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…


To Do: Fall Free Into Reckless

Photo by Emma Matthews.

After reading my “Three Things” blog post last week, one of my friends, Cy,  added three more things to my list. I receive the first two items on her list with humility and gratitude:

  • You are very talented.
  • I am the #2 fan of your photo art.

It’s the third item on her list that I’m working to embrace:

  • It’s really okay to have a vacation and never, ever complete a task on the to-do list that you think is “life or death.” Just say you forgot about it or you can no longer do it. Fall free into reckless.

I’m convinced professors don’t take time off. We’re always working–grading, reading, planning, thinking, writing. We look forward to breaks, not because we can hit the road and head to the nearest beach, but because we can work (almost) uninterrupted.  My to-do list for the  mere nine days off (including weekends) is long. Significantly. I’m tempted to heed Cy’s advice, burn the list, and “fall free into reckless.”

The question is–can I “fall” with no regrets?

On Books: A Poem in Honor of Dr. Seuss

Thanks for picking up the hat for me, Butterfly. My own cat has outgrown his hat, but he’ll pick it up again, some day–after the self-conscious tween years, or when he has his own kids. 😉 Photo by Meli aka Butterfly’s mom.

It’s been years since my last Dr. Seuss birthday salute. Gasp! How did that happen? When I was finishing up a Dr. Seuss swap way too early this morning, I ran across a couple of Dr. Seuss items that had been hiding in my clutter. I’m sure I intended to blog about them, but well…things get buried in the “to be blogged” pile.

I rescued  a poem to celebrate “Dr. Seuss Day.” The poem was written by swapper Kate Mc (KateKintail, a swap-bot ambassador) for a “celebrate Seuss” swap two years ago .

“On Books”

Sometimes you get bored
and there’s nothing to do.
You stare at the clock
And nudge stones with your shoe.

You flop onto a couch
or a chair or a bed.
You watch infomercials
or do nothing instead.

And just when you think
life isn’t all that,
why, who should arrive,
but the Cat in the Hat!

I’ve come for your boredom.
I’ll take it away.
I’ll bring in the fun
and cheer up your dull day.

I’ve got boxes and bins
full of toys and what-not.
You’ll be amazed
by the stuff I have got.

But for you, my dear swapper,
I’ve got just the thing.
Though not covered in glitter
or tied up with string.

It’s something you’ll like.
Come here, have a look.
I’ll show you what fun
you can have with a book!

Now, don’t make that face.
It’s not what you think.
Don’t rip up this letter
and throw it in the drink.

Books are jam-packed
with bushels of fun.
I really should know–
I came out of one.

So suspend disbelief.
Without further ado,
I shall outline the things
a good book can do.

Open one  up and
fold it just right.
Put it on your head,
and like that, you’re a knight.

With a couple of books
you can make a band.
Clap covers together
with one in each hand.

Or riffle the pages
for a different sound.
Even when its quiet
music can abound.

Find a table or desk
and prop one up on its side.
Grab your favorite food
and behind it you can hide.

You’ll be absorbed
while the world goes on by.
Hidden in knowledge,
new tastes you can try.

Or go to your bookshelves.
Collect a whole stack.
The green, white, and brown ones
the little ones in the back.

Pile them all up
up higher than high,
and pretend to climb up them
all the way to the sky.

Imagine the scenes
you’d pass on your walk.
The places you’d visit
and characters who’d talk.

One foot on Great Gatsby,
another on Dune.
After Gone with the Wind
you’re halfway to the moon.

But maybe climbing
ins’t your cup of tea.
Don’t run away;
please stick here by me.

Put a book on your head
for a balancing game.
Hop on one foot.
Repeat your own name.

Put one underneath
a table’s unwobbly leg.
Then set up a race
with an orange an egg.

Stand many on end
for a fence or a fort.
A beach chair and mai-tai
make it a resort.

An old book is great
if you’re in a craft stage.
Make a purse of the cover
and ATCs of the page.

But the very most fun
can be all in your head.
The best thing is that
a book can be read.

Designed using papers and elements from

Be sure to do some reading this weekend in honor of Dr. Seuss!

Three Things…

I am one day away from spring break, but I’m hanging on by the thinnest thread. Before the madness of catch-up begins in a few moments, I’m taking a break to look at the pretty postcards I received for Love Notes 22.2 (Round 22, Prompt 2).

Prompt 2 was as stimulating as prompt 1: Three things I want you to know. I received inspiring and encouraging lists from each sender.

Debbie L, my assigned partner, sent another pattern postcard:

William Morris: Arts and Crafts Designs. “Orchard Pattern” William Morris and Co., Ltd. London, England, before 1917. Wallpaper sample book. Brooklyn Museum.

Debbie wants me to know:

  1. Laughter can fill our heart with smiles. Sharing it will give smiles to those around you.
  2. Openness will lead to unexpected journeys.
  3. Optimism will help drive you to the next step even when you think you can’t.

An ibis graced my mailbox carrying the three things Christine B wants me know:

“Ibis Crossing,” Photo by Christine B.

  1. I love your art and words.
  2. I admire your dedication to family, friends, students, and your work.
  3. Love is there for the taking.

Signed with peace and a green star. 😉

From Lori W, a wintry Wisconsin scene:

“Wintry Wisconsin,” Photo by Lori W.

She wants me to know:

  1. Kindness is like snow. It beautifies everything it covers.
  2. The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.
  3. Sometimes in the waves of change, we find our true direction.

Eileen V sent a brilliant waterfall postcard brimming with wisdom and encouragement:

“Waterfall.” Photo from Image Bank/A. Edwards

  1. Believe good things will happen and they will!
  2. Kindness matters.
  3. Feel life!

Life is full of happiness; be strong and have faith.  –Kareena Kapoor Khan

Litsa L sent a postcard from my favorite woman-centered collection, Women in Science:

Mae Jemison, Astronaut, Educator and Doctor

As you can see, it took quite a beating as it traveled, but the counsel on written on the back was left  unblemished:

  1. You know you best, so trust your own wisdom.
  2. Within fear lies great courage. We need to be gentle with both.
  3. Even when you are at your busiest, take a moment to hug your loved ones.

Kindness, laughter, and love seem to be the common threads. Since I can’t carry a thousand postcards around with me, I reprinted the lists and placed them as one list in my planner. Whenever I need a little love, kindness, or encouragement, I can just open my planner.

Until tomorrow…

Things to Carry: Hope, Love, and a Sense of Wonder

Love Notes 22 ended recently. As I reviewed the cards I received for the first prompt, I realized that we are less than two days away from the third month of the year. Eek!

In case you’re new to Pics and PostLove Notes is a postcard project coordinated by Jennifer Belthoff that “encourages slowing down, getting back to basics, and connecting through handwritten notes sent through the mail.”  Participants sign up for the swap on Jennifer’s website and then she assigns partners who correspond with each other for three weeks based on a prompt she provides each Sunday. The swap is hosted a few times during the year. Postcard writers can respond to the prompt in any way they choose–sentence, paragraph, poem or list.

Love Notes 22, prompt 1 required a bit of introspection and forward-thinking about the possibilities of 2018: As you step into 2018 carry…[one word here]…with you. And know… Because…

I, again, received postcards with heartfelt messages from my assigned partner and a few of my Love Notes friends.

From my partner, Debbie L., I received a pattern postcard in the colors of autumn and a message of hope:

William Morris: Arts and Crafts Designs. “Autumn Flower Pattern” William Morris and Co., Ltd. London, England, before 1917. Wallpaper sample book. Brooklyn Museum

As you step into 2018, carry hope with you. Hope will give you strength to open your eyes when you feel you can’t, smile when your lips are weighed down, and laugh from your belly when you feel that all that is left is to cry.

Christine B. sent a photo postcard of lilacs with a similar message of hope, sealed with her signature green star:

Lilacs. Photo by Christine B.

As you step into 2018 carry hope with you. There has to be hope. Possibilities for change.

Lori W. kept my mailbox happy with an elegant photo of a window flanked by purple wisteria. Her message was a reminder I needed:

Window with Wisteria. Photo by Lori W.

As you step into 2018 carry love with you. And know that you are loved. Because you matter to me.

And finally, Eileen V.  kept the purple theme going with her luminous “super moon” set against a purple sky.

“Early Super Moon.” Photo from Image Bank/A. Choisnet

As you step into 2018, carry your sense of wonder with you, and know that being curious will open new doors to experience because when we are open-minded…miracles happen!

Hope, love, and a sense of wonder. Wise counsel as we face uncertain days, difficult people, and cynicism from all directions. The postcards are beautiful, but I’ll carry the words in my heart throughout the year.