African American Poetry (1870-1926): A Digital Anthology

Jessie Redmon Fauset: Bio and Links to Poetry

Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961) was one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance. 

Born in Camden, New Jersey, she largely grew up in Philadelphia in a large family that included several step-siblings. Her father, Redmon Fauset, was an African Methodist Episcopal minister. She attended the predominantly-white Philadelphia High School for Girls, and may have been the school's first African American graduate. The President of Bryn Mawr College, M. Carey Thomas, raised money to support Fauset's study at Cornell University (in part because Thomas desired to keep women of color out of Bryn Mawr). 

At Cornell, Fauset studied classical languages and French, and graduated in 1905. Fauset went on to receive a Master's degree in French from the University of Pennsylvania (in 1919). Between 1906 and 1919, Fauset taught French and Latin at would become the Dunbar High School in Washington DC.

The Crisis. Fauset began contributing regularly to the "Looking Glass" section of The Crisis in the summer of 1918. In October 1919, Fauset moved to New York City, where she became the literary editor of The Crisis, and an important part of its editorial staff (though her work was largely uncredited and her name did not appear on the magazine's masthead). She served as literary editor of the magazine until 1926. 

In addition to her poetry and criticism, Fauset published a good deal of fiction. Her first publications were short stories, including "Emmy" (published in The Crisis in December 1912 and January 1913). She published two novels in the 1920s, There is Confusion (1924) and Plum Bun (1928). Both novels were well-received upon publication, though Fauset's personal reputation was quickily eclipsed by some of the young male authors whose careers she helped establish, including Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. 

The Brownies' Book Fauset played an especially prominent role in managing a Du Bois side-project called The Brownies' Book. This was a monthly magazine oriented to African American youth, published between 1920-1921. Du Bois' biographer David Levering Lewis suggests Fauset played a central role in running the magazine from the start, though it was only in 1921 that she was credited as Managing Editor Fauset also published a large amount of her own writing for children in The Brownies' Book (see: Poetry for Children; The Brownies' Book).

Fauset was included in some of the key anthologies of the Harlem Renaissance such as James Weldon Johnson's 1922 Book of American Negro Poetry (click here). Of the group that is printed there, the most memorable might be "La Vie C'est La Vie," a poem of unrequited love, and "Oriflamme," a poem with a civil right theme, inspired by the example of Sojourner Truth. 

However, Fauset's poems were excluded in Alain Locke's The New Negro (1925), though she is still represented in that volume with a critical essay on humor and minstrelsy, "The Gift of Laughter." 

In a recent (2017) article in The New YorkerMorgan Jenkins describes  the painful experience of Fauset being marginalized at a dinner party thrown in her honor in March 1924, upon the publication of her first novel, There is Confusion. The dinner party was organized by Charles S. Johnson, editor of Opportunity, though as it evolved it became an event to honor Black writers more generally. In the end, male speakers dominated the event, and Fauset was reduced to an "afterthought." 

In his biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, David Levering Lewis suggests that in addition to being co-workers and friends, Fauset and Du Bois may have also been lovers, perhaps starting as early as 1914. The account of the affair is somewhat sketchy (Du Bois was of course married to another woman), and is based on a handful of letters exchanged between Fauset and Du Bois at the time. 

--Amardeep Singh, July 2022

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