African American Poetry contains nearly 3,000 poems by African American poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It provides a comprehensive survey of the early history of African American poetry, from the earliest published African American poems to the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first African American poet to achieve national success and recognition.
The authors and works included in the collection show the huge variety of this relatively unexplored area of American literary history: coverage includes writers from both North and South, from rural and urban backgrounds, and ranges from University-educated professionals to those for whom the very acts of reading and writing constituted a defiance of Southern slave laws. Generically, poems range from ballads, broadsides and humorous verse to Romantic odes, sonnets and historical epics.
The contents are based upon the bibliography of William French et al, Afro-American Poetry and Drama, 1760–1975: A Guide to Information Sources (Gale Research, 1979).
Generally, the policy has been to use first editions whenever possible; later editions were selected if they were more inclusive. Where poems appeared in their original dialect in an earlier edition and standardised in a later edition, both forms have been included for comparison purposes. Poems originally published in periodicals have also been included.
Textual apparatus and front matter to the poems are generally omitted, except the poet's own notes, which have been included in the database.