Black History Month through Poetry

Discover the lives and poems of Angelou, Hughes, and Giovanni as you honor Black History Month.

By Cathy Neushul

Black History

February is a good time to focus on the rich, interesting poetry written by African Americans because it is Black History Month. Poets like Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and Nikki Giovanni use language in such a wonderful and enticing way that pupils reading their poetry will not only gain an appreciation of the genre, but also an insight into the lives of African Americans.

As you begin this unit, it's a good idea to expose your class to a variety of poems. You'll find that African American poets often write about subject matter that is gritty, candid, and as unique as their own personal experiences. Crime, inequality, growing up a minority, unwanted pregnancy, or the senses associated with a home-cooked meal might all have been fodder for these poets' pens. 


How Do the Events of One’s Life Affect His/Her Poetry?

Start your exploration of African American poetry by comparing and contrasting a poem by Langston Hughes to one by Robert Frost. It is an eye-opening experience to realize how much a person’s background and interests can influence what he chooses to write about. This is why one person might write about a serene landscape on a sunny day, and another might describe a scene with people fighting and crying. By comparing and contrasting the lives of different authors, students can better understand the diverse literary works these individuals produce.  

Why Does the Caged Bird Sing?

Maya Angelou has a wealth of poetry for your learners to discover. You can share some of your favorites with the class, or have them research Ms. Angelou and choose favorites of their own. Prior to turning students loose to research, I suggest you work on one poem as a class. Together you can take a close look at one of her poems and analyze the images and language that makes it unique. Pupils should be able to discuss both the topic and the way Angelou manipulates language. You can see Angelou’s distinguishing imagery and language in the following excerpt:

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"

A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind

and floats downstream

till the current ends

and dips his wings

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky. 

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings

with fearful thrill

of the things unknown

but longed for still

and is tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

How Should a Son Handle Life’s Hardships? 

One of my favorite Langston Hughes poems is especially poignant for middle and high schoolers. Hughes’ poem "Mother to Son" is a lovely description of how a mother's words can help to form her son into a man. In this work, your class can see how few lines it takes to communicate a wealth of ideas. By analyzing the images presented, and the argument as it is laid out, Hughes conveys a truth about this mother and son, and a gives an insight into what their lives are like. What is the truth that mother is trying to pass along to her son? It would be worthwhile to have your pupils consider whether or not this mother and son have aspirations, goals, and/or dreams. If so, what are they? What indicators in the poem lead to this conclusion?

“Mother to Son”

Well, son I’ll tell you:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor-


But all the time

I’se been a-climbing on,

And reachin’landin’s,

And Turnin’corners,

And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Whrere there ain’t been no light.

So boy, don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps.

‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now-

For I’se still goin’, hone,

I’se still climbing’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

What Matters Most in Life?

Nikki Giovanni uses poetic language to paint a picture. In her poem about growing up in Chicago, you can almost see and hear what her life must have been like. Pupils can record the details of this work that reveal the circumstances of Giovanni’s life. Even in this excerpt, readers get a glimpse of how she views white people, black people, and society at-large. There is plenty of fodder here for compare/contrast paragraphs, group discussions, and opinion pieces. You could even extend this to art by having pupils draw/paint the images conjured up by this moving poem. 


And though you’re poor it isn't

poverty that concerns you and

though they fought a lot

it isn't your father's drinking that

makes any difference but only that

Everybody is together and you

and your sister have happy birthdays

and very good Christmases and I

really hope no white person ever has

cause to write about me

because they never understand

Black love is Black wealth and they'll

probably talk about my hard childhood

and never understand that

all the while I was quite happy.

Does Everyone Have Poetic Leanings?

Once students have discussed and analyzed a variety of poems, they can write their own using their personal experience. You can have them do this through traditional poetry or by writing lyrics to a song. You can bring in the lyrics to a song by Beyonce, Usher, Rihanna, or another African American artist and show your students how their songs are also poetry. Even though these singers may, or may not, have written the songs, it's a good way for students to see how poetry is still relevant.

Using these wonderfully rich poems as examples, you can take your students on an exploration of African American poems and poetry. 

Are There More Ideas for Teaching Black History Month? 

Elements of Literature: Diction

Using the writings of Maya Angelou, this resource shows learners how an author's word choice creates a reaction in the reader. Pupils replace certain words in Angelou's sentences with different words and discuss how theses changes alter the meaning or impact of the passage. 

Poetry: Blues Style

As a way to connect music and poetry, this lesson discusses the poetry of prominent African Americans and how it was influenced by blues music. They look for ways that the blues influence can be found in poetry.

Powerful Poetry Presenting the Writer’s Soul

Using Langston Hughes as an example, students delve into the way this poet uses words to convey his meaning. In particular, pupils focus on figurative language. They also analyze how his poetry taps into universal themes.

Introduce Blues

Here is a lesson using the blues as a means to understand African American poetry, like that written by Langston Hughes. By using this method of approaching poetry, teachers can help students see the connection between poetry and music.