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Giving Voice

Poetry

Young poets during the second half of the twentieth century were inspired and nourished by earlier generations of poets, including such renowned figures as Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes. But these later artists also felt the need for a new genre of poetry that would suit their activist approach to the world. Such figures as Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, E. Ethelbert Miller, and Sonia Sanchez developed a more assertive, confrontational style in both language and delivery, which gave them an important role in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Through transitional performers such as Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets, this new wave of Black poetry influenced early street rap poetry and rap music, which in turn nurtured the spoken word movements among a younger wave of artists. Building on the past, contemporary Black poetry favors a pronounced rhythmic pattern and uses the Black idiom—including rap, call-and-response, and signification.

Featured Participants

Toni Blackman, Brooklyn, New York
Blackman is a New York City-based poet, emcee, freestyle rap artist, and teacher. A graduate of Howard University, Blackman has worked with the U.S. State Department as an "ambassador of hip-hop."

Kenny Carroll, Washington, D.C.
Based in Washington, Carroll is a poet and teacher of poetry, fiction, playwriting, Black arts, and the African American oral tradition. Carroll is executive director of the D.C. WritersCorps.

Thomas Sayers Ellis, Brooklyn, New York
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Ellis is a poet who, in 1988, co-founded the Dark Room Collective in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His work has appeared in Poetry, Grand Street, Tin House, Ploughshares, and The Best American Poetry. In 2005, he published The Maverick Room.

Tonya Matthews, Cincinnati, Ohio
Matthews is an up-and-coming poetry/spoken-word artist. Originally from the Washington, D.C., area, she participates in a collective of female spoken-word artists, and also works with a local youth-based, spoken-word/poetry program. Matthews holds a doctorate in biomedical engineering.

Sonia Sanchez, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Sanchez is a poet, teacher, activist, and author of plays, children's books, and numerous collections of poetry. Sanchez has two recordings on Smithsonian Folkways: A Sun Lady for All Seasons Reads Her Poetry (1971) and a track on Every Tone a Testimony (2001).

The poetry of Langston Hughes (1902-1967) frequently employs the deep, rich strains of African American oral traditions. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.