Black History Month competition


Project start: August 2023


The winners and shortlist for the Black History Month poetry competition have been announced!

About us

For Black History Month 2023, the Poetry Centre and our colleagues in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion ran a special poetry competition inspired by the national Black History Month theme: 'celebrating our Black sisters'. The winning and shortlisted poems have now been announced. Very many congratulations to those listed below, and thank you to everyone who entered the competition!

You can read the winning poems and details of the shortlist on this page. We will be holding an online awards event on Thursday 23 November from 7-8pm, where the winning and shortlisted poets will be reading. Anyone is welcome to attend. To join us, sign up for free via Zoom.

As the Black History Month organizers explain, this year's events have been 'dedicated to honouring the achievements of black women who are often the forgotten heroines. We want to amplify their voices and challenge the systems that oppress them.'

The competition was free to enter and open to anyone in Oxfordshire, and our judge for the competition was the award-winning poet Isabelle Baafi.

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Isabelle Baafi

Isabelle Baafi

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Niall Munro

Dr Niall Munro

Senior Lecturer in American Literature & Director of the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre

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Celebrating our Black sisters

The theme for this year's Black History Month in the UK - and for this competition - was 'celebrating our Black sisters'.

As you can see from our winners and shortlisted poems, writers were inspired by the life or work of famous Black women, both real and fictional. We hope that these poems will encourage readers to find out more about both the poets and their subjects.

You can read Isabelle's reflections on the winning and shortlisted poems in her judge's report below. Huge thanks to Isabelle for selecting such an exciting list of winners and shortlistees and for her thoughtful and inspirational reflections on the competition and its important themes.

Black History Month 2023 logo: a yellow circle with Black History Month 2023 in the middle against a black background with yellow fireworks.

Winning poems


Isy Mead
'Harriet Tubman, Sweeping'

One sleepy afternoon,
a woman sweeps a yard;
massaging the quiet
to a slightly roughened silence.

She’s only sweeping; drive on.
Drive on, and never notice

the way the brush
scarcely touches the yard, the way the dust
barely rises, the way her eyes hold a hardness.

Even so, you cannot know
how magnified this can sound

this soft repetition,
this soft repetition.

Each brush,
each brush is a meditation,
a steady, wordless,
tenacious assertion,

while beneath, another soul
sweeps through the earth

to reappear, blinking,
to another first light.

After escaping slavery, Harriet Tubman (March 1822 – March 10, 1913), made 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people via the Underground Railroad. At one of her safe-house stops, the lady of the house instructed Tubman to sweep the yard so passers-by would think she was working for the family.


Helena Kahn
'Eliza Harris and the River'

And each footstep she makes must be quiet enough,
Not to awake the beasts of her own hell,
Powerful enough to push pascals of pressure
Into the very earth that conceals her voice,
Slipping great invisible chains of silence around her mouth,
Nimble enough to miss the mangled rags she must call an apron
So she does not trip and break her bravery,
Bright enough so her sisters in bondage can follow the frozen river to freedom;
Within the night’s most loyal protection.

Our soldier of her own war must smell the scent of a new life,
Careful to not drop the sleeping child she suffers for,
We watch her flee as the ice is breaking under the hardened soles of her heel,
Tears blurring vision from the deathly cold,
Tearing up but cannot afford her strength tearing up now,
There is light on the other side!
Each photon calls her name louder and louder,
“Eliza!” they whisper, with nothing but the hot breath of her son to remind of life.

A conductor of the underground calls for her ticket of salvation
A woman, with the same deep silky skin as her own smiling, for
The time has come for glowing lanterns burning
No more bread and butter churning breakfast for a pale man’s plate.
No more waking when the sun rises and dust still in her eyes
But she cannot afford to stop moving.
She has never stopped moving.
Or stopped.
Until now.


Many congratulations to the following poets, whose work Isabelle singled out for praise:

Eva Oliver, 'Alaiyo (in gratitude for the dream)'

Ruby McKie, 'A Sunday Afternoon'

Joanna Draper, 'Ma Smith'

Jane Thomas, 'Mothers of the Middle Passage'.

Judge's report by Isabelle Baafi

How many poems are celebratory? Joyful? Euphoric? Not enough, I’d say. And if centuries of history were not convincing enough, recent history too has shown us that Black women continue to be the most systemically unprotected, undervalued, underestimated, and disbelieved group in the world. That is why the theme of the inaugural Oxford Brookes Black History Month Prize has been so important. It was an invitation to celebrate and commemorate the lives of Black women, and the poems certainly delivered – acting as odes and elegies for both famous and unsung individuals, whose fortitude, beauty, innovation, and leadership paved the way for those who came after them of all races and genders.

FIRST PRIZE: ‘Harriet Tubman, Sweeping’

A good poem transports you, somehow, somewhere: even if you are stationary while reading it, by the time you reach the last line you find that the world has shifted slightly and taken on a deeper hue, a richer texture. That is certainly true of ‘Harriet Tubman, Sweeping’, the winning poem of this year’s prize, in which things are not what they seem, and hope underpins and unravels the society that tries to bind it. The poem captures the boldness, bravery, and ingenuity of the conductors of the Underground Railroad, and celebrates those who persist within vicious social systems and limiting presumptions. Demonstrating sensitivity, musicality, and control, it is a light for dark times; a reminder that freedom is attainable for those who are willing to fight for it and run towards it.

SECOND PRIZE: ‘Eliza Harris and the River’

Drawing from the life of a key character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ‘Eliza Harris and the River’ celebrates every Black woman who has dared to dream of a better life for herself and her children. Through evocative imagery and a propulsive rhythm that ‘never stop[s] moving’, the poem captures the electricity of a confrontation between Eliza, the unstoppable force, and a river, the immoveable object. It is a reminder that the best way to find your place in the world is to carve it out with your own being.


Across the shortlist, there is also much to admire: the earnest imagery of ‘Alaiyo (in gratitude for the dream)’, the vivid depictions of migration and family in ‘A Sunday Afternoon’, the poignant depiction of community workers at a homeless charity in ‘Ma Smith’, and the imaginative mythmaking of ‘The Mothers of the Middle Passage’. In these poems, imagery and form combine to create worlds in which there is always hope to propel us forward, and community to sustain us along the way.

About our judge

 Isabelle  Baafi

Isabelle Baafi

Isabelle is a British-born poet, fiction writer, and editor of Jamaican and South African descent. Her debut pamphlet, Ripe (ignitionpress, 2020), was a winner of the 2021 Somerset Maugham Award, and was the Poetry Book Society’s Pamphlet Choice for Spring 2021.

She was the winner of the 2019 Vincent Cooper Literary Prize and shortlisted for the 2021 Brunel International African Poetry Prize. Her poetry and prose has been published in the TLS, The Poetry Review, The London Magazine, Magma, bath magg, and elsewhere.

Isabelle is the Reviews Editor at Poetry London, and has guest- or co-edited issues of Magma, Poetry Wales, and Tentacular. She is also a Ledbury Poetry Critic, an Obsidian Foundation Fellow, and an editor at Magma.

She has been commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and Verve Poetry Press. She was a member of the Creative Access & Penguin Random House Mentoring Programme (2021-22), the Griot’s Well Programme with Writerz and Scribez (2020), and the London Library’s Emerging Writer’s Programme (2019-20).

Isabelle received a BA in Comparative Literature and Film from the University of Kent, and is studying towards an MSt in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford.