The women poets of the Harlem Renaissance faced one of the classic American double-binds: they were black, and they were female, during an epoch when the building of an artistic career for anyone of either of those identities was a considerable challenge. To the general reader, the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance is more than likely embodied in the work of two or three writers: Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and of course, Langston Hughes; Jean Toomer’s beautiful poems from Cane might also be added to that list. But behind these names, and such signal poems as “Incident,” “If We Must Die,” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” lies another body of work that is also worth of study, acclaim, and respect.
This work includes poems of homespun wit and sophisticated irony; of family, politics, and existential unease; of love, betrayal, and heartache; of racial pride and world-weariness. These poets were, given their true prospects, painfully ambitious. In addition, they carried the burdens of “the race”: self-consciously creating a literature for a people only recently out of slavery; not writing anything that could be construed as revealing, embarrassing or humiliating, not only to African Americans as a group and themselves as individuals, nor anything that deviated from the constrained Victorian social patterns in which all women in our culture found themselves living at that time; and, perhaps most crushing of all, being obligated to write in ways that “proved” blacks and black women were as literate and articulate, as capable of education and cultivation, as whites.
These burdens grew out of the expectations of the Renaissance, or the New Negro Movement, as it is also known. As Alain Locke, one of the pioneering theorists of the movement, wrote in his seminal essay “The New Negro,” the writers of the Renaissance would join musicians (Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson,) actors and dancers (Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker), and visual artists (Aaron Douglas and May Howard Jackson) in educating the world in true African American capability: “The especially cultural recognition that they win should in turn prove the key to that reevaluation of the Negro which must precede or accompany any considerable further benefit of race relationships.”
Things did not quite work out that way: the Renaissance, splintering from its own success and losing momentum as white patrons and curiosity seekers moved on to newer fashions, collapsed completely in the face of the Depression. The lives and careers of poets such as Jessie Redmon Fauset, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Georgia Douglas Johnson have, in the history that has been written since, been relegated to the precincts of specialists in African American literature. Yet, in the face of what must have been corrosive psychic costs, in terms of the circumscription of their true ambitions and selves, the achievements of Fauset, Bennett, Johnson, the other women poets of the Harlem Renaissance stand among the most heroic in the twentieth- century American poetry.
Jessie Redmon Fauset was born in 1882 in New Jersey. She grew up in Philadelphia and considered herself an O.P. (Old Philadelphian), a term denoting the equivalent of Social Register breeding for African Americans. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell in 1905—as one of the first, if not the first, black women to attend that university—she taught French at Washington’s Dunbar High School. She received a master's degree in French from the University of Pennsylvania in 1919 and moved to New York that same year. Fauset worked closely with W. E. B. Du Bois as literary editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, and served as editor of another NAACP publication, Brownie’s Book, a much-praised children’s magazine.
From her editorial perch, Fauset became a central force in the Renaissance, nurturing and encouraging many young writers. She was instrumental in the development and publication of both Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes, and offered crucial help early in the careers of Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen. Thought of during her career principally as a novelist, Fauset wrote delicate, if somewhat stiff to modern ears, formally structured verse. In the foreword to her novel The Chinaberry Tree, she defined her goal as to represent the “breathing-spells, in-between spaces where colored men and women work and love.” Historian David Levering Lewis concludes that “for honesty and precocity,” Jessie Redmon Fauset’s influence on the Harlem Renaissance “was probably unequalled. . . . There is no telling what she would have done had she been a man, given her first-rate mind and formidable efficiency at any task.”
Fauset’s close friend (and sometime rival for the affections of DuBois) was Georgia Douglas Johnson—the only woman of the Harlem Renaissance actually to publish a collection of verse (publishing three between 1918 and 1928). Born in 1880 in Atlanta, Georgia, Johnson attended Atlanta University and went on to study music at the Oberlin Conservatory and the Cleveland College of Music. Her husband, a minor Washington bureaucrat, by most accounts did not think much of her efforts towards a literary career; nonetheless, in the years of her marriage to him she managed to establish herself as a literary presence.
After her husband’s death in 1925, Johnson began holding a salon in her Washington home on Saturday nights—an event attended regularly by Jean Toomer, Alain Locke, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Angelina [Weld] Grimké, and Alice Dunbar Nelson, as well as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, all of whom would later describe these literary evenings as important to their development and the nurturing of their projects. Though she was increasingly supportive of others, however, Johnson herself struggled to make a living in the years after her husband’s death, and to send their two sons to college. A 1928 newspaper article written about her states that her “great fear was that she would not be able to accomplish her artistic goals, for, although she works incessantly her time is too much taken up with making a living to give very much of it to literary work.” She worked a series of jobs—as a librarian, schoolteacher, federal bureaucrat—and applied unsuccessfully for a number of literary grants until late in her life, which male counterparts were far more likely to obtain. She was a prolific writer, also producing drama and music, but worried greatly in her later years about the work she left unfinished.
Her poetry is concerned with themes of romance and racial identity; though her most moving verse, certainly from our perspective today, spoke to issues of female identity and freedom. In one of her best-known poems, “The Heart of a Woman,” she writes, “The heart of a woman falls back with the night, / And enters some alien cage in its plight, / And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars, / While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.”
A regular at Johnson’s salon, Gwendolyn Bennett was born in Giddings, Texas, in 1902. Raised firmly in the black middle class, she attended Columbia University briefly before graduating from Pratt Institute in 1924. She then became an instructor in design at Howard University, worked as an editor at the African American magazine Opportunity, and was one of the founders of the short-lived but critically important New Negro magazine Fire!! Bennett traveled widely, writing formally controlled, image-rich poems about literary forebears, pan-African solidarity, and the beauty she found in African American people and creativity, something of a novel position at the time.
Married to a doctor, she lived on Long Island and in Harlem, and spent the last years of her life as an antique dealer in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Bennett’s output was tragically slender. She gave up her career as a writer to marry a doctor and never quite got it back to writing. She became an inspiring teacher whose students included the artist Romare Bearden. “I sailed in my dreams...” begins “Fantasy,” one of her poems, and it is both moving and inspiring to think of a woman courageously traveling, seeing, thinking these things—illuminating other possibilities, even if they were not able to be fully lived at that time—a time when black women were trapped in such stereotypes as Mammy domestics or mindless, bobbed flappers dancing at the Cotton Club.
Fauset, Johnson, Bennet, and their New Negro peers Anne Spencer, Marita Bonner, Helene Johnson, Angelina [Weld] Grimké, and Alice Dunbar Nelson, among others, presented a vibrant, living image of richly-dimensioned interior lives; of complex, ambivalent emotions towards love, work, and home; nuanced social concern and historical consciousness; the highest degree of education and attention to craft; and a most “un-feminine” (by the standards of the time) desire for notoriety and literary achievement. Much can be made of what their work is not; much more should be made of what it is, given the context of a time when black women held arguably the lowest position in society.
These women would inspire with their example three generations of poets who had a much greater chance to realize their artistic ambitions—most directly Margaret Walker, author of the Yale Prize-winning For My People, and Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize; and through them a younger generation of poets more able to completely explore their poetic selves and many of the same tensions and issues, but with access to the wider American poetry establishment, including Toi Derricotte, Thylias Moss, Elizabeth Alexander, and former poet laureate Rita Dove.
Works for Further Reading
Women of the Harlem Renaissance by Cheryl A. Wall (Indiana University Press, 1995)
Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Maureen Honey (Rutgers University Press, 1989)
Color, Sex and Poetry: Three Women Writers of The Harlem Renaissance by Gloria T. Hull (University of Indiana Press, 1988)
When Harlem was in Vogue by David Levering Lewis (Alfred A. Knopf, 1981)
The Harlem Renaissance Reader edited by David Levering Lewis (Viking, 1994)
Caroling Dusk: Anthology of Verse by Black Poets, edited by Countee Cullen (Citadel Press, 1993)