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

Olivia Ward Bush-Banks: Author Page

[The following text is a contribution by Amira Shokr. December 2020] 

Olivia Ward Bush-Banks was born on February 27, 1869 in Sag Harbor, New York. Her parents being of Native American Montauk and African American descent, Bush-Banks was raised with two cultures that highly influenced her poetry. As Bush-Banks grew up her Aunt, Maria Draper, became the role model for her Native American heritage. 

Because of Bush-Banks' Montauk ancestry she was able to attend and participate in Native cultural ceremonies and gatherings. In addition to her poetry including Native themes, Bush-Banks also wrote an unfinished play called Indian Trails which largely was based off of Montauk tradition but also represented the colonization of Native Americans through European invasion. A poem that strongly represents her Native themes is "Morning on Shinnecock" and "A Floating Spar" where Bush-Banks represents the beautiful emphasis on nature and the importance of earthly surroundings and the fierce pain of the loss of many Native nations where land was stolen and people perished at the hands of European invasion. Bush-Banks often connected her two ancestries through their common history of European colonialism and the exploitations that came as a result of that. You can find more information on Native American poetry and its influences at this scalar project by Hannah Provost.

In 1889 Bush-Banks married Frank Bush and had two daughters by the time their marriage ended in 1895. For several years Bush-Banks raised her two daughters on her own taking up odd jobs to keep her and her children alive. These hardships greatly inspired much of her writing such as in poems like "Voices" where she always represents her strong will to keep her faith in herself and the future ahead. Her poems often represented this type of optimism despite the many hardships she faced during her life as a single mother. It was only until she remarried Anthony Banks that Bush-Banks was able to put time into developing her literary career during the Harlem Renaissance. 

At this point in her career, Bush-Banks largely identified with her African American ancestry where she worked closely with the Harlem Renaissance movement. Including the Works Progress Administration's Federal Theatre Project in 1936, where she worked as a teacher in the Abyssinian Baptist Church Community Center in Harlem, New York. In addition to becoming a certified teacher, Bush-Banks also wrote for the New Rochelle Westchester Record-Courier as a cultural art columnist. Her poems during this period largely reflected her involvement with social justice and the New Negro Movement, such examples of this are shown in her poems "Lights Along Shore" and "Honors Appeal To Justice". 

Bush-Banks' poetry also consisted of large themes of religion, nature, hope, history, and social justice for both of her ancestries. Poems that reflect and represent her strong connection to religion and faith are shown in "The Walk To Emmaus" and "The Moaning of The Tide". Bush-Banks often associates her strength in faith in her religious beliefs to the strength of her people and the ability to overcome the historical wrongdoings that they have had to face for centuries. 

On April 8, 1944 Bush-Banks passed away in New York City at 75 years old. She published only two books of poetry, one play, and two poems in magazines. Both her books of poetry, Driftwood (1914) and Original Poems (1899) are part of this project and represent the many connections between Bush-Banks' bicultural upbringing. She offers a unique perspective to African American and Native American literature as her work aimed to represent the beauty and the stolen justice for both her cultures. Bush-Banks provides readers with the richness of understanding the love for heritages that represented the identities and life for so many that suffered at the hands of colonialism and enslavement.

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