African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Exploring Datasets 3: Gender and African American Poetry in the Archives

[This post is part of a series. See other dataset explorations based on Dorothy Porter's Checklist of African American poetry here.] 

I. Gender disparities in Books Published by African American Poets, 1850-1944

When we break down Dorothy Porter's Bibliographical Checklist of books of poems published by African American poets (focusing on just 1850-1944), we see pretty clear dominance by men.

In the period under study, there are 95 books by poets identifiable as women, as against 314 by poets identifiable as men between published 1870-1945. So books by men outnumber those by women 3:1. 

Why this split is so pronounced might be beyond our ability to explain. Factors might include the gap between men and women in educational background and other factors related to the public standing of men vs. women at the time. 

One important factor behind the gender differential might have to do with money and funding for publication. The majority of books of verse published by African American poets before the 1920s were either on very small presses or self-published. Most of these publications were either paid for out of pocket by the authors or considerably subsidized. (Even a well-known author like Georgia Douglas Johnson is known to have subsidized the publication of collections at Boston's Cornhill Company press, as Gloria Hull describes in Color, Sex & Poetry.) It's fair to assume that men had more access to funds required for publication, and this is also a factor in the gender disparity. 

Admittedly, the split in the pie chart above doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. In particular, it's important to note that Porter's Checklist reflects the books and authors, not book sales or influence. Before Paul Laurence Dunbar emerged in the 1890s, one of the most popular and successful African American poets was undoubtedly Frances E.W. Harper, who toured widely throughout the country and sold thousands of copies many books of poems. Harper started publishing poetry as a young woman, and many of her poems had a strong social justice and activism orientation (see for instance her abolitionist poem "Bury Me in a Free Land"). We have produced plain text versions of several of Harper's collections of poetry here

In a recent biography of Frances Harper from 2021, Utz McKnight indicates that Harper's 1854 collection, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, would often be for sale when Harper would give speeches around the U.S. (which she did with great regularity throughout the 1850s, 60s, and 70s). McKnight notes that Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects went through 20 editions, and probably sold tens of thousands of copies (see McKnight, 2021, p. 41). 

That said, one curiosity of the period might be that Frances Harper's reputation as a poet did not have the same long-term trajectory as that of Dunbar's. There were dozens of tribute poems for Dunbar published by other poets after his premature death (see our collection here), but only one that we have encountered written for Harper (here). Dunbar also continued to appear in anthologies throughout the 1920s, even after his style was no longer fashionable and had come to be seen by Harlem Renaissance writers as antiquated; Harper, by contrast, was not included in Johnson's 1922 Anthology, Locke's 1925 The New Negro, or Cullen's 1927 Caroling Dusk.

The eclipse of Harper's reputation might require further study.

Did gender parity improve over time? 

And here is the above chart in tabular form: 

Short answer to the question: no, there was not much improvement in terms of gender parity, at least through the 1920s. The 1930s does see an uptick in women publishing books of poetry as solo authors, with about 30% of the books published by African American poets authored by women during that decade. (By contrast, between 1891-1900, the ratio was closer to 20%)

II. Gender in Periodical Poetry -- 1911-1926

In periodical publication, and especially in first fifteen years of The Crisis, the gender balance was somewhat better. Between 1911-1926, there were approximately 77 poems published in the magazine by authors identifiable as women, and approximately 135 identifiable as men. In effect, about 35% of the poems published in The Crisis were by women. (See our collection of poems published in The Crisis here.) Moreover, in several instances in the early and mid-1920s, the magazine had large spreads, including substantial numbers of poems by emerging poets like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. If we removed these spreads, we might see something closer to gender parity. 

Alternatively, we can compare the numbers of poets published in The Crisis during this period. By our count, there are 25 poets identifiable as women and 35 identifiable as men publishing in The Crisis during this period – or about 40% women. 

Why might there be greater gender parity in periodical publication vs. the publication of stand-alone books?

Above, we briefly discussed why there was a gender disparity to begin with in terms of publication, mentioning factors related to the social standing of poets (in brief: more men were likely to be in positions of authority in the Church or Education) as well as access to funding required for publication with small presses or for self-publication. 

With periodical publication, that disparity is largely erased, as aspiring poets could submit to The Crisis simply by sending materials to the magazine in the mail. Moreover, it probably helped that the literary editor of The Crisis for several years was herself a woman with a pronounced literary bent, Jessie Fauset. Fauset had a good eye for memorable verse -- undoubtedly better than the general editor, W.E.B. Du Bois. She also supported other writers who were women. 


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