AMONG THE BEST-LOVED POETS OF the 20th century, Langston Hughes stands tall. No shortage of poetry lovers around the globe can recite his “I, Too, Sing America,” but relatively few New Mexicans have heard the curious story of his spiritual connection to the Land of Enchantment. Otherwise, they might add his remarkable “A House in Taos” to their list of favorite poems.

Similarly, students of the African American literary canon know Jean Toomer as the author of Cane, a seminal work of the Harlem Renaissance published in 1923. Cane is a tapestry of Afrocentric stories and poems ennobling the plight of Southern Black sharecroppers. Yet how many New Mexicans know Toomer also wrote paeans to Taos and Santa Fe, and filled notebooks with musings extolling the wonders of the Southwest?

Although New Mexico’s Black population has historically been small, its literary practitioners have played an important part in what anthropologists call its “social imaginary,” or the values and institutions that people use to imagine their society. It’s the prism through which individuals belonging to a place and time see themselves. In that vein, Africans and Black Americans have contributed to New Mexico’s stories, myths, poetry, and identity since they first arrived, in the 1500s, usually as enslaved people under the early Spanish conquistadors. Their stories provide a twist to New Mexico’s tricultural (Anglo, Spanish, and Indigenous) narrative, highlighting both Black and multiethnic struggles for liberation.

Anita Scott Coleman lived in Silver City. Photograph courtesy of the NM Historic Women's Marker Program.

It would be difficult to find a more exciting or unlikely biography than the life of Esteban de Dorantes, the Morocco-born slave who accompanied his master on a 1527 voyage to the New World. After their vessel wrecked off the coast of Florida, he and three other survivors wandered Indigenous lands. Of the castaways, only Esteban—also known as Estevanico—learned Indigenous languages and ways. After they reached a refuge in the Spanish settlement in Mexico, Esteban subsequently led a party of approximately 100 Mexican Natives to Zuni lands, establishing the first contact between the two peoples. History takes strange turns, indeed. “The first White man that our people saw was a Black man,” the late Jemez Pueblo author Joe S. Sando wrote.

Esteban’s legacy still haunts New Mexico, a telling shadow that highlights the irony of a North African becoming the first non-Native explorer to place his footsteps here. His resourceful determination set a worthy precedent for the Blacks who arrived in the late 1800s. These emancipated Blacks believed the Southwest represented an exciting new venture—a place where racism, however poisonous, might be less prevalent than in the former slave states. As tiny Black communities emerged in the territory, these early transplants were a scattered collection of Buffalo Soldiers, ranch hands, and assorted dreamers. “Here and there are Negroes, like straggly but tenacious plants growing,” Silver City poet Anita Scott Coleman wrote in 1926.

The Black imagination of New Mexico is best expressed by the creations of poets and artists. Literary artists who have made themselves a part of New Mexico lore since the early 1900s include Coleman, Hughes, Toomer, and Jay Wright, a 1986 recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship and the first African American winner of the Bollingen Prize for Poetry.

I would add a few representatives of the 21st century to the list: Hakim Bellamy, who became the inaugural Albuquerque poet laureate in 2012, and (very humbly) myself, as the sixth poet laureate of Santa Fe (2021–2023). The continuum of Black identity in New Mexico that began in fear and flight carries on, while earlier writers provide the context for unpacking just how that identity has unspooled.

Poet Jay Wright’s work has addressed inequities in Albuquerque. Photograph by Don J. Usner.

ANITA SCOTT COLEMAN (1890–1960), BORN in Mexico, lived for many years in Silver City, where she was a schoolteacher. Her Southwest-set stories won significant attention in the 1920s. Unusually, for a wordsmith living outside New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, then the literary and artistic center of Black America, Coleman was able to place stories in the major Black journals: Opportunity, Crisis, and Messenger. At the height of her success in 1926, she and her husband moved to Los Angeles, where she scripted silent films. As her career trajectory slowed, Coleman refocused her attention on raising her children and published more poetry. 

Perhaps because her father had been a Buffalo Soldier, Coleman’s main motif concerns the uplifting of her race. Often sentimental, her stories entail overcoming adversity and finding success and love. In “The Little Grey House,” for example, two lonely souls in a small Southwestern town are both fascinated by a house under construction. As they follow its progress, they dream of stability and contentment. By the time the two meet, it seems inevitable that they will marry. On a deeper level, Coleman’s stories provide insights into the day-to-day values of early Black residents, such as the belief in God, the preoccupation with financial security, and the idea of holding your head up against racial slights.

In her 1926 essay “Arizona and New Mexico—The Land of Esperanza,” she laments that Black people have made little impact on New Mexico politics and business. Nonetheless, she writes, “All which the Negro has failed to give to the industry or to the population of Arizona and New Mexico he has made amends for by his contributions to its history,” citing Esteban, Buffalo Soldiers, and Black participation in the Mexican–American War. The essay concludes with an optimistic ode to “the joyous freedom of the West. The unlimited resourcefulness, the boundless space—that either bids them stay—or baffles with its vastness.”

The word esperanza means “hope” in Spanish. Black life may be filled with risks, but Coleman’s New Mexico is full of hope.

“I met a lot of exotic and jittery writers of the period. And the more exotic and jittery they were, the more they talked about Taos.”

—Langston Hughes

IN AN AESTHETIC SENSE, TAOS WAS WORLDS apart from the milieu of Coleman. During the same period, patron of the arts Mabel Dodge Luhan was transforming her property into an artists’ retreat that attracted the likes of Ansel Adams, D.H. and Frieda Lawrence, and Georgia O’Keeffe. However, I find it impossible to imagine a major creative flourishing in America without the presence of Black people. At that time, Paris had the cultural powerhouse that was Josephine Baker, while Harlem and Greenwich Village produced a cohort of jazz musicians along with Langston Hughes. The Black influence manifested, however obliquely, in Taos, too.

In his 1940 autobiography, The Big Sea, Hughes writes that he composed his poem “A House in Taos” while living in Greenwich Village during a heyday of romantic bohemianism. Among friends and at parties, he began hearing stories of an alluring Southwestern vibe, “people talking about New Mexico and Taos, and about writers and artists heading west to the desert and the Indians.”

“I met a lot of exotic and jittery writers of the period,” he writes. “And the more exotic and jittery they were, the more they talked about Taos.” The mystique fascinated him until he put pen to paper to imagine it.

A portrait of writer Jean Toomer by Winold Reiss, circa 1925. Photograph courtesy of Winold Reiss, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“A House in Taos” describes three mythic presences, Sun, Wind, and Moon, who each have a separate section of dialogue. It can be interpreted in many ways. Perhaps the poem is a hymn to the environmental forces that sculpted New Mexico landscapes, or to the interplay of Native, Spanish, and Anglo cultures that may have shaped Taos as a spiritual and artistic haven.

Or was the poem a spiritual eruption that baffled the author? “It was a strange poem for me to be writing in a period when I was mainly writing blues and spirituals,” he recalls. “I did not know anyone in Taos, nor had I ever been there.” Following its publication, however, he received “gossipy and amusing letters” supposing that the three speakers in “A House in Taos” were Mabel Dodge Luhan; her Taos Pueblo husband, Tony Lujan; and Jean Toomer, the Harlem Renaissance poet.

Luhan herself eventually heard about the poem. Hughes reports that when they met many years later, she promptly said, “My house is not a bit like that,” and extended an invitation to visit her in Taos. It is unclear if he ever took her up on it.

Hughes’s friend Toomer (1894–1967) was indeed a guest at the Luhan estate. He became fascinated with Taos and visited repeatedly from the mid-1920s to the 1940s. His intense emotional response to the town is evidenced in the prose poetry of his Taos diaries, which bears the influences of D.H. Lawrence, and a still-unproduced play, A Drama of the Southwest (1935), which stands as a meditation on Toomer’s evolving philosophy. By the time Toomer came to Taos, he had begun to question all racial classifications. Toomer’s speculations on race in his notebooks prove that the search for identity can lead to post-racial theories and questions: What is Anglo? What is Black? What is race?


By Jean Toomer (1894–1967)

Taos is an end-product. It is the end of the slope. It is an end-product of the Indians, and end-product of the Spaniards, an end-product of the Yankees and puritans. Out of the fertility which death makes in the soil, a new people with a new form may grow. I dedicate myself to the swift death of the old, to the whole birth of the new. In whatever place I start work, I will call that place Taos.

AS THE LATE 1960S SHAPED THE ELEVATION of Black pride and liberation, the most important New Mexico poet influenced by the movement is Jay Wright, who stands at the high point of creative expression. He may well be New Mexico’s most undervalued Black writer. Born in Albuquerque in 1934, he briefly attended the University of New Mexico and appears to have maintained connections to the city until his mid-40s. Wright, who today lives in Vermont, used his early work to explore poverty and segregation. His 1976 collection, Soothsayers and Omens, published when Wright was 42, features “Encountering New Mexico” and “The Albuquerque Graveyard.” Both poems powerfully investigate the intersection between race and history in Albuquerque during the seventies.

Generations of Black poets since have embraced the work of social justice, including former Albuquerque poet laureate Hakim Bellamy. He is currently pursuing a law degree, which he calls an extension of “advocating for the unheard and underrepresented” in his poems.

“Being poet laureate raises the profile of Black writers in our state,” Bellamy reflects. “When we walk in and the public sees us, they can’t unsee it. By default, people are forced to reckon with the idea that our people are part of the history and the future of New Mexico.”

Like Bellamy, I look forward to the acceptance that New Mexico has never truly only been a tricultural state. I also hope for a wider appreciation for the variety of subjects and styles collected under the umbrella of “Black literature in New Mexico.” That label already includes more than a century of commentary and identity-defining work, including Coleman’s vision of industrious social uplift, Hughes’s mythic dreams, Toomer’s philosophical cultural investigations, and Wright’s protest poems. New generations will push these themes on.

Read more: In Taos, an exhibition wrangles the hidden stories of the Black cowboys who shaped the modern West.

By Langston Hughes (1901–1967)

Thunder of the Rain God: 
   And we three 
   Smitten by beauty. 

Thunder of the Rain God: 
    And we three
    Weary, weary. 

Thunder of the Rain God: 
   And you, she and I 
   Waiting for nothingness. 

Do you understand the stillness 
   Of this house in Taos
Under the thunder of the Rain God? 

That there should be a barren garden 
About this house in Taos 
Is not so strange, 
But that there should be three barren hearts
In this one house in Taos,—
Who carries ugly things to show the sun? 

Did you ask for the beaten brass of the moon? 
We can buy lovely things with money, 
You, she and I, 
Yet you seek, 
As though you could keep,
This unbought loveliness of moon. 

Touch our bodies, wind.
Our bodies are separate, individual things. 
Touch our bodies, wind, 
But blow quickly
Through the red, white, yellow skins
Of our bodies
To the terrible snarl,
Not mine, 
Not yours,
Not hers, 
But all one snarl of souls.
Blow quickly, wind, 
Before we run back into the windlessness,—
With our bodies,—
Into the windlessness
Of our house in Taos. 

From Caroling Dusk (Harper & Brothers, 1927), Public Domain

By Jay Wright (b. 1934)

It would be easier
to bury our dead
at the corner lot.
No need to wake
Before sunrise,
take three buses,
walk two blocks,
search at the rear
of the cemetery,
to come upon the familiar names
with wilted flowers and patience.
But now I am here again.
After so many years
of coming here,
passing the sealed mausoleums,
the pretentious brooks and springs,
the white, sturdy limestone crosses,
the pattern of the place is clear to me.
I am going back
to the Black limbo,
an unwritten history
of our own tensions.

The dead lie here
In a hierarchy of small defeats.
I can almost see the leaders smile,
ashamed now of standing
at the head of those
who lie tangled
at the edge of the cemetery
still ready to curse and rage
as I do.
Here, I stop by the imitative cross
Of one who stocked his parlor
With pictures of Robeson,
and would boom down the days,
dreaming of Othello’s robes.
I say he never bothered me,
and forgive his frightened singing.
Here, I stop by the simple mound
of a woman who taught me
spelling on the sly,
parsing my tongue
to make me fit for her own dreams.
I could go on all day,
unhappily recognizing small heroes,
discontent with finding them here,
reproaches to my own failings.
Uneasy, I search the names
and simple mounds I call my own,
abruptly drop my wilted flowers,
and turn for home.

From Selected Poems of Jay Wright (Princeton University Press, 1987)

By Darryl Lorenzo Wellington (b. 1966)

One Man cries I Am I am 
     in ecstasy and terror I Am 
as the Lord cried 
     to Moses. Three men 
dressed in monochrome 
     and camouflage 
faces hardened 
     decline to listen 
ignoring a strangled plea 
     descended from a timeless 
sensibility behind  
     compassionate justice and 
ritual prophesy. A nearby  
     parking meter winks 
casts an arbitrary 
     light on an asphalt
street corner. Witnesses
     nothing. Glitters
after dark. Stands
     like a watch-
tower going senile
     totteringly decadent 
on duty to collect
     poised to pinch
the nickels and dimes
     the irrevocable fines
the regular tariffs
     the evidence requisite
blind to other charges of citizenship.

From Life’s Prisoners (Flowstone Press, 2017)

By Anita Scott Coleman (1890–1960)

The baby I hold in my arms is a black baby.
Today I set him in the sun and
Sunbeams danced on his head.
The baby I hold in my arms is a black baby.
I toil, and I cannot always cuddle him.
I place him on the ground at my feet.
He presses the warm earth with his hands,
He lifts the sand and laughs to see
It flow through his chubby fingers.
I watch to discern which are his hands,
Which is the sand. . . .
Lo . . . the rich loam is black like his hands.
The baby I hold in my arms is a black baby.
Today the coal-man brought me coal.
Sixteen dollars a ton is the price I pay for coal.—
Costly fuel . . . though they say:
— If it is buried deep enough and lies
hidden long enough
’Twill be no longer coal but diamonds. . . .
My black baby looks at me.
His eyes are like coals,
They shine like diamonds.

From Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry Of The Harlem Renaissance (Rutgers University Press, 1989, 2006)


Hakim Bellamy became Albuquerque’s inaugural poet laureate in 2012. Photograph courtesy of Hakim Bellamy.



Darryl Lorenzo Wellington recommends these books by or about Black New Mexicans.

Commissions y Corridos: Poems, by Hakim Bellamy (University of New Mexico Press, 2021)

Unfinished Masterpiece: The Harlem Renaissance Fiction of Anita Scott Coleman, edited by Laurie Champion and Bruce A. Glasrud (Texas Tech University Press, 2008)

Esteban: The African Slave Who Explored America, by Dennis Herrick (University of New Mexico Press, 2018)

Selected Poems: A Classic Collection (Vintage, 1990) and The Big Sea (Hill & Wang, 1940), both by Langston Hughes

A Drama of the Southwest: The Critical Edition of a Forgotten Play, by Jean Toomer (University of New Mexico Press, 2015)

Psalms at the Present Time (Flowstone Press, 2021) and Legible Walls: Poems for Santa Fe Murals (Stalking Horse Press, 2023), both by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington

Transfigurations: Collected Poems, by Jay Wright (LSU Press, 2000)