Classics of Black American Protest Poetry

Presented by Poetry in America

Elisa New

Elisa New

Professor of American Literature, Harvard University,

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Great poetry allows us to discover the many sides of ourselves and the world around us – both its beauty and its injustice. This audio course “Classics of Black American Protest Poetry” explores the U.S. tradition of Black protest through poetry. In the face of the recent murder of George Floyd, the disproportionate mortality of people of color during the COVID 19 pandemic, and Black Lives Matter demonstrations all over the country and around the world, we look back at America’s great history of civic poetry.  we will read several foundational poems rooted in the Harlem Renaissance, including classics by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton.

Hosted by Harvard professor Elisa New, will feature highlights and never-before-heard outtakes from conversations with many of the most distinguished people of our time, as well as poetry readers and interpreters of all ages.

What You'll Learn

  • You will learn about the Black protest tradition in the United States

  • You will learn about the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance

  • You will hear from prominent American figures in never-before-heard conversations


12 Episodes



1. Introduction to Poetry in America: Classics of Black America Protest Poetry


To begin this podcourse on great Black protest poems, we start with the great and foundational wellspring of African American poetry – the tradition of the Spiritual. Spirituals are traditional songs of African Americans; often, they are imbued with Christian values and describe the hardship, hope and disappointment of slavery. In this episode, we hear international opera star Davóne Tines sing "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel," a complex protest poem itself, and a great musical classic of spiritual striving.Davóne Tines is an opera singer from Raleigh, North Carolina. He is most notably known for his adaptation and performance of The Black Clown, a musical theater experience inspired by Langston Hughes' poem by the same name.

2. Introduction to The Harlem Renaissance


This episode introduces the Harlem Renaissance as an important origin point for Black protest poetry in the city. During the early 20th century, African American artists in Harlem experienced a collective awakening comparable to the 15th-century Italian renaissance – an artistic and political resurgence that inspired many of the poets whom we’ll meet in this podcourse. In this episode, we set the scene with a brief introduction to the literary culture of the 20th century.

3. "Harlem" by Langston Hughes with Poet Sonia Sanchez


We invite famWe invite famed Black Arts poet Sonia Sanchez to discuss with us Langston Hughes’ “Harlem.” Langston Hughes is possibly one of the most important forebears of the Harlem Renaissance. He honored black vernacular, and wrote poetry for the page and for the stage. Poetry, for Hughes, was not an academic subject, but a social instrument he used for his people and his whole nation. Sanchez speaks to how Hughes' radicalism, and his readiness to name the heavy load Black people carried, ...

4. “Harlem” by Langston Hughes with Jazz Pianist Herbie Hancock and President Bill Clinton


We continue our discussion of Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” with Jazz composer and pianist Herbie Hancock and U.S. President Bill Clinton. During his discussion with Elisa New, Herbie Hancock explores the poem’s roots in the African American blues music tradition. President Clinton also shares in this episode some bits of vivid personal memory, and his thoughts on the meaning of Hughes’ words for African Americans today.

5. "Atlantic City Waiter" by Countee Cullen with Poet Clint Smith


Poet and scholar Clint Smith discusses Countee Cullen’s “Atlantic City Waiter.” Along with Hughes, Cullen was perhaps the most visible and admired of the Harlem Renaissance poets, but he thought differently about his poetry than Hughes. Cullen saw beauty in European as well as Black American traditions, and his poems draw on influences from a broad range of available cultural traditions. Cullen’s Black America gives a sense that there is a world beyond America and its racism – a world to wh...

6. "Let America Be America Again" by Langston Hughes with Poet Joshua Bennett


We discuss Langston Hughes’ “Let America be America Again” with talented poet and scholar Joshua Bennett, who in his teenage years recited spoken word for President and Mrs. Obama at the White House. In this poem, Hughes conjures a nostalgia for America that naturally swells any patriot's breast. Yet, at the same time, the poet refuses this “false patriotic wreath,” voicing his anger at exclusion and his discomfort with claiming a place in America’s future. Hughes’ poem does not speak wit...

7. "To Certain Critics" by Countee Cullen with Poet Clint Smith


We bring back scholar and poet Clint Smith to reflect on Countee Cullen’s “To Certain Critics.” In this episode, we discuss how Cullen addressed the contemporary controversy surrounding his poetry. In “To Certain Critics,” the poet uses four-stress, tetrameter lines to defend the Black poets’ right to use, and to innovate within, this old ballad form.

8. "America Will Be" by Joshua Bennett


We invite American poet Joshua Bennett to discuss his poem “America Will Be.” Based on Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again,” Bennett’s poem reflects on his father’s experience as a Black student integrating his high school in the 1960s, and what it means for him to have an education today.

9. “a song in the front yard” by Gwendolyn Brooks with Actor Alfre Woodard


We invite American actor Alfre Woodard to discuss Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago poetGwendolyn Brooks’ “a song in the front yard.” In this poem, Brooks maps out the emotional life of her Black Chicago, taking us into crowded neighborhoods spaces and capturing the tone of a young striver. With her sympathetic but clear-eyed gaze, Brooks’ poetry brings to life the struggles and triumphs of ordinary people in her community.

10. “the mother’s story” by Lucille Clifton with Poet Eileen Myles


We invite American poet and writer Eileen Myles to discuss Lucille Clifton’s “the mother’sstory.” In the late 1960s, New York poet Lucille Clifton first began publishing the understated,powerful poems that she is famous for today. “the mother’s story” presents a distinctintersectional perspective on both motherhood and cultural tradition. The poem protests the ideaof a purely male artistic lineage, and tries to establish a female one in its place.

11. "To Prisoners" by Gwendolyn Brooks with Poet Reginald Dwayne Betts and Actor Anna Deavere Smith


Gwendolyn Brooks’ “To Prisoners” is both a prayer for those imprisoned and a rallying cry forjustice. In this episode, we discuss the issue of mass incarceration of African Americans as the“New Jim Crow,” and explore the focus of African American protest today, with poet ReginaldDwayne Betts and actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith.

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