During this month of February, the nation once again celebrates Black History Month and remembers the achievements of black men and women who made their marks in history. Let us take a look at five famous black poets who are HBCU alumni, and contributed to the awareness of Black culture in America through their poems.
Nikki Giovanni (Fisk University)
Nikki Giovanni’s poetry reveals a strong appreciation for her African-American heritage. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1943, Giovanni belongs to a family of storytellers, who influenced her love for literature at an early age. She studied at the Fisk University at a time when a black renaissance was just beginning. Her early writings reflected her desire for more people to understand the plight of the black people. Her poems gained prominence during the late 1960s to early 1970s.
Giovanni taught at the Rutgers University in 1969. She also began to compose poems for children and had some of her works published for young readers. She became a popular voice for black people’s rights in the 1970s and 1980s and received awards from the National Council of Negro Women and the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers. Some of her recent works include The Prosaic Soul of Nikki Giovanni (2003), Acolytes (2007) and Bicycles: Love Poems (2009).
Langston Hughes (Lincoln University of Pennsylvania)
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was one of the black writers who emerged during the “Harlem Renaissance” in the 1920s. His poetry was about the ordinary black people and he portrayed their condition with depth and sensitivity. He was the first black American to earn his living from his writings and lectures aloe. The average black people recognize his wit and sincerity as he paints the blacks as a people of strength and beauty.
His life in different American cities when he was young and his travels to several countries as he grew older brought substance to his writings. He believed that man is inherently good and reflected in his writings the hope that one day men will live with each other in harmony. He was a famous novelist, writer of children’s poems, lyricist, translator and a lecturer. In 1947, he became a visiting professor at Atlanta University for creative writing. His poems have been translated into different languages – French, German, Russia, Czech and Spanish.
Claude Mckay (Tuskegee Institute)
Claude McKay was originally from Jamaica, where at an early age, he learned to appreciate English poetry. He started writing poetry in his teens, and was later able to publish his first verse collections, Songs of Jamaica in 1912. Songs of Jamaica presented the positive aspects of his peasant life, as contrasted with his next collection, Constab Ballads, which painted a bleak perspective on the plight of Jamaican blacks. McKay was able to go to the United States through the stipend he received from the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences from his novel, Songs of Jamaica. He studied at the Tuskegee Institute and later transferred to Kansas State College. As in Jamaica, he encountered racism in New York, which inspired him to write poetry that expressed his disgust for racism and prejudice directed to the blacks.
Through his writings, he drew attention to causes that are meant to uplift the condition of the blacks. His first novel, Home to Harlem was the most popular among his works and depicted the social reality prevalent among the black communities at that time. Home to Harlem became the first successful novel ever written by a black writer.
Melvin B. Tolson (Fisk University, Lincoln University of Pennsylvania)
Melvin Tolson (1898–1966) was known as one of the popular black poets who wrote in an Anglo-American tradition, blended with an African-American style. This made his poetry and sonnets unique as they reflected the lives of black Americans. His first collection of poetry, “Rendezvous With America” was awarded first place in the 1939 American Negro Exposition National Poetry Contest. This anthology of his poems depicted the struggles of black Americans throughout history and their aspirations and hopes to be recognized for their achievements.
His work, Harlem Gallery: Book One, The Curator, which started out as a sonnet, gained recognition as a poetic masterpiece, and reviewers likened it to the works of T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman. Melvin Tolson was also a professor of creative literature at Langston University, Langston, K and a professor of Humanities at Tuskegee Institute.
W.E.B. Du Bois (Fisk University)
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was a prolific writer, professor, political activist and one of the most notable participants in the civil rights movement in America. He was of African and French descent, and only understood the social prejudice against black Americans while attending Fisk University in Tennessee. He wrote “The Souls of Black Folk” which depicted the social struggles of black Americans.
He was one of the pioneers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) where he served as the director of publicity and research for many years. He also wrote several books which often dramatizes the struggles experienced by the black people. Because of his beliefs and political inclinations, he became a controversial figure during his time, yet is remembered n the black community as a “founding father of multiculturalism.”