“PrOtEsT” – Poet Activists Throughout the Years

In the days since Trump’s inauguration, we’ve witnessed an increase in protesting and grass roots activism. And while it’s an immediate and important part of the democratic process, we’re also consciously looking to the activists who came before us. Here are seven of our favorite poet-activists and the causes that they hold dear. Whether you’re educating yourself on the movements of the past, searching for a line of poetry to chant at the next rally, or just looking for a little inspiration to stay motivated, these poet-activists are a wonderful place to start.

Muriel Rukeyser (1913 – 1980)

Muriel Rukeyser was an American poet and activist best known for her poems about feminism, social justice, and equality. Her collection of poems The Book of the Dead (1938) is often heralded as her most powerful piece of social justice poetry. The collection documents the details of the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster, a large-scale industrial disaster resulting in hundreds of miners dying of silicosis. In 1944, Rukeyser wrote “To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century”, a poem exploring the gift of Judaism. The poem was later adopted by both the Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism movements for their prayer books. In the 1960s and 1970s, Rukeyser’s proud feminism and opposition to the Vietnam War attracted a new generation to her poetry. Politically engaged on a national level, her last book of poetry The Gates (1976) focused on her unsuccessful attempt to visit dissident Korean poet Kim Chi-Ha on death row in South Korea. Rukeyser died of a stroke in 1980. She was just 66 years old.

Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster

Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)

Maya Angelou was an African American poet and civil rights activist. Over the course of her life, she published seven memoirs and three books of essays – in addition to the countless poems she performed. Angelou worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and was an active member of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1960, she organized the Cabaret for Freedom with novelist John Oliver Killens, raising money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and later becoming the organization’s Northern Coordinator. In 1965, she assisted Malcolm X in building the Organization of Afro-American Unity, an organization focused on obtaining equal rights for African Americans across the nation. But Angelou’s political engagement didn’t end with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassinations. In 1993, Angelou made history as the first African American and first female poet to make an inaugural recitation. It just so happens she was also the second poet ever to make such a recitation, the first being Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration. She performed her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s swearing in, touching on themes of change, inclusion, and responsibility. Angelou campaigned for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential race and, when Clinton’s campaign ended, publically supported President Barack Obama’s candidacy. In 2011, she served as a consultant for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. At Angelou’s demanding, the memorial removed a paraphrased quotation that she said “makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. ” Of course, the quotation was removed. Because who can deny such a delightfully sharp observation?

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992)

Audre Lorde was an African American poet, feminist, and civil rights activist. Her poetry largely explored social injustice, civil rights, feminism, and black female identity. She was a vocal supporter of intersectional feminism. In the early 1960s, Lorde was politically active in civil rights and anti-war movements, topics that she explored in her 1974 poetry collection New York Head Shop and Museum, a book that utilized the lenses of the civil rights movement and her own strict upbringing. Lorde’s 1976 book Coal established her as an influential voice in the Black Arts Movement and bolstered her career, opening her up to a wider audience. Coal unites her rage at racial injustice with her celebration of black identity, while simultaneously putting out a call for intersectional voices of women’s experiences. Lorde also identified as queer and as she grew older and more confident in her sexuality, her poetry became more open and personal. She was an active participant in the LGBTQ culture of Greenwich Village in the 1950s and was vocal about her feminism and activism including all women, people of color, LGBTQ, and the poor and homeless. Her legacy lives on in the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, the only primary care center in New York City created to specifically serve the LGBTQ community, and the Audre Lorde Project, a Brooklyn-based community activist organization for queer people of color.

Audre Lorde

Jayne Cortez (1934 – 2012)

Jayne Cortez was an African American poet, spoken word performance artist, and activist. Her voice was simultaneously political and surreal, weaving together dynamic lyricism with explorations of black identity. Cortez was active in the civil rights movement, using her art as activism. Her poetry was used to register black voters in Mississippi in the early 1960s and her writing is part of the Black Arts Movement canon. In 1991, alongside Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo, Cortez co-founded the Organization of Women Writers of Africa and served as the organization’s president for many years. The organization, which is still active today, focuses on the oral and written literature of African women. The organization also provides a community for emerging and established writers across the continent by giving them a place to address the challenges of publishing, distribution, translation, and cultural policy. Cortez died at her home in New York at 78 years old.

Diane di Prima (born 1934)

Diane di Prima is an American poet and social justice activist. In several instances, di Prima was faced with obscenity charges and in 1961 she was arrested by the FBI for two of her poems published in the beat newspaper The Floating Bear. In 1966, di Prima signed a vow of tax resistance in protest of the Vietnam War. Most of her poetry is both social and political commentary on the 1960s and 1970s, including her feminist epic Loba (1978).Her stream of conscious writing style weaves together the political with her spiritual practice as a Buddhist. Di Prima has reflected on her life as a poet, mother of five, and activist, stating that she earnestly wanted it all – she wanted everything her female body would allow her to experience.

Vietnam War Protest

Juan Felipe Herrera (born 1948)

Juan Felipe Herrera is a Chicano American poet and migrant rights and indigenous rights activist. Herrera’s experiences as the child of migrant workers has significantly impacted his work, including his 2007 collection of poetry 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971 – 2007. In this book, Herrera combines Spanish and English language poetry into an aching hybrid that examines cultural identity on the United States/Mexican border. In 2012, Herrera created the i-Promise Joanna/Yo te Prometo Joanna Project, an anti-bullying poetry project named in honor of 10-year-old Joanna Ramos, an elementary school student from southern California who died because of an after-school fight. Herrera launched the project with 100 fifth-graders in southern California and hopes to spread the project throughout California and beyond.

Trump protest

Staceyann Chin (born 1972)

Staceyann Chin is a Chinese-Jamaican poet and LGBTQ rights activist whose work has appeared on stage and in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Huffington Post. Proudly out since 1998, Chin’s activist driven poetry and performance has won her the 1998 Lambda Poetry Slam and the 1999 Chicago People of Color Poetry Slam. This past fall, Chin premiered her one woman show MotherStruck! at the Studio Theatre in Washington, DC. The play explores Chin’s personal journey to motherhood through a uniquely poetic lens. Over the course of the play, Chin explores her multifaceted identity as a lesbian, single mother, poet, and activist – all within the vulnerable and personal framework of the one woman play. Chin remains a vocal LGBTQ activist and feminist and will be performing MotherStruck! this summer in Chicago.

Gay pride parade


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