The Evolution of Black Poetry in America

By: Jessica Levine | Current Student, AS Web Design & Interactive Media

February 13, 2018

To feel free, to express that which comes from deep within in a way that helps people feel what you feel…to make dreams feel tangible. For thousands of years poetry has filled spiritual and artistic wholes that society digs into our bones.

When I think of African, then African-American and finally black poetry, there are people that immediately come to mind;  Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou. There are genres of music and poetry that originate with the African American community….Swing, the Blues, Slam Poetry, Rap.

There are rhythms, the beating of drums, the slamming of bodies in dance that are rooted in African tradition and echo in black voices across generations.

Just a few years ago I sat in a café listening to a poet named Vanessa German. She was named Emerging Artist of the Year by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in 2012. The most amazing thing about her is that she can send you flying through hundreds of years of black history in minutes.

“To open the door of the poem as though a lion had lept off my tongue and into the horizon…”

Vanessa German

Image of Vanessa German taken by the artist herself.

Vanessa is a Pittsburgh resident who built an art house in her neighborhood in Homewood to nurture children to become artists.  Her work is political at times and a journey to connect black women across the globe. Often times her words rage against the violence on black people in America. About 6 years ago she started a public art campaign that put her words on the lawn of thousands of Pittsburgh homeowners. Signs that said “Stop Shooting – We love You”.  As you drive through the city, you can see these signs in almost every neighborhood.

Langston Hughes wrote about the voices of black poets, “Whatever the forms Negro poetry has taken in the last century, rang­ing from conventional English couplets and quatrains to free verse, from light lyrics to the well knit sonnet, from the blues and the spirituals to the highly personalized beatnik concepts of some of the younger black poets in Greenwich Village or San Francisco, the subject matter of Negro poetry East, West, North or South has remained more or less constant—the problems of freedom in a white dominated society. Most Negro poets a hundred years ago, and most Negro poets today are protest poets. “ –from Langston Hughes, “200 Years of Afro-American Poetry” in The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, published by University of Missouri Press.

As our world evolves with technology, social policy and education reform, protest art has remained constant. Poetry and art continue to provide a lens to the world that reveals beauty, injustice and oppression.

As we celebrate Black History month, let the words of the some of the greats echo in your mind as you reflect on what still needs to be done to make the world a better place.

Here are some words from Vanessa German, who always speaks of love as the most important piece of the puzzle to knowing ourselves and healing the world, “We have to hold together in the same place the promise of joy and love and hope. But we also have to sometimes hold them in the same place that we reckon with grief- that we reckon with injustice and heartbreak. Because if we’re only holding injustice and grief and heartbreak, then what happens with our hands?”

Find out more information about Vanessa German.


Jessica Levine is a current student at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh — Online Division in the Associate of Science in Web Design & Interactive Media degree program. Jessica is a 2005 graduate of Rutgers University – New Brunswick with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Journalism.

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By: Jessica Levine | Current Student, AS Web Design & Interactive Media

February 13, 2018