointed Poet Laureate of Chicago in 1968 and Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985. If you have never read her work, prepare to be amazed. Exhibit A: the following poem, first published in 1991.

"Speech to the Young: Speech to the Progress-Toward"

Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
the sun-slappers,
the self-soilers,
the harmony-hushers,
"even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night."
You will be right.

For that is the hard home-run.

Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

Born in Dayton, Ohio in 1872 to parents who had both been slaves before the Civil War, Dunbar nonetheless led a life of remarkable literary achievement. He wrote his first poem at the age of six and had his first poem published at the age of 16. By the time he was 24, Dunbar's work was receiving praise in the magazine Harper's Weekly. He was the first African-American poet to gain national recognition for the excellence of his work. Dunbar married teacher and fellow poet Alice Ruth Moore in 1898 and continued to be very productive, writing not only poetry but also short stories, novels, and lyrics. In 1900, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and succumbed to the disease in 1906 at the age of 33. The following poem appeared in his first collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life, published in 1896.

"We Wear the Mask"

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise;
We wear the mask!

Mari Evans (1923 - )

Born in Toledo, Ohio in 1923 and currently living in Indianapolis, Indiana, Mari Evans is a trailblazer whose empowering verse predates the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. She has penned five volumes of poetry, including 1970's seminal I Am a Black Woman, as well as several children's books and various theater pieces. Over the years, Evans has been a writer-in-residence and teacher at such universities as Purdue and Cornell. The uplifting tone of the following poem is typical of her work.

"Who Can Be Born Black?"

can be born black
and not
the wonder of it
the joy

And/to come together
in a coming togetherness
vibrating with the fires of pure knowing
reeling with power
ringing with the sound above sound above sound
to explode/in the majesty of our oneness
our comingtogether
in a comingtogetherness

can be born
and not exult!

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Poet, playwright, and social activist Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. One of the innovators of "jazz poetry" and a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes' work was infused with a deep sense of pride in his African-American roots. Born of mixed racial origins (both of his paternal great-grandmothers were African-American, while both of his paternal great-grandfathers were white slave owners), Hughes disapproved of people of color who tried to emulate and ingratiate themselves to the white majority. Rather, he felt that African-Americans should carve out an equal, unique sense of identity that reflected their own values, strengths, experiences, and viewpoints. The following poem appeared in Hughes' first collection of poetry The Weary Blues, published in 1926.

"Mother to Son"

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor--
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps
'Cause you find it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now—
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair

Tupac Shakur (1971-1996)

Considered by many to be one of the most influential rappers of all time, Tupac Shakur was born in East Harlem, New York, in 1971. Both of his parents were active in the Black Panther movement, and virtually all of the adults in his life had been convicted of serious criminal charges. Shakur released his first solo album, 2Pacalypse Now,in 1991. Its lyrics were controversial, but Shakur said he "just wanted to rap about things that affected young black males." He released five albums during his lifetime and appeared in ten films. On September 7, 1996, Tupac was gunned down in Las Vegas by rival gang the Crips. A book of his poetry, The Rose That Grew from Concrete, was published in 1999. It continues to be a very popular item here at the library.

"Life Through My Eyes"

Life through my bloodshot eyes
would scare a square 2 death
poverty, murder, violence
and never a moment 2 rest
fun and games R few
But treasured like gold 2 me
cuz I realize that I must return
2 my spot in poverty
But mock my words when I say
my heart will not exist
unless my destiny comes through
and puts an end 2 all of this