From literary giants such as Audre Lorde to emerging Sudanese-American poet Dalia Elhassan, we travel the diaspora to discover poetry that shows the strength, resilience and poise of the black experience.
Beauty, resilience, pain and identity are just a few common themes used to articulate the black experience in literature. For centuries, poetry has acted as an artistic release for the black community to express our authentic take on the world.
Felicitously put by American writer Audre Lorde, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” Like music, it is the portrayal of a feeling or a notion you can’t quite sum up with a singular word. Instead, we have anthologies full of answers when asked what blackness really is.
From historic classics to contemporary takes, there are countless poems that uniquely celebrate blackness in all its forms. So, as we listen to chants of “black lives matter” echo across the world, here are seven displays of the many ways in which poetry has perfectly depicted the black experience, from Africa and the Caribbean to the US and Europe.
‘Poem No.4’ by Ijeoma Umebinyuo (2015)
© Photography Dare Kumolu-Johnson
Nigerian poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo is one of the most popular contemporary writers in Sub Saharan-Africa, a reputation cemented by her debut poetry collection Questions for Ada.
In the short free-verse called Poem No.4, Umebinyuo explains the sentiment of sisterhood shared between black women — a special bond recognised not by blood, but through understanding “the kind of tragedies we both have endured / to come back into loving/ourselves”. In a world that thrives off the oppression of black women, she celebrates black sisterhood as the beautiful silver lining and an integral part of the black experience.
‘Coal’ by Audre Lorde (1976)
© Photography Everett/Shutterstock
One of Lorde’s most anthologised classics, Coal sees the iconic poet assert and celebrate her blackness by exploring her own relationship with society as a self-described “black lesbian feminist poet”. She uses metaphoric language to portray the power of her black essence through her description of coal, a staple fuel produced by earth. “The total black, being spoken / from the earth’s inside” she calls it, which at the end of the poem becomes a “jewel”. Growing up in Harlem’s West Indian community in the late ’30s, Lorde experienced the struggles faced by black Americans from infancy. But through growth, she came to the realisation that there is a sense of power in blackness. Like coal, it is an essential fuel from earth for civilisation.
‘Jamaica’ (formerly Jamaica Symphony) by Andrew Salkey (1973)
This classic poem won Andrew Salkey the Thomas Helmore Poetry Prize in 1955. Reworked in 1973, it is inspired by the colonisation of Jamaica and the island’s struggle for freedom. The renowned Jamaican poet expresses his frustration at the lack of knowledge his people have of their heritage due to colonial rule — a common struggle among some black African and Caribbean diaspora around the world. As a result, Salkey decides to write himself into history — ‘I done wit’ you / I into history, now’ — and urges his fellow Jamaicans to do the same instead of waiting for the permission of the oppressor. He calls on them to take control of their identity by highlighting the swirling colours, vibrant music and affluent culture ingrained in the island’s community.
‘The Defence of Lawino’ by Okot p’Bitek, Taban Lo Liyong (1969)
The Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek’s African literature classic Wer pa Lawino (The Defence of Lawino) translated to English by Ugandan-Sudanese writer Taban lo Liyong, spotlights the common complexities of holding on to your roots. In p’Bitek’s original, Lawino represents a female voice that grows frustrated as she watches her husband abandon his African roots to imitate European culture. His strong desire for a westernised life destroys his identity and the culture that birthed him. The theme represents a common issue that is still prevalent among diasporic African households, with first-generation parents often struggling to keep their children engaged with their culture and traditions as they integrate into a glamorised western world.
‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou (1978)
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A timeless literary classic, Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise is one of the most famous poems in the world. Quoted in books, movies and music, it spotlights the strength, resilience and poise that black communities have consistently displayed in the face of oppression, prejudice and discrimination for hundreds of years. As relevant today as it was in 1978, Angelou’s words are a sublime portrayal of unapologetic blackness. The poem is a stark reminder of perseverance and the ability of black people to rise above pain and hardship with elegance and grace.
‘Reclaiming The Tribe in Seven Accounts’ by Dalia Elhassan (2019)
Emerging Sudanese-American poet Dalia Elhassan confronts her heritage and explores the complex layers of Afro-Arab identity in the modern poem Reclaiming the Tribe in Seven Accounts from her debut poetry collection, In Half Light. In it, she addresses anti-blackness within the Arab community and a divided nation in which she finds herself in the middle. “Sometimes I imagine / a Sudan that isn’t broken / not without a south / doesn’t look shattered by two miles” she writes, referring to the racially charged civil conflict between the north and south. Elhassan offers an alternative take on the black experience as she highlights the role of race within an Arab-Muslim culture and how the two have shaped her: “I come from two tribes / and two countries / a single foot in both worlds.”
‘Black Joy’ by Koleka Putuma (2015)
Contemporary South African poet Koleka Putuma lovingly recounts memories of happiness and childhood innocence in her poem Black Joy, published in the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology (Vol.6) in 2017. The refreshing text makes a point to change the narrative of an African childhood, which is too often associated with pain, struggle and suffering as Putuma focuses on describing a time of peace, playfulness and family. “Isn’t it funny? / that when they ask about black childhood / all they are interested in is our pain / as if the joy-parts were accidental,” she writes. There is a common tendency to erase positivity when discussing the black experience, particularly in Africa. This poem acts as a symbol of all the good that simply never makes the literary cut. first published in www.vogue.co.uk
Main Photo: Maya Angelou /WHYY