Friday, March 18, 2011

Three American Voices

Black Americans can claim three of America’s finest poets—Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni—as clarion voices of their heritage and experience. They are in many ways dissimilar writers, but their themes and vernacular often have, and naturally so, an echo that is indelible in the experience of growing up black in twentieth century America. Each poet is distinct, each with a clear identity but their voices together make a stirring and resonant impression.

LANGSTON HUGHES was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. He spent some time at Columbia University before taking work on a tramp steamer headed to West Africa and Europe. The ship traveled up and down the coast of West Africa for several months before Hughes left the ship, settling in Paris for an extended time. Back in the US, he earned a degree at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, then moved to Harlem in New York City where he remained until his death in 1967. Other work by the poet is posted here; his collected poetry here.

MAYA ANGELOU was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1928. She started out as an actress and dancer in New York, became a journalist in Africa, and later worked extensively in drama, television and films. She speaks five languages and has published over thirty books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction since her 1969 bestselling autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Ms Angelou is lifetime Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. I Shall Not Be Moved.

NIKKI GIOVANNI was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1943. She has published sixteen collections of her poetry and teaches writing and literature at Virginia Tech. Collected poetry.

MOTHER TO SON (Langston Hughes)

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-climbin’ on,

And reachin’ landin’s,

And turnin’ corners,

And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Where 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’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

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

ME AND MY WORK (Maya Angelou)

I got a piece of a job on the waterfront.

Three days ain’t hardly a grind.

It buys some beans and collard greens

and pays the rent on time.

Course the wife works, too.

Got three big children to keep in school,

need clothes and shoes on their feet,

give them enough of the things they want

and keep them out of the street.

They’ve always been good.

My story ain’t news and it ain’t all sad.

There’s plenty worse off than me.

Yet the only thing I really don’t need

is strangers’ sympathy.

That’s somebody else’s word for


QUILTS (Nikki Giovanni)

Like a fading piece of cloth

I am a failure

No longer do I cover tables filled with food and laughter

My seams are frayed my hems falling my strength no longer able

To hold the hot and cold

I wish for those first days

When just woven I could keep water

From seeping through

Repelled stains with the tightness of my weave

Dazzled the sunlight with my


I grow old though pleased with my memories

The tasks I can no longer complete

Are balanced by the love of the tasks gone past

I offer no apology only

this plea:

When I am frayed and strained and drizzle at the end

Please someone cut a square and put me in a quilt

That I might keep some child warm

And some old person with no one else to talk to

Will hear my whispers

And cuddle



  1. I do like Maya Angelou's poems so much. This is a jewel.

  2. Distinct voices all. As we've said so many times, it is that ability through words to come at something from an angle, shedding light on experience in unexpected ways that raises us humans up to grander heights.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America