African American Poems about Slavery
African American poetry about slavery dates back to the 18th century, when Phillis Wheatley, an African American slave, published her first collection of poems and essays. Much of Wheatley’s work addressed the struggles faced by enslaved people in her time, but she also wrote about themes such as religion and politics that still resonate today. Thus, slavery has been the subject of many poems throughout history. Here are five African American poems about slavery to illustrate how slavery has shaped the black community and how it continues to shape it today.
“Twasn’t Me Lord!” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
If you’re looking for a primer on how to defend yourself against accusations of your wrongdoing, Paul Laurence Dunbar has you covered. In Twasn’t Me, Lord! Dunbar writes in dialect as he narrates an argument between two servants; one attempts to shift blame and avoid punishment. The meter and tone of Dunbar’s work may seem silly at first glance, but it does a great job describing exactly what we think when we are caught red-handed. Unlike every innocent victim, the speaker of the poem tries to protect himself when the need arises.
“I, Too” by Langston Hughes
“I, Too” project was a series of one-act plays (five in all) based on Langston Hughes’ poetry. The title poem is perhaps his most famous piece and is required reading for any student of African American literature. Written during World War II, it begins: I, too, sing America. It proceeds to list a number of things America will never be known for—racism being first and foremost—and ends with a declaration that despite getting unjust treatment, the speaker belongs to America.
“How Long? Not Long!” by Claude McKay
This poem appeared in 1919 in a collection of poetry by Claude McKay called Harlem Shadows. In it, McKay provides a verse that would be at home on any list of famous poems about slavery, as he imagines how long it will take for freedom to come: Not long… not long! Note: You might want to pair this poem with one written from an opposite perspective. For example, check out Booker T. Washington’s The Man Farthest Down.
“Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was an iconic poet, writer, and civil rights activist who often turned to poetry to express something important. In “Still I Rise”, which is commonly read in schools across America, Angelou expresses resilience despite adversity. The poem expresses her resolute stance; her words clearly speak of her steadfast resolution. She seems determined in the face of trouble when she says that you may hit me with your words or kill me with your hateful looks, I will still rise. Angelou’s words are powerful because they hold a message that cannot be defeated. No matter what anyone throws at her or tries to do to her—including those hateful people—she will continue on rising above them all.
“Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes wrote a poem during his time in Harlem. The poem discusses Black History and how far black people have come despite the harsh conditions of slavery. Even with all of their triumphs, Hughes acknowledges that there is a lot left to be done when he states that racism and injustice toward the black community will never end ultimately. The powerful elites will continue to fool the blacks. By saying ain’t nobody buying that stuff anymore, Hughes is trying to say that although slavery ended long ago and does not directly affect many black people living in the present day, racism still exists.
To conclude, the above-stated African American poems about slavery clearly depict the blacks’ miserable plight. Every writer tries to reflect on the pain, sufferings, and hardship their people endured during the trying times.