In 1773 Phyllis Wheatley became the first African American and the third woman in the United States to publish a book of poems. A second manuscript was written, but never published, nor found. Since that time, black female poets have spoken loud and clear about the angst and optimism of the black experience. Four of these sisters who broke new ground are Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks and Maya Angelou.
Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni, Jr. was born June 7, 1943, in Knoxville, Tennessee and grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. Giovanni attended Fisk University and In 1967 earned in B.A. in history. Later she became a professor of writing and literature at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. She has penned two dozen books, most notably her works of poetry during the 60s. These works include “Black Feeling, Black Talk” (1968), “Black Judgement” (1968), and “Re: Creation” (1970). Her three most recent works are “Love Poems,” “Blues: For All the Changes,” and “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea; Poems and Not Quite Poems,” and “Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People.” In 1988 she published a collection of essays, “Sacred Cows…and Other Edibles.”
It has been written that, “Her collection of poetry, ‘Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgement,’ captures the militant attitude of the civil rights and Black Art movements of that time.”
Wilsonia Sonia Benita Sanchez is a poet/playwright and educator borm September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama. Like Ms. Giovanni she earned a B.A. degree. Sanchez received hers in political science from Hunter College in 1955. She has won numerous literary honors including the Lucretia Mott Award, a National Endowment for the Arts award and an honorary Ph.D from Wilberforce University (1972).
In 1972 Sanchez joined the Nation of Islam. However, she left in 1975 because some of her views conflicted with the Nation of Islam’s position on women’s roles. Sanchez has always been known for the fact that her political activism is also evident in her plays and poetry. Her work includes, “Homegirls & Hand Grenades” (1985), for which she received the American Book Award. Her most notable plays include, “The Bronx is Next” (1970), “Sister Sonji” (1972), “Malcolm Man/Don’t Live Here No More” (1979), and “I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t” (1982).
In 1965 she joined the faculty at San Francisco State University. She also taught at Rutgers University, the University of Pittsburgh, Manhattan Community College of CUNY; The City College of CUNY, Amherst College, and the University of Pennsylvania. Ten years later she was on the faculty of Temple University.
Gwendolyn Brooks was born June 7, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas. However, the Brooks family soon moved to Chicago. According to researcher Kenny Jackson, as a young woman Brooks was fortunate enough to meet “James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, who urged her to read modern poetry–especially the work of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and e. e. cummings–and who emphasized the need to write as much and as frequently as she possibly could.”
Subsequently, much of her work was featured in the Chicago Defender. In 1945 her first book of poetry was published, “A Street In Bronzeville.” That same year she received a Guggenheim Fellowship. While it was critically well received, as was her second book 1949’s “Annie Allen.” Five years hence Ms. Brooks struck pay-dirt. That year she became the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Over the years she was invited to read at a Library of Congress poetry festival (1962), named as a poetry consultant to that same body (1985) and in 1994 she was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities as the 1994 Jefferson Lecturer, the highest award in the humanities given by the federal government.
According to Jackson, “A turning point in her career came in 1967 when she attended the Fisk University Second Black Writers’ Conference and decided to become more involved in the Black Arts movement. She became one of the most visible articulators of ‘the black aesthetic.’ Her ‘awakening’ led to a shift away from a major publishing house to smaller black ones. While some critics found an angrier tone in her work, elements of protest had always been present in her writing and her awareness of social issues did not result in diatribes at the expense of her clear commitment to aesthetic principles.”
Some of her works include, “Bronzeville Boys and Girls” (1956), “In the Mecca” (1968).
“The Bean Eaters” (1960), “Selected Poems” (1963), and “Report from Part One: An Autobiography” (1972). Her latest work is a book of poetry titled, “In Montgomery.” Many of her poems are powerful pieces that dealt with the abject nature of inner city life and racial inequality. It has been written that the impetus for a lot of her work came about by “looking out of the window of her second-floor apartment house in Chicago.” Perhaps Brooks is best known for the succinct and soulful, “We Real Cool”:
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Brooks said of the pool players in her classic work, “They have no pretensions to any glamour. They are supposedly dropouts, or at least they’re in the poolroom when they should possibly be in school. You’re supposed to stop after the ‘We’ and think about their validity…I want to represent their basic uncertainty, which they don’t bother to question every day.”
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. During her twenties Maya studied dance in New York City and also sang in nightclubs on both coasts. She has lived all over the world, even serving as editor for The Arab Observer, a Cairo newspaper. She also taught in music and drama in Ghana and studied cinematography in Sweden. Marguerite later married Tosh Angelos, a Greek-American sailor. Theirs was a short-lived marriage and they divorced.
Angelou is a poet, actor, director, producer and author of stage, film and television. She is the author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969), which focused on growing up in the racist South and her rape by her mother’s boyfriend, and her volume of poetry “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die” (1971). She earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for the score she wrote for the film, “Georgia.” In 1977, she was nominated for an Emmy award for her portrayal of Nyo Boto in the television miniseries”Roots.”
She has served under Presidents Ford and Carter, as a member of the Bicentennial Commission and a member of the Commission for the International Woman of the Year. In 1993, she was asked to read an original poem for the William Jefferson Clinton inauguration–a piece titled, On the Pulse of Morning.”
According to Wikipedia, “Comedian David Alan Grier spoofed Angelou while hosting the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. The gag was that Angelou (played by Grier) had been hired as the new spokesperson for Pennzoil motor oils. In character, Grier read a poem dramatically, using Afrocentrism as an analogy for motor oil. There was a similar joke during the same episode with Grier-as-Angelou hawking Froot Loops breakfast cereal. Angelou is said to have requested a copy of the sketch on videotape because she so enjoyed it.”
Angelou once penned:
…Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
It’s the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Nikki Giovanni biography Wikipedia
“Women of Color Women of Word, African American Female Playwrights–Sonia Sanchez.” Author and publication unknown.
“An Interview with Brooks: On ‘We Real Cool’,” by George Stavros
“Gwendolyn Brooks’ Life and Career,” by Kenny Jackson Williams
“Maya Angelou, biography,”