There are many inequalities in our world. There’s been progress, which is always hard-won, but challenges persist. Institutions and systems created to favor some groups over others maintain inequalities based on traits like race, class, and gender. Without significant change, these systems will limit progress. You can find countless think pieces, research, and academic essays about equality, but poetry captures something unique. Using elements like rhyme, structure, and word choice, poems bring beauty and passion to the table. They can also challenge a reader’s perspectives. Here are five poems about equality:
A major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes wrote “jazz poetry,” plays, and short stories. His works celebrate black culture while also acknowledging racism and discrimination. In 2015, on Hughes’ 113th birthday, Google featured a doodle of the poet writing on his typewriter. The animated sequence showed lines from the poem “I Dream A World.”
Hughes frequently referenced dreams in his poetry. In this poem, he describes a dream where the world has embraced equality and love. There’s no more racial inequality, everyone is free, and there’s peace. While Hughes was American, his vision applies to the whole world. For those familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, it’s easy to see where Dr. King might have been inspired. Hughes and Dr. King did write letters, but there’s no record of the activist citing Hughes as a possible inspiration for the speech.
A recent report showed that reaching global gender equality could take as long as 100 years. Why is there still so much of a gap? Who opposes gender equality? This poem from the American suffragette era calls out the different kinds of women who held back the movement. This includes wealthy women who have all their needs met, “ignorant” (but sometimes college-educated) women, and religious women. While the poem focuses on a specific movement, it reflects the fact that causes are often divided or opposed by people we might assume would be on board. The gender wage gap still exists and some women don’t see it as a problem today.
We want to point out the irony in this poem: Charlotte Perkins Gilman was racist. Her definition of equality does not include women of color. While she chastizes different kinds of women in her poem for holding back equality, she herself held views that allowed inequalities to flourish. Poems like this force us to reckon with their authors and consider who was excluded from their narratives.
This poem boldly celebrates queer love and the fight for marriage equality. It describes a couple’s first meeting, seeing each other across a room. They fall in love, commit to one another, but they can’t get married. Between larger blocks of text, short lines like “Yes, I knew, but still we couldn’t….” express deep longing. Then, triumph, as gay marriage becomes legal in Massachusetts. There’s joy, but also an acknowledgment that there are still couples who can’t marry.
In 2014, the Freedom To Marry Campaign commissioned Richard Blanco to write this poem. It marked the 10th anniversary of gay marriage becoming legal in Massachusetts. One year later, in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that states with bans on same-sex marriage could no longer enforce them.
Writer and activist Maya Angelou (1928-2014) is known for her poetry, memoirs, essays, and more. She’s one of the most important artists in history. Her life included professional dancing, songwriting, lecturing, writing, and more. The variety of her experiences, unique perspective, and sharp insight inform her work.
“Equality” addresses racism and discrimination. The poem’s speaker – “I” – stands for all African-Americans. “You” represents white Americans and those preventing equality through direct action or by ignoring the problems. Through repetition, Angelou emphasizes the poem’s message. The line “equality and I will be free” repeats six times.
Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was a Black poet and feminist. She described herself as “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Her poetry focuses on intersecting identities found in race, gender, and class. Before the term was officially coined and well-known, Audre Lorde was an intersectional feminist. Her work centers injustices and her unwavering spirit to combat them.
In “The Black Unicorn,” one of her most famous poems, there are layers of emotion. The first lines describe the black unicorn as “greedy” and “impatient.” These are terms privileged people often use when talking about oppressed groups standing up for their rights. Lorde describes her fury being mocked, but it continues to grow deep within her. In the last lines, the unicorn is described as “restless” and “unrelenting,” which are more positive variations on the original terms. Why does the black unicorn feel this way? She is not free.