CommonLit Secondary Classrooms Powerful Poems by Black Authors for Secondary Students

These engaging and diverse poems on CommonLit’s digital literary platform are all written by Black authors and poets. Each poem will spark reading engagement from secondary students with powerful imagery and strong themes, spurring deep student discussions and supporting reading comprehension practice.

Harlem” by Langston Hughes (6th grade)

An important leader in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes was an African American poet, novelist, and social activist. This famous Hughes poem vividly describes what happens to dreams when they are postponed.

After reading this poem with your class, prompt a debate or launch a writing task with Discussion Question 2, “Do you think there are times when it is best to put a dream off? Why or why not?”

Truth” by Nikki Grimes (7th grade)

In this inspirational poem, Grimes uses a unique Golden Shovel form to encourage readers to seize opportunities, even when they may feel uncertain. Written in 2017, this Grimes text pulls the final word of each line from Harlem Renaissance poet Jean Toomer’s 1927 poem “Storm Ending.”

After reading this poem, explore the Related Media resources to not only provide your students the opportunity to hear from the poet herself but also provide background knowledge on the Golden Shovel form Grimes uses. “‘Introduction: The Golden Shovel’” from Poetry Magazine” is a great clip to explain how the form was created. Then, student’s can launch into independent writing, using the Golden Shovel format.

Heart to Heart” by Rita Dove (8th grade)

In this evocative text, contemporary Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Dove describes a heart both literally and metaphorically.

After students read this engaging text, explore the Related Media resource “Symbolx - The Origin of the Heart Symbol.” This short video describes how the heart came to be known as a symbol of love. Ask students to compare how Dove’s poem depicts the heart to the history of this important symbol.

We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar (8th grade)

Dunbar was one of the first African American authors to reach large-scale audiences, first publishing his poems at the age of 16. Students will be engaged throughout this poem, as they dive into how the collective “we” often mask our true feelings behind a pleasant facade.

After reading this poem, invite students to grapple with Discussion Question 4, “Does the speaker seem genuine when he recommends wearing ‘the mask?’ Consider when the poem was written and the tone the speaker uses.”

We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks (9th grade)

Brooks was the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and this poem is one of her classics. The speaker uses snappy language to describe a group of men she sees in a pool hall.

After reading this poem, invite students to examine another Brooks poem: “Sadie and Maud.” Ask students to compare the two poems with the following prompts: “What similar themes do these poems explore? What tone does Brooks use to explore these themes?”

Legacies” by Nikki Giovanni (9th grade)

Giovanni - a well-known African American poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator - shares an exchange between a grandmother and granddaughter.

After reading the poem, share the Related Media resource “Legacies” with students, a recording of a reading of the poem. Ask students to pay attention to the tone the speaker in the recording uses specifically, “How does this contribute to the tone of the text, as well as students’ overall understanding of the poem?”

A Litany for Survival” by Audre Lorde (10th grade)

Lorde was a seminal African American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist, and this poem addresses those who are so focused on survival, they cannot afford to dream. Lorde’s heavy descriptions build a fearful mood, but students will be empowered by the brave shift towards the end of the poem.

After reading the text, encourage students to share their own reflections on Discussion Question 1, “In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker states, ‘So it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive.’ What does this mean to you? Describe a time when you spoke up for yourself.” This discussion question also serves as a great independent journal prompt for students!

To One Coming North” by Claude McKay (11th grade)

This poem, from McKay’s book Harlem Shadows, describes the speaker’s mixed-feeling experience coming North. Students will be awed by how McKay, a Jamaican-American writer and poet, beautifully describes the landscape while evoking an array of emotions.

After reading this text, assign students the Paired Text “America,” also by McKay. Ask students, “How does the spark feel about America in the poem ‘America’? How does this compare to the speaker’s feelings about the North in ‘To One Coming North’? How do both speakers express a sense of being conflicted?”

Next Steps

Looking to explore more great instructional ideas to celebrate Black History Month? Check out our Black Heritage Text Set and our upcoming webinars!