Famous African American Free Verse Poets



In light of this months poetic novel,  Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson we should all be inspired to take a trip into the past as a reflection and respect to what literature calls ‘free verse‘ poetry; it’s an open form of poetry. It does not use consistent patterns, rhyme, or any other musical pattern. It also tends to follow the rhythm of natural speech.

Freedom of speech is arguably one of the biggest human rights under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) for African Americans. Obtaining this right has allowed writers and poets to share their narratives, teach us how to listen – even through silence – and able to take in snapshots into what helped them become all that’d dreamt, but out-loud.


Here is a look at works from poets best known for their free verse narratives:


When For My People by Margaret Walker won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1942, “she became one of the youngest Black writers ever to have published a volume of poetry in this century,” as well as “the first Black woman in American literary history to be so honored in a prestigious national competition,” noted Richard K. Barksdale in Black American Poets between Worlds, 1940-1960.

POET Margaret Walker


For My People
For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
     repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
     and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
     unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
     unseen power;
For my people lending their strength to the years, to the
    gone years and the now years and the maybe years,
    washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending
    hoeing plowing digging planting pruning patching
    dragging along never gaining never reaping never
    knowing and never understanding;
For my playmates in the clay and dust and sand of Alabama
    backyards playing baptizing and preaching and doctor
    and jail and soldier and school and mama and cooking
    and playhouse and concert and store and hair and
    Miss Choomby and company;
For the cramped bewildered years we went to school to learn
    to know the reasons why and the answers to and the
    people who and the places where and the days when, in
    memory of the bitter hours when we discovered we
    were black and poor and small and different and nobody
    cared and nobody wondered and nobody understood;
For the boys and girls who grew in spite of these things to
    be man and woman, to laugh and dance and sing and
    play and drink their wine and religion and success, to
    marry their playmates and bear children and then die
    of consumption and anemia and lynching;
For my people thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox
    Avenue in New York and Rampart Street in New
    Orleans, lost disinherited dispossessed and happy
    people filling the cabarets and taverns and other
    people’s pockets and needing bread and shoes and milk and
    land and money and something—something all our own;
For my people walking blindly spreading joy, losing time
     being lazy, sleeping when hungry, shouting when
     burdened, drinking when hopeless, tied, and shackled
     and tangled among ourselves by the unseen creatures
     who tower over us omnisciently and laugh;
For my people blundering and groping and floundering in
     the dark of churches and schools and clubs
     and societies, associations and councils and committees and
     conventions, distressed and disturbed and deceived and
     devoured by money-hungry glory-craving leeches,
     preyed on by facile force of state and fad and novelty, by
     false prophet and holy believer;
For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way
    from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding,
    trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people,
    all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations;
Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a
    bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second
    generation full of courage issue forth; let a people
    loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of
    healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing
    in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs
    be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now
    rise and take control.
Gwendolyn Brooks was a highly regarded, much-honored poet, with the distinction of being the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. She also was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress—the first black woman to hold that position—and poet laureate of the State of Illinois. Many of Brooks’s works display a political consciousness, especially those from the 1960s and later, with several of her poems reflecting the civil rights activism of that period. In 1949, she became the first ever black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize with Annie Allen which tells the story of a black woman’s passage from childhood to adulthood, against a backdrop of poverty and discrimination.
POET Gwendolyn Brooks
"the birth in the narrow room" by Gwendolyn Brooks
Weeps out of western country something new. 
Blurred and stupendous. Wanted and unplanned. 
Winks. Twines, and weakly winks 
Upon the milk-glass fruit bowl, iron pot 
The bashful china child tipping forever 
Yellow apron and spilling pretty cherries. 

Now, weeks and years will go before she thinks 
"How pinchy is my room! how can I breathe! 
I am not anything and I have got 
Not anything, or anything to do!"- 
But prances nevertheless with gods and fairies 
Blithely about the pump and then beneath 
The elms and grapevines, then in darling endeavor 
By privy foyer, where the screenings stand 
And where the bugs buzz by in private cars 
Across old peach cans and jelly jars.


Langston Hughes was regarded as “the unchallenged spokesman of the American Negro.” That Hughes was unchallenged in the role of spokesman may itself have been open to challenge–In 1925, Hughes was bussing tables in a Washington, D.C., hotel, and he slipped a few poems to the famous poet Vachel Lindsay, who was visiting the hotel. The next day, newspapers announced Lindsay’s discovery of a new poet. “The Weary Blues” was one of these poems, and it became the title poem of Hughes’s first book the following year.

POET Langston Hughes

The Weary Blues

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
        I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
       He did a lazy sway. . . .
       He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
        O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
        Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man's soul.
        O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan--
        "Ain't got nobody in all this world,
        Ain't got nobody but ma self.
        I's gwine to quit ma frownin'
        And put ma troubles on the shelf."

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more--
        "I got the Weary Blues
        And I can't be satisfied--
        I ain't happy no mo'
        And I wish that I had died."
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad (New
York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), p. 50.

Have a favorite free verse poem you'd like to share?

Ever written poetry? Please feel free to share it below. MGR would love to read it.
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"...I have one of those VERY LOUD, stupid laughs. If I ever sat behind myself in a movie I'd probably lean over and tell myself to please shut up." - Author, JD Salinger

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