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

Helene Johnson: Author Page and Poems

Helene Johnson (1905-19995) was born and raised in Boston, and later lived in Brookline Massachusetts. She and her cousin Dorothy West lived in Harlem in the 1920s, where Johnson briefly attended Columbia University (roughly as a contemporary of Langston Hughes, who also attended Columbia but did not graduate). Helene Johnson emerged on the scene of Harlem Renaissance poetry when she won an Honorable Mention in the Opportunity Magazine poetry contest in 1926. Johnson continued to publish poetry throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, with poems appearing in magazines like Saturday Evening Quill, Palms, Opportunity, and Harlem. Surprisingly, Johnson stopped publishing poetry entirely after 1933. 

Stylistically and thematically, Helene Johnson was clearly in line with the younger generation of Harlem Renaissance writers that emerged in the mid-1920s and that was epitomized by the Fire!! anthology that appeared in 1926 As with Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Gwendolyn Bennett -- her closest peers, all three of whom also published in that collection -- Johnson was influenced by Euro-American modernism, specifically the advent of free verse and imagism, as can be seen in her 1925 poem, "Trees at Night":

Slim Sentinels
Stretching lacy arms 
About a slumbrous moon;
Black quivering
Stencilled on the petal
Of a bluebell;

Throughout the late 1920s, Johnson also explored racial themes in a variety of ways in her poetry, including a number of "Harlem"-themed poems ("Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem" and "Bottled" being two representative examples). A number of her poems also used natural settings to powerful effect, including "A Southern Road." Johnson's poems often dramatize the tension between conservative morality and Christian restraints against the sensuous riot of the emerging African American youth culture of the 1920s ("Magalu"). 

To this reader's eye, Johnson's most memorable and distinctive poems fuse that sense of joy and youthful celebration with a keen attention to the complex social and psychological nuance related to the modern Black experience. Here, for instance, are a few lines from "Fulfillment": 

To ride to town on trolleys, crowded, teeming
   With joy and hurry and laughter and push and sweat-- 
Squeezed next a patent-leathered Negro dreaming
   Of a wrinkled river and a minnow net.

The Black man on the trolley she describes here is "patent-leathered" -- in other words, wearing modern, urban clothes -- but "dreaming of a wrinkled river and a minnow net," perhaps connected to his rural (possibly southern) place of origin. In just a few words, Johnson is able to capture his story as part of a longer poem celebrating life's sensuous pleasures. 

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