Lorde was born and raised in New York City as the child of West Indian immigrants. She was educated at Hunter College, also spending a year at the National University of Mexico. For more than a decade she was head librarian at Town School Library in New York. Then, in 1968, she published her first volume of poetry and spent a transformative year as poet in residence at historically black Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Her next book, Cables to Rage (1970), acknowledged her homosexuality.
Mullen was born in Florence, Alabama, and grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. She was educated at the University of Texas and the University of California at Santa Cruz. She has taught at Cornell University and now teaches at UCLA. She has written both poems and prose poems since publishing her first book, Tree Tall Woman, in 1981. Her prose poems, which grow out of the Language poetry movement, wittily display human motivation with a linguistic basis.
Born Thylias Rebecca Brasier into a working-class family in Cleveland, Ohio, Moss's mother was a maid and her father was a recapper for the Cardinal Tire Company. She enrolled at Syracuse University but left when she found the racial tension there unpleasant. She married John Moss in 1973, raised two sons, and then returned to school, earning degrees from Oberlin College and the University of New Hampshire. Her professors encouraged her writing but they were also unprepared for its political anger.
Born Festus Claudius McKay to a Jamaican peasant family, McKay would write poems that inspired not only the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s but also the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. As a young child, McKay received a background in both classical and British literature and philosophy and before too long began to write poems in traditional forms. The sonnet tradition he imitated as a child he would dramatically transform as a young man in his 20s. McKay would take the romance and the consolations of the historical sonnet and replace them with a hand grenade of protest.
yusef Komunyakaa is an African American poet who was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, the son of a carpenter. He grew up in Louisiana and was educated at the University of Colorado, Colorado Sate University, and the University of California at Irvine. Long interested in the relationship between jazz and poetry, he has coedited two volumes on the subject.
Etheridge Knight was born in Corinth, Mississippi. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade and joined the Army in 1947. He was trained as a medical technician before being discharged in 1957 after receiving a serious shrapnel wound in Korea. Thereafter he had problems with drug and alcohol addiction, finally being arrested for robbery in 1960. In prison, he began to write, encouraged by poets Gwendolyn Brooks, Dudley Randall, and Sonia Sanchez.
James Weldon Johnson's work and multiple careers defy easy characterization. He was born and grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, where his grandfather had moved after a hurricane destroyed his business in the Bahamas. Johnson graduated from Atlanta University and then studied law, serving simultaneously as principal of the Stanton School. But he also began writing poems, which served as the lyrics for songs his brother John, a trained musician, had begun composing. At the turn of the century, both brothers were in New York composing songs for Broadway musicals.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Georgia Johnson spent much of her adult life at 1461 S Street NW in Washington, D.C., which she turned into one of the most famous literary salons of the 1920s. She moved to Washington with her husband after graduating from Atlanta University, but he died in 1925, after which she struggled to earn enough to support herself and her children. She became the most celebrated female poet of the Harlem Renaissance, publishing stories, writing plays, issuing a newspaper column, and publishing four books of poetry.
The introduction to Bob Kaufman's selected poems tells us that he was born in New Orleans; his father, who was half African American and half Jewish, worked as a Pullman porter for the railroad that ran between New Orleans and Chicago. His mother, a black woman from an old Martinique family, the Vignes, was a schoolteacher. "His Jewish surname and Creole-like features," the introduction notes, "were shared with twelve brothers and sisters . . .
Robert Hayden was born Asa Bundy Sheffey to a couple in financial and personal difficulty. When they separated, Hayden was taken in by a foster family and received a new name. The new family, unfortunately, was equally conflicted, and Hayden's childhood—spent in the Detroit ghetto called "Paradise Valley"—was frequently traumatic. Reading was a form of escape, but it also prepared him for a career. He enrolled at Detroit City College but left in 1936 to research black history and culture, including Michigan's Underground Railroad, for the Federal Writers' Project.