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Photograph of Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Paul Laurence Dunbar. 1906. (Prints and Photographs Division)

Highlighting the History of Black Writers at the Library of Congress

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The first poetry reading at the Library of Congress took place on November 8, 1897, a mere week after the Library relocated from the U.S. Capitol to its new standalone home, the Thomas Jefferson Building. The reading was given by a 25-year-old Black Library employee who also happened to be a distinguished poet: Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Since Dunbar’s groundbreaking reading, the Library has hosted thousands of literary events, many of them featuring Black poets and writers following in Dunbar’s footsteps. A quick examination of the Library’s online Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature (ARPL), for instance, turns up a veritable who’s who of notable 20th century Black poets, among them Arna Bontemps, Melvin B. Tolson, Ishmael Reed, Alice Fulton, Audre Lorde, Etheridge Knight, Dolores Kendrick, June Jordan, Lucille Clifton, Ishmael Reed, Sharon Olds, Rita Dove, Claudia Rankine, Marilyn Nelson, Michael S. Harper, Quincy Troupe, and Cornelius Eady. Meanwhile, readings and literary programs from the past two decades featuring Black poets and writers who visited the Library or appeared at the the National Book Festival, can be found through the our extensive collection of Event Videos.

Black writers have directly and indirectly impacted the Library’s current mission to “engage, inspire, and inform Congress and the American people with a universal and enduring source of knowledge and creativity.” During the past decade, Walter Dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson, and Jason Reynolds have made lasting contributions to the Library’s efforts to promote and increase literacy and a love of literature by serving as National Ambassadors for Young People’s Literature, while Toni Morrison (2011), Colson Whitehead (2020), and, Jesmyn Ward (2022) have been recognized for their distinguished bodies of work as winners of the Library’s annual prize for American fiction (now known as the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction). Most recently, Rita Dove was awarded the 2022 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry recognizing her lifetime achievement in poetry, a prize previously awarded to Black poets Terrance Hayes (2020), Natasha Trethewey (2020), Nathaniel Mackey (2016), Claudia Rankine (2016), and Patricia Smith (2014).

In the field of literature, the Library is best-known as the home of U.S. Poet Laureate, a position which from 1936-1985 operated under the less recognizable title “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.” In celebration of Black History Month, this post highlights Black poets who have served as Consultant in Poetry or U.S. Poet Laureate.

Robert Hayden

Photograph of Robert Hayden.
Robert Hayden. Photo, circa 1975, by Timothy D. Franklin. (Prints and Photographs Division)

Robert Hayden became the first Black poet to serve as Consultant in Poetry in 1976. Originally invited to serve as Consultant in 1969, he was forced to decline due to work circumstances. When he was again invited to serve in the position in 1975, he was able to accept.

Hayden’s inaugural reading as Consultant in Poetry took place in the Coolidge Auditorium on October 5, 1976, and included poems about well-known Black poets Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar, as well as poems about John Brown, Crispus Attucks, and Frederick Douglass.

Memo recommending the appointment of Robert Hayden as Consultant in Poetry.
Dec. 2, 1975, memo recommending the appointment of Robert Hayden as Consultant in Poetry. Poetry Office Series, Library of Congress Archives, 1915-1990. Series C: General Office Files, 1971-1975. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The position of Consultant in Poetry was much closer to a reference librarian and literary programmer than to today’s Poet Laureate. During his tenure, Hayden helped plan the Library’s literary readings, recruit poets to record the work for the Library’s Archive of Recorded Poetry, and respond to mail and telephone calls on an array of topics from the public, all in addition to performing his poetry at the Library and a host of other institutions. Hayden also instated a unique “Coffee with the Consultant” program in which local poets met with him in the Library’s Poetry Room. One of the major initiatives of his terms was a March 6, 1978 reunion of twelve former Consultants at the Library, who gathered to discuss the history and future of the position and to participate in an evening reading.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks was the 29th and final poet to serve as Consultant in Poetry before the position’s title was rebranded as Poet Laureate in 1985. Brooks, like Hayden, had been offered the position years earlier. She declined the original 1972 invitation from Librarian of Congress Quincy Mumford to focus on her family and the local Black poetry community in Chicago. She did, however, agree to serve as an Honorary Consultant in American Letters to the Library of Congress between 1973 and 1976, and a decade later she accepted the Library’s new invitation to serve as Consultant.

Head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly left, holding her book "A Street in Bronzeville."
Gwendolyn Brooks, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly left, holding her book, “A street in Bronzeville.” (Prints and Photographs Division)

Although Brooks served only a one-year term—she did not wish to serve a second—she was very active during that year, especially when it came to handling the voluminous correspondence directed to her from people inviting her to read at local events, seeking feedback on poems they enclosed for her review, and hoping for guidance on how to get their poems published. She enthusiastically replied to all of these letters and accepted most requests to read and talk in the D.C. area.

Brooks also led three brownbag lunchtime readings in the Poetry Office, recommended and introduced readers for the Library’s Whittall-funded literary series, and ended her year-long term with a rousing lecture titled “The Day of the Gwendolyn.”

Rita Dove

Photograph of Rita Dove
Rita Dove. Photograph courtesy of Fred Viebahn.

Rita Dove was appointed the seventh U.S. Poet Laureate, and first Black Poet Laureate, on May 19, 1993. She opened her duties as Poet Laureate on October 7th with a reading of her work.

Dove used her first term to focus on the diversity of poets and writers featured at the Library of Congress and greatly increased the audience size at Library events. During her second term, she continued to host many Library of Congress events and symposia that championed children’s poetry and jazz, and explored artists throughout the African diaspora.

A few years later, in 1999, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington named Rita Dove as a Special Bicentennial Consultant, along with W.S. Merwin and Louise Glück. Billington explained: “We want to create a once-in-a-century arrangement, not only to celebrate poetry during our 200th birthday, but also to significantly increase support for the national outreach of the Poetry Office and the Poet Laureate.” Dove served one term as Special Bicentennial Consultant. During this time, she worked with Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, along with the other special consultants, to celebrate the Library’s bicentennial with poetry readings and a symposium.

In 2022 she received the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry (for lifetime achievement) from the Library of Congress.

Natasha Trethewey

Photographs of Natasha Trethewey.
Natasha Trethewey, 2012-2014 U.S. Poet Laureate. Photo courtesy of Nancy Crampton.

On June 7, 2012, Natasha Trethewey was appointed the 19th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Her first term as Poet Laureate was noteworthy for her “Office Hours” during which she met with the general public in the Library’s Poetry Room, harkening back to the tradition established by Robert Hayden and several other of her predecessors.

For her second term project, Where Poetry Lives, she joined PBS NewsHour Senior Correspondent Jeffrey Brown for a series of on-location reports in various cities across the United States. Each episode explored a large societal issue through a focused lens offered by poetry and Ms. Trethewey’s own coming-to-the-art. Her second term concluded with a reading in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium on May 14, 2014.

Tracy K. Smith

Photograph of Tracy K. Smith.
Tracy K. Smith, U. S. Poet Laureate 2017-2019. Photo courtesy of Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

On June 14, 2017, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden announced the appointment of Tracy K. Smith as the 22nd Poet Laureate, making her the first Laureate appointed by the current Librarian. Smith’s signature project in the position involved bringing poetry to audiences outside places where poets typically present their work. Smith described the inspiration behind her rural communities project in an April 2018 Library of Congress podcast:

I wanted to sort of step off the path of the circuit. I wanted to feel the difference between doing what I normally do which is reading poems as part of a reading series or festivals—communities of writers—and reading poems in places where there are probably aspiring poets and lovers of poetry and then people who aren’t as connected to the art form who might come out of curiosity. I wanted to see if it’s true that the feelings that poems alert us to transcend different divisions of place, of, you know, almost everything, geography being one of them (and, of course, there are lots of things that geography is a container for as well). So I wanted to see what it would feel like to, kind of, cross different divides, and it’s been exciting.

Smith took three pilot project trips to rural communities in New Mexico ExternalSouth Carolina External, and Kentucky External during her first term. On March 22, 2018, Smith was appointed to a second term as Poet Laureate, during which she expanded her outreach efforts to rural communities through her project American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities. As part of her second term as Laureate, Smith also edited an anthology called American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, which was incorporated into her visits to rural communities.

During her second term, Smith also served as host of a weekday podcast and radio feature titled The Slowdown. The podcast launched November 26, 2018 and became available through public radio on January 14, 2019. Each five-minute episode featured Smith reading works by writers from around the country and the world, exploring how poetry helps us better understand life, history, art, science and more. More than one hundred episodes of the program, currently hosted by Major Jackson—himself a 2003 Library of Congress Winner Bynner Fellow, selected by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins—were recorded during Smith’s tenure as laureate.

The Library welcomes and shares all voices and stories; even though these are the final days of Black History Month, we continue celebrating the accomplishments of Black writers throughout the year.

Discover More

Key resources on the Library’s website for accessing literary recordings and videos, as well as more information about many of the poets mentioned in this post, include: