More Sister Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: Johnson, Larsen, and Bonner

I am a little torn about today’s “Focus on Black” post. I want to continue sharing the wonderful cards in the Sisters of the Harlem Renaissance collection, but each woman deserves much fuller treatment than I’m providing here. As I’m typing I’m reminding myself that this is my blog (aka a breakaway from the heady stuff) and not one of my courses. As much as I love the authors and texts I teach, if my blog begins to feel like a course, I might not find blogging so attractive.

Now that I’ve convinced myself…I’m back today with three more sister writers.

Georgia Douglas Johnson ( ca. 1877?-1966)

Georgia Douglas Johnson gained recognition as a poet of “The Genteel School” of writers prior to the Harlem Renaissance. Because some of her major works were published during this historic period, some historians saw her as “definitely of it, but equally definitely not in it.” She did have, however, an impact on the literati of the New Negro Movement through her “Saturday Soirees,” which she hosted regularly at her home on “S” Street in northwest Washington, DC. Born in Atlanta, she was educated at Atlanta University and at Oberlin College [in Ohio]. She moved to Washington, D.C. when her husband, Henry Lincoln Johnson, was appointed recorder of deeds by President Taft in 1909. The Johnsons immediately gravitated toward literary, political, and human rights activities along the East Coast. The abundant and kaleidoscopic nature of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s creativity is apparent in her books of poetry, her plays, and in her first love, her music. Johnson’s works appeared in books and journals from 1905 until her death.  –Winona L. Fletcher

See some of Johnson’s work here: Georgia Douglas Johnson.

Note: There is some inconsistency regarding the year Douglas was born. The Sisters collection reports 1886; other sources report ca. 1877 or 1880. Since her graduation year from Atlanta University was either 1893 or 1896, it is doubtful she was born in 1886 at the age of 7 or 10.

Nella Larsen (1891-1964)

Nella Larsen is one of three known Black women novelists of the Harlem Renaissance. The daughter of a Danish mother and Black West Indian father, Larsen attended Fisk University, the University of Copenhagen, the Lincoln Hospital Training School for Nurses, and the New York Public Library Training School. Her first novel, Quicksand (1928), follows Helga Crane from the South to the North, to Denmark, and back to the South. It includes themes of biracial parentage, sexuality, and class. Her second novel, Passing (1929), adds to these themes the difficulty of relationships between women, and the ability of light-skinned Blacks to “pass” for white. Both novels contain grains of autobiography; both mock superficial “race uplift” projects. Larsen’s projected third novel, for which she won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1930, was never completed, perhaps because she was accused of plagiarizing her short story “Sanctuary,” which appeared in Forum (1930). She denied the accusation, but did not publish under her name afterward. She worked as a nurse from 1941 until her death.  –Jeannie Phoenix Laurel and Erlene Stetson

To read more about Larsen’s life, see the New York Time’s Overlooked Obituary;  Black History Now; and the Gale Group’s Biography in Context.

Marita Bonner (1899-1971)

Marita Bonner was born in Boston, attended local schools, and graduated from Radcliffe College in 1922. One of this century’s most versatile authors, Bonner published essays, dramas, short stories, and serial fiction in Opportunity and The Crisis, and won awards for both literary and musical compositions. Her collected works were posthumously published as Frye Street and Environs (1988). Although Bonner knew and worked with editors and authors of the Harlem Renaissance, she never lived in New York. She lived instead in three other cities important to African-American literary production in the early twentieth century: Boston, where she spent her childhood; Washington, D.C., where she worked for eight years and was a member of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “S” St. Salon; and above all Chicago, where she settled with her husband William Almy Occomy in 1930. Bonner’s innovative fiction about Chicago set a model for other writers, including Richard Wright, to follow.   –Joyce Flynn

For more on Marita Bonner, see Harvard’s extensive digital archives of the Marita Bonner Papers.

In my next Sisters post, I’ll wrap up the writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Until then…

“Beware the Ides of March”

It has been clear to me for some time that my students didn’t read what I read in high school, so it was little surprise to me that students in my Shakespeare course had no idea what I was talking about when I walked into class this morning warning, “Beware the ides of March.” I’m not teaching Julius Caesar this semester, but I couldn’t let the “ides of March” go by without acknowledging the play that made the line “famous.”

I read Julius Caesar in junior high with Mr. Elliott, an amazing English teacher. As he demonstrated in his booming voice how we should read/act out the play, he drew us into the text and into the lives and motivations of the characters.

I haven’t reviewed the high school literature curriculum lately, but I’m pretty sure students are no longer required to read what I “had” to read–eons ago. I imagine English teachers today have serious challenges providing a curriculum that embraces the traditional “canon” of dead white men and the more inclusive contemporary “canon” to a generation that cut its teeth on e-readers and hyperlinks.

Anyway, in honor of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, and my 9th grade English teacher, I’m dropping by not with a warning but with a poem about the unpredictable mid-March weather that makes us all “watch our backs.”

I shot the “foggy day” photo outside our home in New Orleans March 15, 2012–the “Ides of March” six years ago. If the poem is difficult to read on the photo, it appears below:

The Ides of March by Marcella Remund

The seer was right to warn us,
beware the ides of March.
It’s a dangerous time, peering
through iced windows at the jeweled
tease of crocus and daffodil.
We’ve weathered another season
of deep-freeze, locked up tight
in muscle and mind.  We’re tired
of winter’s grey and gritty leftovers.
But this is no time to get careless,
toss a floorboard heater through
the beveled glass and go out,
where spring flashes her flannel petticoat
embroidered in pinks and greens,
leaves us gaping, breathless,
in air still cold as a knife blade,
stripping off the down.

The author, Marcella Remund, is also an English professor. I wonder if her students came to her familiar with the phrase–“Beware the ides of March.”

Would You Like Pie with Your Pi-ku?

“Pie Rows,” 1961. Wayne Theibaud, American. [Postcard originally posted on Pics and Post 10/02/2012].

Three point one four one
five nine two six five three five
eight nine and so on  –“Pi-ku” from NCTM Illuminations

When I picked up my son from school today, he excitedly reported  the “Pi Day” activities in his class and told me about the tiny lemon pie tucked inside his lunch bag. So in honor of my kiddo’s excitement over π , I’m dropping in today to share a “pi-ku” with a side of pie–or a side of “pi-ku” with a healthy serving of pie.

Happy Pi Day!

Live, Love, and Write Good Sentences

Poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Photo by Hans Beacham

I want to live, to love and say it well in good sentences.  –Sylvia Plath

I want to write because I have the urge to excel in one medium of translation and expression of life. I can’t be satisfied with the colossal job of merely living. Oh, no, I must order life in sonnets and sestinas and provide a verbal reflector for my 60-watt lighted head.   –Sylvia Plath

Postcard Note: The postcard, featuring Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, came from Gina B (aka Bianca), my pen friend/literary twin in Germany. I received the postcard a day or two after talking with one of my students about her senior thesis. I’d suggested to her that she include Sylvia Plath in her discussion about Anne Sexton’s poetry. Coincidence? More than that, of course.

Earth Has No Sorrow…

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish;
Come to the mercy-seat, fervently kneel;
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish,
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Today marks five years since we lost my little sister, and I miss her every single day. I can’t see the color pink without thinking about her. Certain cadences in my speech and the intoning of particular expressions make my words catch in my throat because I think I hear her voice coming from my body. As I think about her life, our conversations about dreams and goals, I realize we sang the same song but to a different tune.

I tried to keep myself busy today because I know where my thoughts “live” on March 11. I tried to stuff the grief into a neat box inside my heart, when what I wanted to do and what I needed to do was to pull away from the rest of the world and cry myself tearless.

Just last night, I finished a letter to a dear friend regarding the recent brutal loss of her own sister, administering medicine that I must take. Grief doesn’t come in a neat package with step-by-step, day-by-day instructions. Grief is a process that can’t be staged, coached, cultivated, or rushed.

And we must allow ourselves to go through it–no matter how long it takes–with apologies to no one, not even ourselves.

Sisters of the Harlem Renaissance: Dunbar-Nelson, Grimke, Fauset, and Spencer

One of the things I miss about our move from New Orleans to Alabama and to another university is facilitating courses in African American literature, particularly 19th and early 20th century literature. A friend recently gifted me an amazing set of postcards that exacerbated my desire to teach the literature.

The postcard project, Sisters of the Harlem Renaissance: The Found Generation, coordinated by Sona L. Chambers and edited by Gail Cohee and Leslie Lewis, features 26 photographs of African American women writers, scholars, entertainers, artists, and political thinkers of the 1920s and 30s. The collection “uncovers the personal and political conflicts” and “remind us of triumphs as well as ongoing struggles of African American women” from 1920-1932, “a time during which Harlem was the focus of a new spirit of race consciousness and pride, embodied in a veritable explosion of artistic, literary, political, and intellectual activity.”

At the mention of the Harlem Renaissance, most people quickly identify writers like Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Arna Bontemps, Alain Locke, who were all men. Even though there are quite a number of women writers, we hear of few of them outside or inside the classroom. In fact, Zora Neale Hurston is typically the only woman writer of the era with which some are familiar.  And with the exception of Ethel Waters, many are unfamiliar with the many women entertainers of the era.

Today, I’m using the postcards to introduce you to (or maybe, reacquaint you with) four women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. I will introduce other writers, singers, and entertainers from the collection over the next several weeks.

Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935)

Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, one of the first African American women to voice the “lyric cry” of the Harlem Renaissance, was unique as both a precursor to and central participant in the movement. The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, edited by her and dedicated to the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, to whom she was briefly married, was the movement’s first anthology. Educated as an English teacher at Straight University (now Dillard University) in her native New Orleans, she found early success as a writer of short stories exploring the lives of the region’s Creoles and Cajuns. Her careers included public lecturer, parole officer, suffragist, politician, and civic worker. She headed the Anti-Lynching Crusade in Delaware and helped to draft the Black club women’s 1920 political manifesto, A Platform of the Colored Women of America.  Although certainly best known for her still-uncollected poems, particularly, “I Sit and Sew,” and now for her remarkable diary, Dunbar-Nelson was known during the period as a prolific journalist whose essays, book reviews, and stage reviews appeared regularly in such magazines as The Crisis, Opportunity, and Colliers. –Sharon G. Dean

See some of Dunbar-Nelson’s poetry here: Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson.

Angelina Weld Grimké (1880-1958)

Angelina Weld Grimké was a gifted poet, dramatist, and teacher. She was born in Boston to a former slave father and a white Bostonian mother. Although primarily reared by her father, Grimké was also influenced by her famed abolitionist-feminist aunts, Sarah M. Grimké and Angelina Grimké Weld. After graduating from the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1902, Grimké began a long teaching career in Washington, D.C. She became a regular member of the African-American artistic circle that gathered around Georgia Douglas Johnson. In the 1920s, Grimké’s poems began appearing in Opportunity and The Crisis. Her works also appeared in several Harlem Renaissance anthologies, including Alain Locke’s 1925 collection The New Negro. Grimké’s poetry tended to avoid racial subjects, but her three-act play, Rachel, was an angry and painful drama about the personal impact of lynching. The vast majority of Grimké’s poetry remained unpublished during her lifetime, perhaps because of its explicit “woman-identified” voice.  –Eric Garber

See some of Grimké’s poetry here: Angelina Weld Grimké.

Jessie Redmon Fauset (1982-1961)

Jessie Redmon Fauset, the first Black woman to be selected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor fraternity (Cornell 1905), also earned advanced degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the Sorbonne, Paris. In 1919, after fourteen years of teaching French at Dunbar High School, Washington D.C., Fauset left teaching for New York City and the offices of the NAACP’s publication, The Crisis. As literary editor  from of The Crisis from 1919-1926, Fauset was one of the people who “mid-wifed” the Harlem Renaissance into being by publishing numerous writers who later became well known. She was also an accomplished writer, publishing four novels between 1922 and 1933, and hundreds of poems, essays, articles, reviews, and children’s works. Many of the latter appeared in the twenty-four issues of the children’s magazine she also edited, The Brownies’ Book (1920-21). –Carolyn Wedin

See some of Fauset’s poetry here: Jessie Redmon Fauset.

Anne Spencer (1882-1975)

Anne Spencer was hailed by critics of the Harlem Renaissance as its most technically sophisticated and modern poet. Born Annie Bethel Bannister to newly freed slaves in Henry County, Virginia. Anne Spencer (as she was “pen-named” by friend and mentor James Weldon Johnson) was, like many of her Harlem Renaissance sisters already 40 and a working mother of three at the movement’s outset. Strongly influenced by Olive Schreiner, Spencer’s poems are more about gender than race, about rebellious wives, male fantasies, muses, and washerwomen. Yet she founded her hometown of Lynchburg’s first NAACP chapter, spent 20 fitful years as librarian at that town’s Jim Crow library, protested segregation, wore pants as an adult, founded a suffrage club, and cultivated a renowned garden that became both the metaphorical center of her poems, her “soul,” and the centerpiece of what is now an historical landmark–her home and writing cottage. Anne Spencer is the most consistently anthologized woman poet of the Harlem Renaissance. –Sharon G. Dean

See some of Anne Spencer’s poetry here: Anne Spencer.  Also, check out the Anne Spencer Museum site.

I hope this feeds your literary soul this weekend…

Until next time…