What Is the Poem American History About?

The poem “American History” by Michael S. Harper is a powerful piece that addresses the brutal reality of racism and its impact on African Americans. The poem is structured in a way that highlights the historical events that have shaped the black experience in America. In this article, we will explore what “American History” is about and how Michael S. Harper uses various literary devices to convey his message.

Overview of the Poem

“American History” is a poem that reflects on some of the most significant events in African American history. The poem takes us on a journey through time, referencing various historical moments and figures such as slavery, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Jesse Jackson. The poem also touches on some of the most prominent themes in black history, including oppression, resistance, resilience, and identity.

The Meaning Behind the Poem

At its core, “American History” is an indictment of racism and its devastating impact on black people in America. Through vivid imagery and powerful metaphors, Michael S. Harper paints a picture of the struggles faced by African Americans throughout history. The poet challenges the reader to confront these injustices head-on while also acknowledging the strength and resilience of black people.

Use of Imagery

One of the most striking features of “American History” is its use of imagery to convey meaning effectively. For example, in one stanza, Harper writes:

“The slave ship was an aquarium full of death
And sometimes they drowned when they leaped
Wrapped in each other’s arms”

This vivid image highlights the horrors faced by slaves during their journey across the Atlantic Ocean. The metaphorical comparison to an aquarium serves to emphasize how dehumanizing slavery was for those who were forced into it.


Throughout “American History,” Michael S. Harper makes use of repetition to emphasize key themes and ideas. For example, the poet repeats the phrase “history is a poem” several times throughout the piece, highlighting the importance of understanding and learning from our past. The repetition serves to reinforce the idea that history is not just a series of events but a narrative that shapes our understanding of the world.


In conclusion, “American History” by Michael S. Harper is a powerful and thought-provoking piece that challenges us to confront the realities of racism in America. Through its use of vivid imagery, repetition, and metaphorical language, the poem highlights the struggles faced by African Americans throughout history while also celebrating their resilience and strength. As we continue to grapple with issues of race and inequality in America today, “American History” serves as a poignant reminder of our shared history and the ongoing struggle for justice and equality.