“Beyond the Gates of Sight”

“At the School for the Blind.” Poem by Shari Wagner

I received this poem on a postcard today! My Love Notes friend Fran sent this gem, featuring the poem of an author from her beloved state, Indiana. It got a little scratched during its travels, but the postal tattoos add a bit of artistic flair. Don’t you think?

The poem, “At the School for the Blind,” was written by Shari Wagner, Indiana’s fifth Poet Laureate. In case you find it difficult to read the “enhanced” postcard, here are the words:

“Poetry is a river,”
a boys says, his fingers
skimming the rippled
surface. A girl enters
her dream, a boat
to lift us over fields.

It’s natural as a dance
how students guide
each other to the mike

and back. So many
journeys from this
stone castle to the hills

where Sun dwells,
a house beyond
the gates of sight.

For Bonnie Maurer

According to the notation on the back of the postcard, the poem was part of Shared Spaces/Shared Voices, a public art project that infused Indianapolis’ public transportation system with literary art and spoken word performances. The poetry and prose were written by writers living in Indiana. The project was managed by the Arts Council of Indianapolis and funding was provided by the Indianapolis Cultural Development Commission.

“I Am Becoming My Mother”

“Flowers of North America” by Lou Paper

Today’s offering comes from Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison. I am currently reading I Am Becoming My Mother, her second collection of poetry. I struggled with the decision over which poem to share. I would have been satisfied with any poem in the book, but was literally torn when it came to works like “Guinea Woman,” “We Are the Women,” and “Garden of the Women Once Fallen.” I was driving myself crazy, so I decided on the one below on the basis that it is the title poem.

“I Am Becoming My Mother” by Lorna Goodison

Yellow/brown woman
fingers smelling always of onion

My mother raises rare blooms
and waters them with tea
her birth waters sang like rivers
my mother is now me

My mother had a linen dress
the colour of sky
and stored lace and damask
tablecloths
to pull shame out of her eye.

I am becoming my mother
brown/yellow woman
fingers smelling always of onions.

I am drawn to Goodison’s writing for a few reasons. Among them the cadence that makes me want to sing rather than just read the words and her masterful use of imagery, which makes the ordinary deeply striking.


About the image: The postcard above came from my swap-bot pal, EricB. I was randomly selected to receive this postcard via a giveaway on Instagram. Yay, me! The postcard was designed by Lou Papers, and was bedecked with even more flowers on the back.

Woman Inspired! | Stella Gibbons and Carson McCullers

One of my favorite bookish swap series to host is “Literary Wisdom” on swap-bot. Through the swaps, participants select a bookish postcard and write on the back a quote which inspires them. The quote must come from imaginative literature (poetry, prose, plays)–not sacred texts, self-help books, or non-fiction. For Women’s History Month, I decided to dedicate the swaps to women writers, since, unsurprisingly, male writers often dominate the swaps.

I created swaps for the Cup and Chaucer and Book Lovers Congregate groups. Lucky me! My randomly chosen partner for both swaps was Geraldine J (Nannydino). I always enjoy receiving postcards from Geraldine. Not only are the postcards well-selected with my varied interests and tastes in mind but the presentation of the written side of the postcard is always clean and inviting–very neat handwriting and unique placement of stickers, stamps, and postage. Somehow, Geraldine packs a lot of information on the 4×6 postcard backs, always including the date and weather.  Bonus–we have some of the same postcard collections so I get back the very postcards I love.

Now, for the literary inspiration:

Stella Gibbons (1902-1989). Photograph, Mark Gerson/National Portrait Gallery, London

Stella Gibbons was a British writer with poetry, short stories, and 25 novels to her credit. The inspired quote Geraldine chose to share comes from her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, which is a parody of the “loam and lovechild” rural genre.

Every year, in the fulness o’ summer, when the sukebind hangs heavy from the wains. . .’tes the same. And when the spring comes her hour is upon her again … ‘Tes the hand of Nature and we women cannot escape it.

What seems to be most inspiring here–besides the hilarious novel itself–is “sukebind,” a word Gibbons coined. According to the Oxford English Dictionary “sukebind” is an “imaginary plant associated with superstition, fertility, and intense rustic passion.”

Check out two of The Guardian‘s reviews of Cold Comfort Farm:

If you’re interested in reading the novel, you should have no problems borrowing it from many of the e-libraries.

Carson McCullers (1917-1967). Photograph, Bettman/Corbis

Carson McCullers, born Lula Carson Smith, also wrote in many genres–plays, essays, short stories, poetry, and (of course) novels. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, her debut [though not first] novel (at the age of 23), remains her most popular work.

The inspiration Geraldine shared actually comes from McCullers’ commentary on her characters. “She felt her characters powerfully, once stating:”

I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen.

And one of the inspired quotes form The Heart is a Lonely Hunter:

My advice to you is this. Do not attempt to stand alone. …The most fatal thing a man can do is try to stand alone.”

For more about Carson and her works, see the links below:

The postcards come from the collection, Postcards from Penguin Modern Classics: One Hundred Writers in One Box. I actually have the collection and mentioned it [or its lack of diversity] in a post on Eileen Chang. Despite the shortcomings of the collection, the photographs are stunning, and I’m happy to have two of the women writers “return” to me

Before I go, I leave you with a little homework. On the back of the McCullers postcard was an equally stunning fierce and inspiring woman postage stamp–featuring Elsie MacGill. If you don’t know who she is, you must do a little “research” and come back and report [in the comments] three things you’ve learned about her.

Until next time…

The Final Three Sister Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: Gwendolyn Bennett, Helene Johnson, and Dorothy West

I’m wrapping up the writers from the Sisters of the Harlem Renaissance postcard collection today with three women who led long  and productive literary lives–Gwendolyn Bennett, Helene Johnson, and Dorothy West.

Gwendolyn Bennett (1902-1981)

Gwendolyn Bennett, best known for her striking poetry largely composed during the decade of the 1920s, was actively involved in African American culture and the arts community over twenty years. Following graduation form Brooklyn’s Girls High, Bennett planned to become a graphic and visual artist. She entered Teacher’s College, Columbia University, taking courses in Art Education; in 1924, she graduated from Pratt Institute. While studying art, Bennett also wrote poetry; she was soon successful in both media. In 1923 Opportunity published her poem “Heritage,” and The Crisis carried a cover which she illustrated. In August of 1926, Bennett began the “Ebony Flute,” a literary and social chit-chat column featured in Opportunity until 1928. Also in 1926, Bennett served on the editorial board of the short-lived Fire!! where “Wedding Day,” her first published short story, appeared. Despite frequent absences from New York, Bennett belonged to the close-knit Harlem Writers Guild. She was a friend and associate of such figures as Langston Hughes, Aaron and Alta Douglas, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston.   –Sandra Y. Govan

For more information on Gwendolyn Bennett’s life, writing, and art, see the following resources:

Helene Johnson (1906-1995)

Helene Johnson, like her cousin Dorothy West, was one of the youngest of the Harlem Renaissance poets. Born in Boston, she first visited New York in 1926 to accept Opportunity‘s First Honorable Mention prize for her poem “Fulfillment.”  After moving to New York in 1927, she met prominent Harlem Renaissance literary figures, including Zora Neale Hurston, who became her close friend, and Wallace Thurman. Thurman published one of her poems, “A Southern Road,” in the only issue of his journal Fire!! About one-third of Johnson’s poems treat themes of  youthful sensuality and the joy of life; racial themes dominate many others. From 1925 through the mid-1930s, Johnson’s poems appeared regularly in periodicals such as Opportunity, The Messenger, Palms, Vanity Fair, Harlem, Challenge, ,and Saturday Evening QuillAnthologists of the Harlem Renaissance have continued to include her works in their collections of Black American literature.  –T. J. Bryan

Interestingly, it was difficult finding more about Helene Johnson online.  The New York Times featured a rather detailed obituary with comments about her writing, excerpts from her poems, and the beautiful testimony of her daughter that even after the height of her literary career, she wrote a poem every day.

Dorothy West (1907-1998)

Dorothy West, one of the youngest writers drawn to Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, first came to New York in 1926 because she won “some little prize in Opportunity” for her short story, “The Typewriter.” Additional short stories (which she considers the perfect literary form) appeared in Opportunity, The Messenger, Boston Post, and Saturday Evening Quill during the 1920s. In 1934 she founded and edited Challenge, a literary journal, “to permit new Negroes to make themselves heard,” and in 1937 she edited a reincarnation of that quarterly, New Challenge. Her important novel, The Living Is Easy, was published in 1948 and reissued in 1982. For a number of years she wrote  a weekly column for the Vineyard Gazette. –Phyllis Rauch Klotman

For more on Dorothy West, see  the following resources:

Initially, I was surprised to find that the brief biography on the back of the card did not mention West’s most popular novel, The Wedding, which was made into a television movie. Then, I realized the publication of the Sisters of the Harlem Renaissance collection preceded the novel. That Dorothy West continued to write her entire life and that her novel was published in 1995, when she was 88 years old, is clear evidence that age should not be a hindrance in the pursuit of our goals.

Write on…

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…

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 (1882-1961)

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…