CommonLit Secondary Classrooms 8 Influential and Famous Black Authors with Lessons on CommonLit

CommonLit’s online digital literacy program is full of authentic texts by famous authors and poets.

The following texts are a great resource for building meaningful and rigorous lessons for Black History Month, or for year-round learning. Each author or poet has multiple texts available on CommonLit, and each lesson includes skills-based comprehension questions, multiple choice and open-response assessment questions, paired texts, related media, and more!

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) was an African American poet, author, and teacher. In 1950, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, which made her the first African-American woman to receive this honor. Her writing often explores the experiences of ordinary people and their communities. Teachers can assign her works, “Home”, “We Real Cool”, and “Sadie and Maud” on CommonLit!

We Real Cool” (8th grade)

In this poem, the speaker sees a group of young men at a pool hall who are not at school. They ignore their responsibilities to have fun, and the speaker seems to predict or imply that the young men know that this lifestyle will result in consequences. This poem is perfect for teaching figurative language and literary devices like rhyme, alliteration, and tone.

With the assessment questions provided for each of our digital lessons, students gain experience working through rigorous questions in preparation for benchmark assessments and high-stakes testing. Provide meaningful practice for students by assigning Assessment Question 5, “What is the effect of the repetition of the word ‘we’ throughout the poem?”

Rita Dove

Rita Dove is a contemporary African American writer. She is the second African American poet to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Teachers can assign lessons about her poems “Heart to Heart” and “Fifth Grade Autobiography.”

Heart to Heart” (7th grade)

In this famous poem, the speaker describes the literal and metaphorical functions of the heart. By highlighting the heart’s complex functions, the speaker is debunking common stereotypes and clichés about the correlation between love and the heart. Yet, the speaker also acknowledges how they are susceptible to desire and longs for love in their life.

Have students dive into Dove’s writing process by showing the video “Big Think Interview with Rita Dove” from the Related Media tab. Ask students to discuss how learning about Dove’s creative process changes student understanding of the poem.

Related Media tab with multimedia lessons on "Heart to Heart" text on CommonLit

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was a famous African American poet, novelist, and playwright. He was born in Dayton, Ohio, to parents who had been enslaved in Kentucky before the American Civil War. His works, “Sympathy”, “We Wear the Mask”, “The Faith Cure Man” and “Dawn” can be assigned on CommonLit.

Dawn” (5th grade)

In this poem, a speaker describes dawn.This short, four-line poem is a great choice for close reading to help students discover the power of figurative language and personification.

Have students investigate Dunbar’s use of personification by asking Discussion Question 1, “Why does the poet portray night and day as people? What do you think was his purpose in doing so? Think of an event in nature that could be described with a human action or trait.”

Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni is a well-known poet, writer, activist, and educator. She was one of the foremost authors of the Black Arts Movement, an African American-led ideological art movement that was active during the 1960s and 1970s. Giovanni has won numerous awards, including the American Book Award. Her work ranges from covering topics on race, gender, the African American experience and social issues to children's literature and critical commentary. Teachers can assign lessons on her poems, “Legacies”, “Mothers”, “Rosa Parks”, and “Walking Down Park”.

Rosa Parks” (9th grade)

In this poem about the Civil Rights Movement, the speaker describes some of the important contributions of lesser-known groups who inspired activism and stood up for civil rights. The poem focuses specifically on the Pullman-Porters, a group of African American men hired to work as rail porters. The text describes the history of the group’s organizing throughout the south and the Midwest, and their perseverance. The Pullman-Porters protected Emmett Till on a train ride through the south, and later inspired Rosa Parks’ bus boycott.

Read this poem alongside “Emmett Till” by Jessica McBirney from the Paired Texts tab. Ask students to respond to the question, “In light of reading this text, how has your view changed on the role the Pullman Porters played within the Civil Rights movement?”

Nikki Grimes

Nikki Grimes is an African American author, poet, writer, and journalist. Grimes is well known for her award-winning books written for children and young adults. Read her poems “Wallet Size”, “Truth”, “Jabari Unmasked” and “David’s Old Soul” on CommonLit!

Wallet Size” (3rd grade)

In this poem, the speaker describes how they are “rounder than most,” resulting in even more for loved ones to cherish. The speaker asks someone they love to carry their portrait in their wallet.

Have students practice key reading comprehension skills by answering the lesson’s Assessment Questions. Assign Question 2, “What is the central message of the poem?” for practice determining the main idea of a text.

"Wallet Size" by Nikki Grimes on CommonLit with Assessment Questions

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was a famous African American poet, social activist, novelist, and playwright. Hughes is considered one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, which took place in Harlem from about 1918 until the mid-1930s. CommonLit has plenty of powerful lessons for teaching Hughes’ work, including “Thank You Ma’am”, “Harlem”, “Dreams”, “Mother to Son”, “I, Too”, “I Look at the World”, “Let America Be America Again”, “One Friday Morning”, and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”.

Harlem” (5th grade)

In this poem, a speaker wonders what happens to dreams when they are postponed. The poem uses several similes to suggest what might result from delaying dreams, making it a great text for teaching figurative language.

Pair this text with “Poetry Means the World to Me” by Tony Medina from the Paired Texts tab, and “ask students to discuss how the first poem provides information about the author of the second. How does Tony Medina explore how Langston Hughes uses poetry? How does ‘Harlem’ further support Medina’s claims in ‘Poetry Means the World to Me’?”

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was a famous Blackwriter, feminist, and civil rights activist. She was a self-described "Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet." In her life and work, she confronted and addressed injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. Her poetry often expresses anger and outrage at the civil and social injustices she observed throughout her life. Teachers can assign engaging lessons on her poems “Hanging Fire” and “A Litany for Survival.”

Hanging Fire” (7th grade)

In this poem, the speaker shares the anxieties she has about growing up and her worries for the future. She feels unsupported and alone in her troubles big and small.

Show “Behind the Doodle: Audre Lorde’s 87th Birthday” from the Related Media tab to deepen students’ background knowledge of the poet. Based on the video, ask students “how … Lorde’s personal experiences influenced the speaker’s point of view in ‘Hanging Fire’? What do students think was Lorde’s purpose for writing ‘Hanging Fire’?”

Claude McKay

Claude McKay (1889-1948) was a Jamaican American writer and poet during the Harlem Renaissance. McKay dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of oppressed people. The CommonLit library is home to powerful lessons on his texts “America”, “If We Must Die”, “To One Coming North”, “After the Winter”, and “On Broadway”.

America” (9th grade)

In this poem, the speaker is expressing his conflicted feelings toward America. The frustration and anger he has with his country is juxtaposed with the emotions of love and awe.

Tie the poem to key historical context by asking students Discussion Question 1, “During the era of the Jim Crow laws, many Black Americans struggled with the idea of living in the ‘land of the free' and being denied basic human rights. How does McKay's poem ‘America’ reflect this experience?”

Next Steps

For more essential texts by famous Black authors, writers, and poets check out our Black Authors text set, or join one of our upcoming Black History Month Webinars for teachers of grades 3-5 or 6-12!

If you’re interested in learning more about CommonLit’s free online reading program, join one of our informational webinars!