Preservation Virginia Blog


African American poets of the 18th and 19th century

This Poetry Month, we’re exploring underrepresented stories and poets. From Lucy Terry Prince to Paul Laurence Dunbar to Maya Angelou, African American poets explored rich and complicated themes in several genres, from verse to ballads and epics and every form in between.

In the early parts of the 18th century, many African American poets emulated the traditional forms popularized by white publishers and audiences. Some common themes included historical narratives, like Lucy Terry Prince’s account of an Indian Raid in Massachusetts in 1746. Others, like Jupiter Hammon and Phyllis Wheatley, focused on the importance of religious piety and morality. Wheatley found her poems exceedingly popular and became the first African-American woman to have her poems published.

In later years, many African American poets chose to write about the struggle for freedom and the unique double consciousness of the African American identity. From George Moses Horton’s vivid and visceral depictions of slavery in the 1820’s to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s abolitionist writings, these poets confronted mainstream discourse in the way that only poetry can. Frances Harper based a poem on the same events chronicled in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and powerfully described the experience of slavery.

The poets of the Harlem Renaissance refined their predecessors’ messages and dealt with the new challenges of the 20th century—how to be both black and American in a country with a deep racial divide. Poets like Langston Hughes and Georgia Douglas Johnson explored the “beauty and the pain” of black life, melding influences like jazz and the blues into their poetic forms.

Today, poets and artists of all kinds continue exploring the cultural legacy of their forebears, incorporating oral traditions, popular music and vernacular into their works. In honor of Poetry Month, take the time to explore the depth and wealth of the African American poetry movement.