Keep Us Strong: Poems in Celebration of Black History Month

by Paulette Beete
Duke Ellington sits with a group of friends on a sofa in William Gottlieb's home

Portrait of Duke Ellington, William P. Gottlieb's home, Maryland, 1941. From Library of Congress collection

The history of Black Americans in the U.S. covers a panoply of achievements—from notable artists and athletes to statesmen and professors to seemingly ordinary people who were determined to take a stand against injustice and inequity. The poems below honor just a small sampling of people who have indelibly changed American culture. We encourage you this Black History month and throughout the year to seek out more stories like these—on the National Endowment for the Arts blog, magazine, and podcast, of course—but also in your own fields of interest and in your own communities. 

"Jim Crow dies and ravens come with crumbs./ They say--Eat and be satisfied./ I fast and pray and ride." from Miz Rosa Rides the Bus by Angela Jackson

Read "Miz Rosa Rides the Bus" by Angela Jackson

"Your body, hard vowels/ In a soft dress, is still." from Nina's Blues by Cornelius Eady

Read "Nina's Blues" by Cornelius Eady

"... you kept writing and walking,/ looking/ for what you knew was out there." from "du bois in ghana" by Evie Shockley

Read "du bois in ghana" by Evie Shockley

"And I knew Mingus was a genius. I knew two/ other things, but there were wrong, as it happened." from Mingy at the Showplace by William Matthews

Read "Mingus at the Showplace" by William Matthews

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

Read "Canary" by Rita Dove

"so get on up & fly away duke, bebop/ slant & fade on in, strut, dance/ swing, riff/ & float & stroke those tickling gri-/ gri keys" from The Day Duke Raised May 24th 1974 by Quincy Troupe

Read "The Day Duke Raised: May 24th, 1974" by Quincy Troupe

"Git way inside us./ Keep us strong.../ O Ma Rainey." from Ma Rainey by Sterling A. Brown

Read "Ma Rainey" by Sterling A. Brown

" this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro/ beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world/ where none is lonely, none hunted, alien" from Frederick Douglass by Robert Hayden

Read "Frederick Douglass" by Robert Hayden

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