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Lift Every Voice and Sing: Poems Celebrating African-American History

In James Weldon Johnson's famous poem "Lift Every Voice and Sing"—known colloquially as the black national anthem—the poet urges us to "Let our rejoicing rise/ High as the list’ning skies...." In the poems that follow poets lift their voices skyward in praise of notable figures in African-American history, from civil rights activists to musicians to politicians. These are just a few of the many poems that you can find online marking the achievements, the disappointments, the hopes, and the fears of African Americans of all occupations from across the generations. Why not start your own treasury of poems by browsing where you can search by subject or poet?

lines from the Rosa Parks poem across the background of the interior of a bus

Background photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

"My feets were tired. My eyes were/ sore. My heart was raw from hemming/dirty ediges of Miss L. Muffet's garment/I rode again." from "Miz Rosa Rides the Bus" by Angela Jackson

text from poem about Martin Luther King Jr. across photo of the Civil Rights Museum at Lorraine Motel

Background photo by Thomas R Machnitzki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

"A bird gets along beautifully in the air, but once she is on the/ ground that special equipment hampers her a great deal." from "Microwave Popcorn" by Harmony Holiday

Lines from a poem about Billie Holiday superimposed over a portrait of Billie Holiday

Photo by Carl Van Vechten, from Library of Congress Collection

"If you can't be free, be a mystery." from "Canary" by Rita Dove 

lines from poem about Duke Ellington over photo of keyboard of grand piano

"it is time for the Sacred Concert, duke/ it is time to make the music of God, duke/ we are listening for your intro, duke/ so let the sacred music, begin" from "The Day Duke Raised: May 24th, 1974" by Quincy Troupe

lines from Elizabeth Alexander poem over photo of people sitting at a table looking out at a cityscape

Background photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

"We encounter each other in words, words/ spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,/ words to consider, reconsider." from "Praise Song for the Day" by Elizabeth Alexander

If you liked this post, check out Life According to Langston Hughes for wisdom from one of our great American poets. 

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