Gwendolyn Brooks
Langston Hughes
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Black American Poets
Life experience into literature
An interactive
poetry lesson
prepared by
Mrs. Thalen
Sterling Brown
Countee Cullen
Raisin in the Sun
In Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the
Sun we come to understand the
challenges faced by a black family
trying to move ahead in the world.
They face bigotry and struggle with
their own individual desires about
“assimilating” to the culture.
Many black American poets also wrote
about the challenges of breaking the
“color barrier” and finding a place in the
country that was called “The Melting
Black American Poets
This activity will allow you to learn a
bit about 5 poets who wrote about
the experience of being black in a
culture which had not completely
accepted them.
Print handouts using buttons on left,
then begin by clicking the button for
Langston Hughes.
Get NoteTaking
Langston Hughes
James Langston Hughes was born February 1,
1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His parents
divorced when he was a small child, and his
father moved to Mexico. He was raised by
his grandmother until he was thirteen, when
he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his
mother and her husband, eventually settling
in Cleveland, Ohio. It was in Lincoln, Illinois,
that Hughes began writing poetry. Following
graduation, he spent a year in Mexico and a
year at Columbia University.
Langston Hughes 2
During these years, he held odd jobs as an
assistant cook, launderer, and a busboy, and
travelled to Africa and Europe working as a
seaman. In November 1924, he moved to
Washington, D.C.
Hughes first book of poetry, The Weary Blues,
was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1926. He
finished his college education at Lincoln
University in Pennsylvania three years later.
In 1930 his first novel, Not Without
Laughter, won the Harmon gold medal for
Langston Hughes 3
Hughes, who claimed Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl
Sandburg, and Walt Whitman as his primary
influences, is particularly known for his
insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in
America from the twenties through the
sixties. He wrote novels, short stories and
plays, as well as poetry, and is also known for
his engagement with the world of jazz and
the influence it had on his writing, as in
Montage of a Dream Deferred.
Langston Hughes 4
His life and work were enormously important in
shaping the artistic contributions of the
Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Unlike
other notable black poets of the period-Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Countee
Cullen--Hughes refused to differentiate
between his personal experience and the
common experience of black America. He
wanted to tell the stories of his people in
ways that reflected their actual culture,
including both their suffering and their love
of music, laughter, and language itself.
Langston Hughes 5
Langston Hughes died of complications
from prostate cancer in May 22, 1967,
in New York. In his memory, his
residence at 20 East 127th Street in
Harlem, New York City, has been given
landmark status by the New York City
Preservation Commission, and East
127th Street was renamed "Langston
Hughes Place."
Read Poem
Quiz on Langston Hughes
Write your answers on printed quiz handout.
Where was he born?
Where was he educated?
When was he first published?
What did you find most interesting about
this poet?
Print out
Go to Paul L
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first
African-American poets to gain national
recognition. He was born in Dayton, Ohio, on
June 27, 1872, to Joshua and Matilda Murphy
Dunbar, freed slaves from Kentucky. His
parents separated shortly after his birth, but
Dunbar would draw on their stories of
plantation life throughout his writing career.
By the age of fourteen, Dunbar had poems
published in the Dayton Herald. While in high
school he edited the Dayton Tattler, a shortlived black newspaper published by classmate
Orville Wright.
Paul Laurence Dunbar 2
Despite being a fine student, Dunbar was
financially unable to attend college and took a
job as an elevator operator. In 1892, a former
teacher invited him to read his poems at a
meeting of the Western Association of
Writers; his work impressed his audience to
such a degree that the popular poet James
Whitcomb Riley wrote him a letter of
encouragement. In 1893, Dunbar selfpublished a collection called Oak and Ivy. To
help pay the publishing costs, he sold the book
for a dollar to people riding in his elevator.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Later that year, Dunbar moved to
Chicago, hoping to find work at the first
World's Fair. He befriended Frederick
Douglass, who found him a job as a
clerk, and also arranged for him to read
a selection of his poems. Douglass said
of Dunbar that he was "the most
promising young colored man in
America." By 1895, Dunbar's poems
began appearing in major national
newspapers and magazines, such as The
New York Times.
Paul Laurence Dunbar 4
With the help of friends, he published
the second collection, Majors and
Minors (1895). The poems written in
standard English were called "majors,"
and those in dialect were termed
"minors." Although the "major" poems
outnumber those written in dialect, it
was the dialect poems that brought
Dunbar the most attention. The noted
novelist and critic William Dean Howells
gave a favorable review to the poems in
Harper's Weekly.
Paul Laurence Dunbar 5
This recognition helped Dunbar gain national and
international acclaim, and in 1897 he embarked on a
six-month reading tour of England.
He also brought out a new collection, Lyrics of Lowly
Life (1896). Upon returning to America, Dunbar
received a clerkship at the Library of Congress in
Washington, DC, and shortly thereafter he married
the writer Alice Ruth Moore.
While living in Washington, Dunbar published a short
story collection, Folks from Dixie, a novel entitled
The Uncalled, and two more collections of poems,
Lyrics of the Hearthside and Poems of Cabin and
Field (1899). He also contributed lyrics to a number
Paul Laurence Dunbar
His collections from this time include Lyrics of
Love and Laughter (1903), Howdy, Howdy,
Howdy (1905), and Lyrics of Sunshine and
Shadow (1905). These books confirmed his
position as America's premier black poet.
Dunbar continued to write poems.
Read Poem
Quiz on Paul Laurence Dunbar
Write your answers on printed quiz handout.
Where was he born?
Where was he educated?
When was he first published?
What did you find most interesting about
this poet?
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Sterling Brown
Sterling Brown was born in Washington,
D.C., in 1901. He was educated at
Dunbar High School and received a
bachelor's degree from Williams
College. He studied the work of Ezra
Pound and T. S. Eliot, but was more
interested in the works of Amy
Lowell, Edgar Lee Masters, Robert
Frost and Carl Sandburg.
Sterling Brown 2
In 1923, he earned a master's degree
from Harvard University and was
employed as a teacher at the Virginia
Seminary and College in Lynchburg until
1926. Three years later, Brown began
teaching at Howard University and in
1932 his first book, Southern Road, was
Sterling Brown 3
His poetry was influenced by jazz, the blues,
work songs and spirituals and, like Langston
Hughes, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, and
other black poets of the period, his writing
expresses his concerns about race in
America. Southern Road was well received by
critics and Brown became part of the artistic
tradition of the Harlem Renaissance, but with
the arrival of the Depression, Brown could
not find a publisher for his second book of
Sterling Brown 4
He turned to writing essays and focused on his
career as a teacher at Howard, where he
taught until his retirement in 1969.
He finally published his second book of poetry,
The Last Ride of Wild Bill, in 1975.
Brown is known for his frank, unsentimental
portraits of black people and their
experiences, and the incorporation of
African-American folklore and contemporary
idiom into his verse. He died in 1989 in
Takoma Park, Maryland.
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Quiz on S. Brown
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Where was he born?
Where was he educated?
When was he first published?
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this poet?
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Gwendolyn Brooks
The African American poet Gwendolyn
Elizabeth Brooks was born June 7, 1917,
to Keziah and David Brooks in Topeka,
Kansas. Later that year the Brooks
family moved to Chicago, where her two
siblings were born. Brooks' mother
discovered Gwendolyn's gift for writing
when she was seven. She promptly
encouraged this talent by exposing the
girl to various forms of literature.
Gwendolyn Brooks
Her parents, however were very strict and she
was not allowed to play with the kids in the
neighborhood. As a child she lacked the sass
and brass of the other girls in her class and
became very isolated. As a result, she made
few friends while in school. When Brooks was
at home in her room she often created a world
of her own by reading and writing stories and
poetry. Due to her lack of social skills she
became very shy and continued to be shy
throughout her adult life.
Gwendolyn Brooks
After graduating from high school she went on to
Wilson Junior College and graduated in 1936.
Her early verses appeared in the Chicago
Defender, a newspaper written primarily for the
black community of Chicago. In 1939 she was
married to Henry Blakely and they had two
children, Henry junior and Nora Blakely. In 1945
Gwendolyn Brooks' first book entitled A Street
In Bronzeville was published. In 1949 Annie
Allen (a loosely-connected series of poems
related to a black girl's growing up in Chicago)
was published and received the Pulitzer Prize
for poetry in 1950, becoming the first African
American to receive this prestigious award in
Gwendolyn Brooks
In 1953 Brooks' first novel is published Maud Martha.
In 1963 she published Selected Poems and secured
her first teaching job at Chicago's Columbia College.
In 1967 at the Fisk University Writers Conference in
Nashville, Brooks met the new black revolution. She
came from South Dakota State College, which was all
white, where she was received with love. Now she had
arrived at an all black college where she was now
coldly respected. After this trip Brooks says that she,
“is no longer asleep she is now awake.” After 1967 she
became aware that other blacks feel that way and are
not hesitant about saying it. She appeals to her people
for understanding and is more conscious of them in
her writing.
Gwendolyn Brooks
In 1968 she published her next major
collection of poetry, In the Mecca. The
effect of her awakening is noticeable in
her poetry. Brooks is less concerned
with poetic form, and uses mostly free
verse. In 1968 she was named poet
laureate for the state of Illinois and was
also the first African American to
receive an American Academy of Arts
and Letters Award in 1976.
Gwendolyn Brooks
Since then, Gwendolyn Brooks has gone on
to receive over fifty honorary
doctorates from numerous colleges and
universities. She has received two
Guggenheim Fellowships and has served
as Poetry Consultant to the Library of
Congress. In 1990 she became professor
of English at Chicago State University.
Ms. Brooks died at the age of 83 Sunday
December 3, 2000.
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Quiz on Gwendolyn Brooks
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When was she first published?
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this poet?
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Countee Cullen
Countee Cullen (1903 - 1946) – was born
Countee LeRoy Porter a leading figure
with Langston Hughes in the Harlem
Renaissance. This 1920s artistic
movement produced the first large body
of work in the United States written by
African Americans. However, Cullen
considered poetry “raceless,” although
his 'The Black Christ' took a racial
theme, lynching of a black youth for a
crime he did not commit.
Countee Cullen
Countee Cullen was very secretive about his life.
According to different sources, he was born in
Louisville, Kentucy or Baltimore, Md. Cullen was
possibly abandoned by his mother, and reared by a
woman named Mrs. Porter, who was probably his
paternal grandmother. Cullen once said that he was
born in New York City - perhaps he did not mean it
literally. Porter brought young Countee to Harlem
when he was nine. She died in 1918. At the age of 15,
Cullen was adopted unofficially by the Reverend F.A.
Cullen, minister of Salem M.E. Church, one of the
largest congregations of Harlem. Later Reverend
Cullen became the head of the Harlem chapter of
NAACP. His real mother did not contact him until he
became famous in the 1920s.
Countee Cullen
As a schoolboy, Cullen won a citywide poetry
contest and saw his winning stanzas widely
reprinted. With the help of Reverend Cullen, he
attended the prestigious De Witt Clinton High
School in Manhattan. After graduating, he
entered New York University, where his works
attracted critical attention. Cullen's first
collection of poems, COLOR (1925), was
published in the same year he graduated from
NYU. Written in a careful, traditional style, the
work celebrated black beauty and deplored the
effects of racism.
Countee Cullen
The book included 'Heritage' and 'Incident',
probably his most famous poems. 'Yet Do I
Marvel', about racial identity and injustice,
showed the influence of the literary
expression of William Wordsworth and
William Blake, but its subject was far from
the world of their Romantic sonnets. The
poet accepts that there is God, and 'God is
good, well-meaning, kind', but he finds a
contradiction of his own plight in a racist
society: he is black and a poet.
Countee Cullen
A brilliant student, Cullen graduated from New York
University Phi Beta Kappa. He attended Harvard,
earning his masters degree in 1926. He worked as
assistant editor for Opportunity magazine, where his
column, 'The Dark Tower,' increased his literary
reputation. Cullen's poetry collections THE BALLAD
(1927) explored similar themes as Colour, but they
were not so well received. Cullen's Guggenheim
Fellowship of 1928 enabled him to study and write
abroad. He married in April 1928 Nina Yolande Du
Bois, daughter of W.E.B. DuBois, the leading black
intellectual. At that time Yolande was involved
romantically with a popular band leader. Between the
years 1928 and 1934, Cullen travelled back and forth
between France and the United States.
Countee Cullen 6
By 1929 Cullen had published four volumes of
poetry. The title poem of THE BLACK
criticized for the use of Christian religious
imagery - Cullen compared the lynching of a
black man to Christ's crucification. His
marriage did not succeed and he divorced in
1930. One extra load for the marriage was
Cullen's and Harold Jackman's close
friendship. Jackman was a a teacher whom
the writer Carl Van Vechten had used as
model in his novel Nigger Heaven (1926). In
1940 Cullen married Ida Mae Robertson; they
had known each other for ten years.
Countee Cullen
As well as writing books himself, Cullen
promoted the work of other black writers.
But in the late 1920s Cullen's reputation as a
poet waned. In 1932 appeared his only novel,
ONE WAY TO HEAVEN, a social comedy of
lower-class blacks and the bourgeoisie in New
York City. From 1934 until the end of his life
he taught English, French, and creative
writing at Frederick Douglass Junior High
School in the New York City. During this
period he also wrote two works for young
readers: THE LOST ZOO (1940), poems
about the animals who perished in the Flood,
autobiography of his cat.
Countee Cullen
In the last years of his life Cullen wrote
mostly for the theatre. With Arna Bontemps
he adapted her novel, God Sends Sunday
(1931), entitled ST. LOUIS WOMAN (1946,
publ. 1971) for the musical stage. Its score
was composed by Harold Arlen and Johnny
Mercer, both white. The Broadway musical,
set in poor black neighborhood in St. Louis,
was criticized by black intellectuals for
creating a negative image of black Americans.
Cullen also translated the Greek tragedy
Medea by Euripides, which was published in
with a collection of sonnets and short lyrics.
Countee Cullen
As a poet Cullen was conservative: he did not ignore
racial themes, but based his works on the Romantic
poets, especially Keats, and often used the
traditional sonnet form. "Not writ in water nor in
mist, / Sweet lyric throat, thy name. / Thy singing
lips that cold death kissed / Have seared his own
with flame." ('2. For John Keats, Apostle of Beauty')
However, Cullen also enjoyed Langston Hughes's
black jazz rhythms, but more he loved "the measured
line and the skillful rhyme" of the 19th century
poetry. After the early 1930s Cullen avoided racial
themes. Cullen's later publications include ON
THESE I STAND (1947), a collection of his favorite
poems, and the play THE THIRD FOURTH OF JULY
(publ. 1946). Cullen died of uremic poisoning in New
York City on January 9, 1946. Private about his life,
he left behind no autobiography.
Read Poem
Quiz on Countee Cullen
Write your answers on printed quiz handout.
Where was he born?
Where was he educated?
When was he first published?
What did you find most interesting about
this poet?
Go to
Rap Music Assignment
Listen to music classified as “Rap” and read the lyrics
very carefully. Find one song (and print out the
lyrics) that you think expresses the frustrations of
not belonging to the culture where the “Speaker”
lives. Come prepared to make a presentation to the
class that consists of:
 playing the music
 giving a copy of the lyrics to the members of the
 explaining the similarities between this rap music
and any of the poems you’ve read for this activity
handout to
take home
Last Steps
Once you have completed all worksheets,
quizzes and paragraphs, you are done! Put all
your material in the folder to be turned in
before you begin working on the bonus
I will sign your permission slip (on Bonus
assignment handout) only after you have
completed all other work.

Black American Poets - Mount Sinai School District