Poetry, like all art, is a powerful medium when it comes to tackling big issues. It’s one thing to read a textbook about racism, but poetry personalizes the experiences of individuals and groups. Poetry can also teach and contextualize events in an emotional way. Readers receive a fuller picture of history. Many poets build their careers by sharing their pain, anger, and grief about racism. Here are ten poems on racism that everyone should read:
Maya Angelou is known for her powerful prose and poetry. In her famous piece “Caged Bird” (also known as “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”), she describes two birds. One is free and happy, while the other is caged. From its captivity, it sings, longing for freedom. Using this metaphor, Angelou highlights the difference between white and black Americans.
Poet and essayist Rita Dove was the second African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The poem, “Rosa,” from Dove’s 1999 book On the Bus With Rosa Parks, paints a picture of Rosa Parks at the moment she decides to stay in her seat. This moment in 1955 triggered the Montgomery Bus boycott and captivated the country’s attention.
A young poet from Louisiana, Jericho Brown’s debut poetry collection won the 2009 American Book Award. The Tradition, the book in which the titular poem appears, is his third collection. Using a sonnet structure, “The Tradition” parallels the tradition of gardening and caring for the earth with violence against African-Americans. Brown lists types of flowers throughout the piece. In the last line, the names of John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Mike Brown take their place.
Poet and teaching artist Gabriel Rameriz performed this poem for a “We are mitú” video on Facebook in 2017. Rameriz, who is Afro-Latinx, describes the poem as a response to things white people have said to him. At the time, he didn’t confront them directly. He says the purpose of the poem is to make white people consider their place in the world. Discomfort is a signal that there are things that need to change. His book
An artist with an impressive resume, Thomas King is a photographer, professor emeritus, radio broadcaster, and 2-time Governor General’s Literary Award nominee. In this poem, King contrasts the stereotypes of indigenous people seen in culture and how they actually live in modern Canada. Vivid, conversational, and threaded with anger, it’s a powerful indictment of racist stereotypes.
In this poem, Asian-American poet Li-Young Lee explores the different stories within the immigrant experience. These stories have titles like “Survival Strategies and the Melancholy of Racial Assimilation” and “Patterns of Love in Peoples of Diaspora.” These different titles represent the complexity of immigration and how immigrants wrestle with many identities. For this reason, the poem is multi-layered and difficult. That’s the point, however. Issues of immigration and identity should be challenging.
The first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems explore the African-American experience, identity, politics, and other issues. “Riot” paints a picture of the riots in Chicago after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The character observing the riots in the poem is John Cabot. A white man with privilege, he is horrified by what he calls “It,” or “the blackness.” He embodies the racist system that can drive people to riot.
In 1963, an African-American church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama. Four little black girls were killed. In this heartbreaking poem, Randall presents a conversation between a mother and daughter. The girl wants to join the Freedom March but is told she can’t because it’s too dangerous. Instead, she goes to church and her mother is confident in her child’s safety. In the last two lines, the poem reveals the horrible truth.
A graphic and emotionally-challenging poem, “Afterimages” describes the effect that Emmet Till’s death had on Lorde. She describes it as “the afterimage of my 21st year.” Till haunts her dreams. Nightmares, rape, and violence saturate the poem. With unforgiving power, this piece demonstrates how traumatizing racism is.
Langston Hughes is one of America’s most famous poets. His work frequently explores issues of racism. In “I, Too,” he describes how as the “darker brother,” he’s sent to the kitchen when guests come over. He looks forward to the future when he’s sitting with everyone else. The poem ends with the powerful line, “I, too, am America.” This hope for a tomorrow without racism is still relevant today.