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

Mae V. Cowdery (Mae Cowdery): Author Page

The following biography was researched and written by Sarah Thompson, June 2024.

Mae Virginia Cowdery (1904 -1953) was an American poet from the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area, born to a social worker mother and Lemuel Cowdery, a postal worker and caterer. Raised as the only child in an upwardly mobile middle-class family, she was instilled with the belief that racial equality was an essential project of the arts and letters. 

Cowdery attended Philadelphia High School and enrolled in Brooklyn Pratt Institute as an art student in the fall of 1927. While still a senior in high school, she befriended Langston Hughes (then enrolled as an undergraduate at Lincoln University, in the Philadelphia suburbs), and published three poems in the inaugural and following issues of Black Opals, a Philadelphia literary magazine. She contributed many different types of poems to Black Opals such as reflections on youth (see “Time”) and expressions of progress and racial uplift (see “Goal”). 

Her early work garnered significant recognition. In 1927, Cowdery won the first prize in a poetry contest in The Crisis for her poem “Longings” which evokes a profound yearning for connection with nature, cultural heritage, physical freedom, and spiritual transcendence. Additionally, her poem “Lamps” won the Krigwa Prize; this poem uses the metaphor of lamps to reflect on the diversity but common fragility of human life. Hughes encouraged Cowdery to submit both poems despite, or perhaps because of, their lack of traditional form. Also worthy of note is Cowdery’s poem “Dusk” published originally in the important anthology Ebony and Topaz (1927), where she personifies the evening as an intangible yet beautiful figure.  
In 1936, Cowdery finally published her first and only poetry collection We Lift Our Voices: And Other Poems

Cowdery’s poetry is said to be influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay, whom she may have known during her years in Greenwich Village where she lived during her time in New York City. Her work is said to reflect the imagism of Grimke and other Modernist poets. However, Cowdery’s work is specifically known for its sensual and erotic qualities, with several poems addressed to female lovers. 

Despite her contribution to the late Harlem Renaissance, little is known about Cowdery’s personal life. Most biographers focus on her distinctive fashion style and the impact of her poetry. Her style was known to be androgynous, most iconically photographed in tailored suits and a bow tie with her hair slicked back. Reputationally, some have compared Cowdery to her older contemporaries like Jessie Fauset and Zora Neale Hurston who also built a reputation through publishing their work in African American journals. 

Works Cited 

Honey, Maureen. Aphrodite’s Daughters: Three Modernist Poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Rutgers 
      University Press, 2016.
Honey, Maureen. Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Rutgers University   
      Press, 2006. 
Wintz, Cary D., and Paul Finkelman. Encyclopedia of the Harlem 
. Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005. 

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