1. If We Must Die
Read by Claude McKay.
This 1919 poem, encouraging blacks to fight back against the violence they faced in the United States after World War I, became a rallying cry for black activism, here and abroad, through much of the twentieth century. How fascinating to hear Claude McKay's lilting Jamaican accent and to consider his use of the traditional sonnet form to express the condensed, fiery determination to be courageous and steadfast even in the face of death.


2. Strong Men
Read by Sterling A. Brown.
First published in 1931, this poem displays the power of Sterling A. Brown's voice—in the double sense of his writing style and the sound of his performance. Note the poet's modern mix of modes—the orator's elegantly formal diction along with the down-home, often humorous snippets of the songs of "black and unknown bards," all gathered into an unstoppable mass movement for freedom. Like Claude McKay's, Brown's aesthetic was important to poets of the Black Arts movement and beyond.


3. Long Gone
Read by Sterling A. Brown.


4. Ma Rainey
Read by Sterling A. Brown.


5. Sam Smiley
Read by Sterling A. Brown.


6. Break of Day
Read by Sterling A. Brown.


7. The Creation
Read by James Weldon Johnson.
Published in James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927), "The Creation" renders in poetic lines the words of the old-time Negro preacher, as recalled by the poet. In an eloquent preface, Johnson describes these ministers as orators and actors who knew how to capture attention with oft-repeated sermons and with the drum-beat timing of their words and vocalizations. "Indeed," wrote Johnson, "I have witnessed congregations moved to ecstasy by the rhythmic intoning of sheer incoherencies." As you read and listen to this poem, bear in mind Johnson's description of the preacher's voice: "a marvelous instrument, a voice he could modulate from a sepulchral whisper into a crashing thunder clap."


8. The Negro Speaks of Rivers
Read by Langston Hughes.
This profound, classic poem, Langston Hughes's first mature published work, was written on the back of an envelope while Hughes was on a train heading from Cleveland, Ohio, to Mexico, where Hughes would face his father's antipathy toward all things and people African American. Perhaps in anticipation of the encounter, Hughes celebrated in emotionally charged modern verse the soulful consciousness of Africans, African Americans, and the rivers they have known, "ancient as the world."


9. The Weary Blues
Read by Langston Hughes.


10. I Too
Read by Langston Hughes.


11. The Homesick Blues
Read by Langston Hughes.


12. Mulatto
Read by Langston Hughes.


13. From Heritage
Read by Countee Cullen.
Here are the first stanzas of Countee Cullen's famous meditation on the African American cultural legacy from Africa. While "Heritage" certainly is "a statement of the atavism that was a cardinal creed of New Negro poetry"—as Sterling Brown wrote in 1937—it raises a powerful question that persists for blacks as well as nonblacks in the Americas and beyond: What is Africa to me?


14. For My People
Read by Margaret Walker.
This 1937 poem, the title work of Margaret Walker's celebrated first book, offers a panoramic view of black life in America—slaves and their children, praying, working, playing, contending with slavery's legacies: "the unseen creatures who tower over us omnisciently and laugh." For all its sardonic bite, Walker's poem is ultimately a victory song; it arose again in the 1960s to set the stage for the Black Arts movement.


15. Papa Chicken
Read by Margaret Walker.


16. Kitchenette
Read by Margaret Walker.


17. The Preacher Ruminates
Read by Margaret Walker.


18. The Children of the Poor
Read by Margaret Walker.


19. a song in the front yard
Read by Gwendolyn Brooks.
Written in the voice of a young girl, this poem provides a 360-degree depiction of the life and culture of a street in Bronzeville (Chicago): the front yard, with its discipline and rosy fantasy, and the back yard, the alluringly illicit realm she barely knows, "where it's rough and untended and hungry weed grows." Like Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks transmutes everyday black experience into fine-spun mythology and universal songs.


20. Summer Words of a Sistuh Addict
Read by Sonia Sanchez.
Sonia Sanchez's brilliantly musical voice and dramatic timing have made her a wonderful performer of her own poetry and, in the 1960s and 1970s, a leader of the Black Arts movement. Her passionately insistent, politically engaged art—with its many bluesy moments of tenderness and yearning for love—doesn't shrink away from sometimes shocking vulgar speech and scenes of dissipation. "There is vulgar stuff out there," she told an interviewer. "One has got to talk about it in order for it not to be."


21. Niki-Rosa
Read by Nikki Giovanni.
With freshness and flair, Nikki Giovanni burst onto the literary scene in the late 1960s, and her poetry continues to have powerful allure. This 1968 poem challenged stereotypes of black misery with its complex and intimate remembrances of family and home, scenes easily misinterpreted. Giovanni's sound—sometimes, on other recordings, augmented by singers and instrumentalists—was the sound of a generation of young African Americans involved in art and politics.


22. Beautiful Black Men
Read by Nikki Giovanni.


23. Ego Tripping
Read by Nikki Giovanni.


24. Dear John, Dear Coltrane
Read by Michael S. Harper.
Here is Michael S. Harper's brilliant dirge for tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, a dexterous tone-poem to be chanted and sung in remembrance of the mythic black giant whom the poet once called "my Orpheus." "My poems are rhythmic rather than metric," writes Harper. "The pulse is jazz, the tradition generally oral; my major influences musical; my debts, mostly to the musicians [John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Bud Powell, etc.] who taught me to see about experience, pain, and love, and who made it artful and archetypal."


25. Jitterbugging in the Streets
Read by Calvin Hernton.