April is National Poetry Month. It’s also a terrific time to explore the Schomburg Center’s in-person collections and YouTube channel to learn more about some groundbreaking artists across the African Diaspora. Plus, get book recommendations from the Schomburg Shop for more names to explore in April—or any month in the year.
Activist, actress, filmmaker, and scholar Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was an acclaimed poet and novelist. She is perhaps best-known for the poem "Phenomenal Woman" and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, one of her many best-selling books. In 2022, the U.S. Mint featured Dr. Angelou’s image on a quarter, making her the first Black woman to be featured on a U.S. coin.
The Schomburg Center is home to the Maya Angelou Papers. Located in the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division (MARB), the collection includes personal papers, manuscripts, unpublished works, and poetry.
Did you know Dr. Angelou released an album in 1969 called “The Poetry of Maya Angelou?” It contains works such as “The Calling of Names,” “Letter to an Aspiring Junkie,” “White Liberals,” “Harlem Hopscotch,” and “Miss Scarlett.” James Baldwin wrote the liner notes on the album’s back cover.
The Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division has The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou, Poems–an anthology divided into four sections—plus, And Still I Rise, which contains another collection of her poetry.
The Art and Artifacts Division holds a lithograph of her poem "Our Grandmothers" created by John Biggers. She and Biggers signed the artwork. The work is from Angelou’s book I Shall Not Be Moved.
The Center’s Photographs and Prints Division holds pictures of the poet from circa 1940—1989. The collection includes publicity stills from the television special, And Still I Rise, and book tours such as All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes.
Piri Thomas (1928-2011) used poetry and prose to discuss the challenges of growing up in New York City’s El Barrio, his Afro-Latinx heritage, past drug use, former gang involvement, and incarceration. His writing and performing skills made him a standout among his peers and one of the pioneers of spoken word poetry.
Perhaps best known for his critically acclaimed memoir Down These Mean Streets, the book covers Thomas’s early life in Spanish Harlem. Stories from El Barrio gives readers a vivid glimpse of life in his neighborhood. Seven Long Times goes in-depth about his time in prison. The Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division has these books and more in their collections.
The Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division holds materials capturing Thomas’s performances as a spoken word artist. In 1981’s Harlem in Transition Highlights, Thomas is featured with fellow poet Sonia Sanchez, Professor Leonard Jeffries, and musician Billy Taylor.
Thomas performs works such as “Born Anew,” “Sounds of a Street Kid,” and “Talking About La Musica.” He is accompanied by an Afro Latinx jazz band featuring Patato Valdez on the 1994 CD, Sounds of the Streets.
Spanning 1957-1980, The Piri Thomas Papers in MARB covers the poet’s involvement with social justice organizations.
Schomburg Center Literary Festival: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers with Joy Bivins
Award-winning poet and novelist Honorée Fanonne Jeffers spoke with then Schomburg Center incoming Director Joy Bivins about two of her works, The Age of Phillis and The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois. The 2021 conversation was part of the Schomburg Center Literary Festival.
In 2020, Jeffers won the NAACP Image Award for Literary Work for Poetry for The Age of Phillis. The collection of poems imagines Wheatley’s childhood in The Gambia located in West Africa, her time of enslavement, and her life during her marriage to John Peters. Jeffers received an Image Nomination in 2022 for The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois.
Between the Lines: New-Generation African Poets with Kwame Dawes & Chris Abani
Take a lyrical journey throughout the African Diaspora and learn more about artists such as Selina Nwulu, Ayan M. Omar, and Jeremy Teddy Karn.
In this 2021 conversation, Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani highlight the year’s best poetry by emerging names who will become part of the next generation of legendary African poets. The evening included readings by every person cited by the two in Nane: New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set.
Book Picks from the Schomburg Shop
Ready to curl up with a book of poetry? Virginia Mixon, manager of the Schomburg Shop, shares her picks. Her list of must-read authors include:
Echo Tree: The Collected Short Fiction of Henry Dumas mixes Afrofuturism, gothic romance, and parables to tell stories taking place in the South and Harlem, weaving together the Black experiences of the 20th century. Dumas’s (1934-1968) work was published posthumously. Additionally, MARB holds the Henry Dumas Papers. They include a 1966 letter to LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), a short story, and several poems.
Call Us What We Carry: Poems by Amanda Gorman is a collection of poems exploring history, language, and identity using the COVID-19 global pandemic as a backdrop.
Marilyn Nelson, author of Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life, writes a biography of the titular artist using poetry. The Harlem Renaissance sculptor (1892-1962) made history as the first Black woman to open an art gallery and the only Black woman to have her work, "Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Harp)," featured at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Tammi Lawson, curator of the Schomburg Center's Art and Artifacts Division, penned the afterword. The division holds the largest number of Augusta Savage's pieces of any public institution. Lawson also created a research guide, which contains information about all of the works in the Center's collections.
Through a mix of poetry and prose, Ibi Zoboi’s Star Child: A Biological Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler discusses Butler's (1947-2006) younger years and the experiences that shaped her life. They planted the seeds for a groundbreaking career as a science fiction writer. MARB holds The Octavia Butler Papers, which include correspondence between the author and then Center staff member and unpublished interviews.