Poetry is a form of art that has been used to heal, inform and empower people for centuries. Whether it’s literature, a spoken word performance, or even music, the art form acts as a catalyst to shed light on a plethora of ideas and feelings surrounding social justice issues, economic or societal conditions, as well as historic revolutions. Women have been at the forefront of poetry since the dawn of time, beginning with Enheduanna, the daughter of the Mesopotamian king Sargon of Akkad, who has been regarded as the earliest known woman author and poet, according to several sources.
There was also Marie de France who composed the first lais- a medieval type of short tale in French literature that is usually in octosyllabic verses. Marie’s work was notable for celebrating love and individuality of character, packed with vivid descriptions of life in the 12th century.
Over the last decade, women have continued to innovate and propel the creative art form to new and innovative heights. In honor of National Poetry Month, let’s take a look at five Black female poets who have changed the world with their colorful words.
The revered author rose to prominence after releasing I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in 1969, but Angelou has published a wide range of bestselling books and is the recipient of more than 30 honorary degrees and awards. In 1992, the famous poet made history at the Presidential Inauguration of Bill Clinton after she read, “On the Pulse of Morning,” becoming the first African American woman to write and present a poem for the historic event. Former President Barack Obama honored Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010 and she also was given the 2013 Literarian Award for her contributions to writing and poetry. The late poet’s classic, And Still I Rise, captures the indomitable spirit of Black people globally who face adversity and systems of oppression.
Youth poet Amanda Gorman shined during the 2021 Presidential Inauguration as she read her empowering piece, “The Hill We Climb” – a poem filled with calls for unity and justice while building toward a brighter future. At 22-years-old, Gorman became the youngest poet to present an inaugural reading, following in the powerful footsteps of past presenters including Maya Angelou and Elizabeth Alexander.
In 2007, the Cuban-Jamaican poet and activist became the youngest recipient of the Nuyorican Poets Café Grand Slam Championship at the age of 19. She’s also the last woman to receive the coveted award since then. Monet has garnered praise for her poetry collection My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter- an ode to mothers, daughters, and sisters, who Monet refers to as “the tiny gods who fight to change the world.” The NAACP Image Award nominee uses captivating and powerful language to tackle issues of racism and genocide but also love, motherhood, spirituality, and Black joy.
Audre Lorde was an American writer, feminist, womanist, librarian, and civil rights, activist. She was a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” who dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, classism, and homophobia. In the book Black Women Writers, Lorde said she used poetry as a way to communicate her thoughts, according to the Poetry Foundation.
“I used to speak in poetry. I would read poems, and I would memorize them. People would say, well what do you think, Audre. What happened to you yesterday? And I would recite a poem and somewhere in that poem would be a line or a feeling I would be sharing. In other words, I literally communicated through poetry. And when I couldn’t find the poems to express the things I was feeling, that’s what started me writing poetry, and that was when I was twelve or thirteen,” said the New York native of her early beginnings.
Lorde used evocative and stunning language to address issues of protest and police brutality in her early collection of poems including The First Cities (1968), Cables to Rage (1970), and From a Land Where Other People Live (1972), which was nominated for a National Book Award.
The American poet, writer, and professor was a leading figure in the Black Arts Movement and has written over a dozen books of poetry, short stories, and critical essays among other forms of literature. The poetic star’s debut collection, titled Homecoming, was released in 1969. It criticized “white America” and unpacked ideas of neo-slavery and its social and psychological effects on American Americans. Sanchez was honored with the Pew Fellowship in the arts in 1993 and was awarded the Robert Frost Medal for her poetic contributions in 2001.