Melvin B. Tolson was born in Moberly, Missouri, the son of a Methodist Episcopalian minister. The family moved occasionally, as the father was assigned to new congregations. Tolson wrote poems as a child, publishing one about the sinking of the Titanic at age fourteen in an Iowa newspaper, but it was not until after graduating from Lincoln University and teaching at Wiley College in Texas for most of the 1920s that he became a serious poet.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, to a middle class black family that moved to New Orleans a decade later, Margaret Walker first enrolled at New Orleans University. Then she met poet Langston Hughes, who encouraged her writing and advised her to go north to complete her education, which she did at Northwestern University. It was in Chicago, in 1936, that she met novelist and poet Richard Wright, about whom she would publish a critical biography fifty-two years later.
Born Nathan Pinchback Jean Toomer in Washington, D.C., Toomer from the age of five was raised by his mother, until her death in 1909, and her father, P.B.S. Pinchback, lieutenant governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction when blacks had political power in the South. By 1919, he had enrolled and left several schools, including the Universities of Wisconsin and Chicago, New York University, and the American College of Physical Training.
Dudley Randall was born in Washington, D.C., but moved to Detroit in 1920. He worked in a foundry early on, then served in the military during World War II, an experience described in some of his poems. He earned degrees in English and library science and took several library positions during his career, but he is perhaps most famous as the 1965 founder of Detroit's Broadside Press. The press issued the first books of a considerable number of black writers, along with an extensive series of historic poetry broadsides.
A versatile, unpredictable, and frequently iconoclastic figure, Ishmael Reed has written ten novels, edited several anthologies, written songs and operas, and recorded some of the poetry from his books of poems. He was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and raised in Buffalo, New York. He enrolled at the State University of New York at Buffalo, but left to do civil rights and community reporting for a Buffalo newspaper. While there he met Malcolm X and decided to move to New York in 1962, where he worked in numerous jobs, joined a writing workshop, and produced his first novel.
Born Annie Bethel Bannister on a Virginia plantation of racially diverse parentage—her father was of African American, white, and Native American heritage, while her mother was the child of a slaveholder and a slave—Spencer herself was carefully prepared for the black middle class. To this complex background was added the political education she received from James Weldon Johnson, whom she first met when he was field secretary for the NAACP in 1918.
Welton Smith, who was born in Houston, Texas, is the author of Penetration (1972), a collection of poems, and The Roach Riders, a play. His poem sequence "Malcolm," which was included in the historic 1968 Black Arts collection Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, edited by Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka, is one of a number of elegies written after Malcolm X was killed in 1965. Its tonal shifts help make it one of the most memorable and one of the more inventive poems to come out of the Black Arts movement.
Born and raised on the impoverished West Side of Patricia Chicago, Smith is a nationally known performance poet who has won a number of poetry slam contests. A former reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, she was also a columnist for the Boston Globe for a number of years. She has also taught at Georgia Tech University, the University of Southern Maine, and Cave Canem, the latter a Brooklyn –based writing center with a focus on African American writers.
Carolyn Rodgers grew up in Chicago’s South Side, where her intellectual and political vision was shaped in part by the Organization of Black African Culture and by poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Her poetry of the late 1960s voices the revolutionary nationalism of the Black Arts movement, but in a free-verse style with street slang that some of the male leaders of the movement found inappropriate for a woman. Even in these early poems, moreover, she registers notable tension between her revolutionary program and African American culture's more traditional commitments.
For several decades Langston Hughes was simultaneously the foremost African American poet and the premier poet of the American Left. Without understanding that double identity and dual cultural role, there is little chance of winning a full or fair appreciation of his life and work. Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, but grew up mainly in Lawrence, Kansas. Before enrolling at the historically black Lincoln University, he had worked at numerous menial jobs but also seen Africa, Mexico, and Paris. He would later make trips to the Soviet Union and to Spain during the Spanish Civil War.