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About African American Poetry


African American Poetry contains nearly 3,000 poems by African American poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It provides a comprehensive survey of the early history of African American poetry, from the earliest published African American poems to the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first African American poet to achieve national success and recognition.

The authors and works included in the collection show the huge variety of this relatively unexplored area of American literary history: coverage includes writers from both North and South, from rural and urban backgrounds, and ranges from University-educated professionals to those for whom the very acts of reading and writing constituted a defiance of Southern slave laws. Generically, poems range from ballads, broadsides and humorous verse to Romantic odes, sonnets and historical epics.

Authors covered include:

  • Lucy Terry Prince (1730–1821), an African-born slave whose one surviving ballad, 'Bars Fight'', is the first known poem by an African American. It describes an Indian raid on Massachusetts settlers in 1746, and was not published until 1855.
  • Phillis Wheatley (1753?–1784), who was abducted from West Africa and sold as a slave in Boston, and went on to become one of the major American poets of the Colonial period. Wheatley showed prodigious intelligence as a young woman, and her volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) made her only the second American woman to publish a volume of poetry.
  • Jupiter Hammon (1711–1800?), whose poems, such as 'The Kind Master and Dutiful Servant', advocated Christian piety and loyal servitude.
  • George Moses Horton (1797?–1883?), author of The Hope of Liberty (1829), the first book published in the South by an African American; his works show a new candour and defiance in their depiction of the indignities and outrages of slavery.
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1824–1911), a free woman from Baltimore who campaigned for the abolition of slavery and for women's rights. Her powerful descriptions of the experience of slavery include 'Bury Me in a Free Land', 'The Slave Auction', and 'The Slave Mother, a Tale of the Ohio', which is based on the same real-life events as Toni Morrison's novel Beloved.
  • James Monroe Whitfield (1822–1871), a regular contributor to abolitionist journals, whose ironic and accusatory poems such as 'The Misanthropist' and 'America' anticipate the Black nationalism of later generations.
  • George Boyer Vashon (1824–1878), a free man from Pennsylvania who practised law and had an illustrious academic career; his poem 'Vincent Ogé' is an epic account of the slave rebellion in 1790s Haiti.
  • Albery Allson Whitman (1851–1901), who was born into slavery in Kentucky, but went on to attend Wilberforce University. His 'Twasintsa's Seminoles, or the Rape of Florida' is a highly sophisticated poem about Seminole Indians and Maroons (escaped slaves) combining to fight against white Americans in Florida.
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906), described by Booker T. Washington as 'The Poet Laureate of the Negro Race'; his highly influential works range from dialect poems that draw on plantation and minstrel traditions to poems in 'standard' English that use more conventional Victorian poetic forms.

Editorial policy

The contents are based upon the bibliography of William French et al, Afro-American Poetry and Drama, 1760–1975: A Guide to Information Sources (Gale Research, 1979).


Generally, the policy has been to use first editions whenever possible; later editions were selected if they were more inclusive. Where poems appeared in their original dialect in an earlier edition and standardised in a later edition, both forms have been included for comparison purposes. Poems originally published in periodicals have also been included.


Textual apparatus and front matter to the poems are generally omitted, except the poet's own notes, which have been included in the database.