Since 1926, February has marked the observance and celebration of black history in the United States — first with a week-long celebration scheduled to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and later extended to the annual, month-long celebration that is recognized not just in the U.S., but in Canada and the United Kingdom as well. Since its inception, Black History Month has been dedicated to education: first and foremost concerned with integrating the history, culture, and art of black Americans into public school classrooms across the country — which is one reason you’ll definitely want to check out these poetry collections to read during Black History Month.
From Claudia Rankine to Warsan Shire (and tons of others,) the work of poets of color has been making a serious impact on contemporary literature and art, but in honor of Black History Month, the poets on this list will take you back to the roots of African American poetry — from the first female African poet to be published in the United States, through the Harlem Renaissance, to the first African American to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a book of poetry, and more. Here are 12 classic poetry collections to read during Black History Month.
1‘The Collected Poems’ by Langston Hughes
Central to the literary and artistic scene of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes wrote impassioned, revealing, and often confessional poetry that gave voice to what life was like for everyday African Americans living in the United States during the 1920s. Featuring a whopping 868 poems composed over the course of Hughes’ life, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes is a poetry-lover’s must-read. Hughes’s poetry is as busy and musical as it is challenging and political, filled with equal parts joy and suffering, and vibrating with a distinct sense of place and politics; detailing the lives of black Americans in the early 20th century.
2‘The Complete Collected Poems’ by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was one of the wisest and most stunning writers to impact the American poetry scene, from her Pulitzer Prize-nominated poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die to the staple of American classroom literature I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Angelou’s The Complete Collected Poems, gathered and published in 1997, features all of the strong, passionate, and beautiful poetry Angelou composed throughout her lifetime.
3‘The Collected Poems’ by Audre Lorde
From the moment her writing career began with a poem published in Seventeen magazine when she was just a teenager herself, Audre Lorde was a poet to pay attention to. Politically active in the American civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements throughout the mid-twentieth century, Lorde used a her poetry to raise her voice against racism, sexism, homophobia, and other social and political injustices. Her collected poems, published simply as The Collected Poems by Audre Lorde, are a force to be reckoned with, functioning as both literary art and activism on the page.
4‘The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks’ by Gwendolyn Brooks
If you’ve ever read anything by Gwendolyn Brooks then you’ve probably found yourself wanting to read everything by Gwendolyn Brooks... and not just because Brooks became the first African American awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a book of poetry. Bearing witness to a particular time and place in American culture: what life was like for an African American family living on the South Side of Chicago during the twentieth century, Brooks’ poems captivate and astound readers, both in form and content. Brooks’s writing tackles racial, economic, and gender injustices head-on, giving voice to the often silenced experiences of those living in her South Side community. The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks features the best (and there’s a lot) of Brooks’ poetic career.
5‘Transbluesency: Selected Poems, 1961-1995’ by Amiri Baraka
Amiri Baraka was a poet-activist who often favored strong, confrontational language and sharp imagery, a literary technique he used to shock his readers out of their own social and political complacency and into a space of passionate activism. Transbluesency is a selection of work from Baraka's mostly out-of-print poetry collections and chapbooks; an expansive volume that traces Baraka’s 30-plus year career as a writer, as well as taking a look at those decades in American culture, politics, and civil rights.
6. ‘Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems’ by June Jordan
During her lifetime Caribbean-American June Jordan’s poetry was inextricably linked to her activist and human rights work — the poet’s twin passions that are reflected in much of her writing. Winner of the 2005 Lambda Literary Award, Directed by Desire features some of the best poems ever written by Jordan; those that engage issues of civil rights, women’s rights, bisexuality, and sexual liberation. Within the collection's 600-plus pages are also featured 70 never-before-published poems that Jordan composed while she was dying of breast cancer.
7‘Jimmy's Blues and Other Poems’ by James Baldwin
You definitely know James Baldwin for both his civil rights activism and the novels he wrote about racial and gay tensions in the United States. What you might not know is that one of the last published works of his career was a collection of poems, titled Jimmy’s Blues — the only published work of Baldwin’s to ever go out of print (due to the fact that his novels were so much more well-known.) In Baldwin’s signature bold, startling language, Jimmy’s Blues zeroes in on issues of race, gender, class, and poverty, showcasing the timeless and ever-relevant wisdom of one of the greatest American writers of all time.
8‘Mercurochrome: New Poems’ by Wanda Coleman
Wanda Coleman wrote the kind of poetry that should always be read out loud — and loudly. Although the poet composed many amazing collections throughout her creative life, one of her most-favored is Mercurochrome, a 2001 collection of poetry that speaks out against social injustices and critiques America’s systemic, institutionalized violence against the black community. In language that is vivid, unflinching, and at times painful, Coleman’s poems will rub you raw and heal your heart all at once.
9. ‘The Selected Poems, 1968-1995’ by Nikki Giovanni
The Selected Poems, 1968-1995 was the first compilation of poet Nikki Giovanni’s work. As a Grammy-nominated American poet, a spoken word artist, a writer, and an activist, Giovanni is considered one of the most well-known African American poets in the world. Beginning her career as both a poet and an activist in the Black Rights Movement, Giovanni often uses her writing to explore issues of racial inequality, social inequality, and gender dynamics within the African American community, blending the personal and the political in a way that is so completely relevant and necessary.
10‘Collected Poems: 1974-2004’ by Rita Dove
Nominated for the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry, Rita Dove’s Collected Poems: 1974-2004 features the best of Dove’s three-plus decades and seven books of meditative, expansive, eye-opening, and award winning poetry. As a Pulitzer Prize- and National Medal of Arts-winner, and the first African American to be appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, Rita Dove is a writer working at the center of African American poetry today. Her beautiful, lyrical verse often invokes other artistic mediums as well: dance, painting, black-and-white photography, and demonstrates the talents of a writer who has dedicated her life to art.
11‘The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010’ by Lucille Clifton
As the first African American woman to receive the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (and posthumously, the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement from the Poetry Society of America) Lucille Clifton is another writer you’ve got to add to your shelves. Featuring 11 of Clifton's published collections and over 50 previously unpublished poems, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton showcases this feminist poet at her best. In addition to writing about the female body, Clifton’s poetry also honors and celebrates African American culture and heritage.
12‘The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley’ by Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley, who was was born in Senegal, Africa and sold into slavery when she was only 7-years-old, is considered the first professional African American poet, and was the first female African American poet to be published in the United States. By 12-years-old Wheatley had learned to read and write, and then began composing the political poetry that would later inspire future poets like Langston Hughes and other writers working during the Harlem Renaissance. Her writing largely focused on the experience of being a slave and the ways that the experience of slavery can reverberate through future generations.