Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance: African American Women Writers 1900-1922

Texts, Themes, Visualizations

By Amardeep Singh, Lehigh University

Though “Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance” has a relatively limited number of poems collected at present, some clear trends are already visible from visualizations of the semantic tags that are generated by a D3.js plugin within the Scalar platform. These are live, ‘clickable’ network diagrams that provide users of the site an alternative to conventional Tables of Contents and drop-down menus. Readers of this essay are consequently encouraged to explore these diagrams on their own (from the drop down menu, click on "Visualizations" --> "Tags"). Below, I will explore three themes that have emerged as especially important nodes in the digital collection as it has been developing thus far: race, motherhood, and Christianity.

First, “Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance” explores the emergence of race-consciousness in this body of work. While all of the writers we are working with share a sense of outrage at racial injustice, the ongoing threat of violence, and the dehumanizing effects of institutionalized racism, their approach to race as an issue is somewhat variable. Writers like Carrie Williams Clifford demonstrate a high degree of politicization from an early point, while Georgia Douglas Johnson's early poetry (The Heart of a Woman [1918]) downplays and masks racial themes in favor of a more apolitical lyricism. As the critic and editor Maureen Honey has noted, over time a critical mythology emerged suggesting that black women poets from this period favored more personal and romantic themes, in contrast to the more explicitly race-oriented themes of their male peers (Honey 2006: xxxiii-xxxiv). But Honey questions whether this stereotype is based on thorough knowledge of the broad range of poetry produced by women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Claudia Tate questions this pattern of assumptions as well. In her “Introduction” to her 1997 volume of Georgia Douglas Johnson's works, Tate reflects on the apolitical nature of Johnson's early poetry as a reflection of her generation:

From the perspective of present-day readers, Johnson is not usually regarded as a 'New Negro' but rather as a member of what Robert Bone has labeled 'the rear guard,' For Bone and us as well, the New Negro or Harlem Renaissance is generally characterized by the works of the younger generation of black writers, 'the young Turks,' who were mostly male--principally Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Wallace Thurman. This is not surprising inasmuch as they were the most productive members of this younger generation who would overshadow the writers of Johnson's generation. The young Turks were also destined to become the dominant canonical figures, because their black nationalist values were resurgent during the 1960s and early 1970s, when scholars of African-American culture rewrote the literary history of the New Negro Renaissance (Tate, xxi).

Tate's comments about the link between gender, thematics, and canonicity seem especially salient as a reason to conduct this research and build an archive around a group of writers who were written out of the male-dominated canon that had actually started to materialize in the 1920s itself (with Locke’s New Negro anthology framing the entire movement for a generation). As Gloria Hull has pointedly put it in Color, Sex & Poetry, “The problem with Locke … is that he behaved misogynistically and actively favored men” (Hull, 7). While some aspects of Hull’s analysis of Locke’s male-centered critical orientation today seem problematic (she suggests his preference for male writers may have been connected to his homosexuality), her assertion that women writers generally had a much harder time finding patrons and establishing their critical reputations is inarguable. As Hull puts it: “Yet the Renaissance, despite its veneer of equal opportunity, was a time when not only Harlem and the Negro, but men as usual were ‘in vogue” (Hull, 10).

As I have asserted, in many ways the male-centered critical consensus about women poets in the Harlem Renaissance is simply inaccurate on its face: there is in fact considerable emphasis on documenting racial injustice in poetry by women of this period, as well as on the ‘racial uplift’ movement that emerged in the African American community to counter it. 

All of that said, the design of this site also aims to encourage readers to take seriously a number of other themes that are often downplayed by critics in the dominant tradition. One such theme is motherhood. This is a theme that is marked, at present, by eighteen poems on the site. 

Among the most well-known is Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “Black Woman,” which was first published as “Motherhood” in The Crisis in 1922 (The Crisis 24.6, p. 265). The poem encapsulates perfectly the intersection of Johnson’s feminism and her consciousness of racial injustice:

Don’t knock at my heart, little one,
I cannot bear the pain
Of turning deaf-ear to your call
Time and time again!
You do not know the monster men
Inhabiting the earth.
Be still, be still, my precious child,
I must not give you birth!

Margo Natalie Crawford writes the following of this poem:

In ‘‘Black Woman’’ Johnson denaturalizes women’s desire to become mothers. When she describes herself as the ‘‘mother of Negro poets,’’ it is clear that her role as a poet was overdetermined by the very gender norms that she sought to subvert. This poem was given the title ‘‘Motherhood’’ when originally published in The Crisis, and renamed ‘‘Black Woman’’ when published in Bronze: A Book of Verse (1922). The move away from the title that evokes universal womanhood is a key sign of the gender and race terrain navigated by black women poets of this era. This poem gains a different emphasis when read through the lens of the title ‘‘Black Woman.’’ (Crawford 127)

Crawford’s gloss on the title change persuasively points to the complexity of Johnson’s intersectional positioning as a black woman and feminist poet with respect to her various audiences. The only thing that might be added is that the title “Black Woman” seems so potent in part because the poem itself does not invoke a specific racial context, but rather marks the injustice of the world more generally. “Black Woman” gives it that context. Michelle Pinkard has also addressed motherhood in Johnson’s works, and written quite compellingly about the way motherhood works as a theme in Johnson’s poetry more broadly. As Pinkard notes, following an analysis of Johnson’s “One of the Least of These, My Little One,”

Johnson’s poem is indicative of the work Harlem Renaissance women poets were doing to articulate their individualized disillusionment with their respective marginalization and to define, for themselves, their unique gendered role in the burgeoning racial movement of uplift [...] [T]he conceptualization of black motherhood is at the center of this poem and the progression of the Harlem Renaissance movement. (Pinkard, 217-8)

Several of Carrie Williams Clifford’s poems also thematize motherhood with a direct orientation to racial injustice. One of the most memorable -- and disturbing, might be her 1922 poem, “Little Mother (Upon the Lynching of Mary Turner”). Turner was a pregnant woman in Lowndes County, Georgia, whose husband Hazel Turner was lynched in May 1918. After he was lynched, the crowd returned and killed Mary Turner as well -- while she was eight months pregnant.  Clifford’s account of the lynching of Mary Turner dramatizes the event using the second-person voice:

For they're dragging Gabe, at a stout rope's end,
And they say, "She is bound to tell!"
Something she knows not a thing about,
Or they'll "Give her the same as well!"
Oh, tremble, helpless mother!
They're beating down the door,
And you'll never feel the father's kiss,
Or the stir of the baby more.

While this poem by Clifford is lyrical and emotive rather than formally experimental, it clearly packs a visceral punch in its thematizing of the precarity of Mary Turner’s life in Georgia in the 1910s. It is one of many such works by the poets from this group; together they might be understood as a sub-genre of occasional poetry in their own right -- poems that document and dramatize historical incidents of racial violence. 

A third theme this archive explores is the relationship between Christianity and the growing African American political movement of the early decades of the 20th century. In contrast to writers of the Harlem Renaissance who distanced themselves from Christianity and the black Church, writers like Johnson, Clifford, Carrie Law Morgan Figgs, Clara Ann Thompson, and others whose works we are working to digitize were quite active in the Church.

As Jon Michael Spencer has noted in “The Black Church and the Harlem Renaissance,” quite a few influential figures in the Harlem Renaissance publicly disavowed Christianity in one way or another. In Dust Tracks on a Road, for instance, Zora Neale Hurston indicated that “I do not pray” (cited in Spencer, 454). Langston Hughes, for his part, wrote a poem famously titled “Goodbye Christ” (1931), that expressed his frustration with the way Christianity had been appropriated by powerful social interests. And Spencer charts the various positions and statements regarding the Church and Christianity from writers like Locke, James Weldon Johnson, and Nella Larsen. He goes on to suggest that even for these writers who positioned themselves outside the Church, the relationship to Christianity might have been more complicated than might be expected -- they continued to use Christian themes and narrative frameworks in their writing even after distancing themselves from the Church.

By contrast to Hurston or Hughes, many of the writers whose works are collected in this digital archive were active in the Church and cited their Christian faith affirmatively in their poetry -- often as directly indexed to their commitments to racial justice. 
The critic P. Jane Splawn has described how women of the Harlem Renaissance martialed religious themes along these lines. Splawn cites Jacqueline Grant’s influential study, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, which explored the role of Christianity in nineteenth-century writings by black women. As Grant put it,

[t]he understanding of God as creator, sustainer, comforter, and liberator took on life as [black women] agonized over their pain, and celebrated the hope that as God delivered the Israelites, they would be delivered as well. The God of the Old and new Testament became real in the consciousness of oppressed Black women. (Grant 211, cited in Splawn xxxi)

Splawn cites several poems by Figgs and Clifford as representing the black female identification with Christ’s sufferings as described here, including “Like You,” “Prayer for Deliverance,” and “Son” (all of them from Clifford’s The Widening Light -- now available in digital form on our site). Of the three, perhaps “Like You” might be the most directly representative of Grant’s idea of “black women’s Jesus”:

Like you, He came unknown and poor,
And closed to Him was every door.
His race, like yours, was held in scorn,
Like yours, was humble and forlorn.
Like you, He was of men despised!
(So deeply was the King disguised.)
The Roman rulers heeded not
The manger-cradle,--His rude cot.
But Wise Men watching in the East
Knew, the greatest is often least.
They followed His Star, brought priceless things,
Bowed low and worshipped the King of Kings!

Here, an optimistic racial justice framework is built around the narrative of the persecution of Jesus. He may have been “held in scorn” for his racialized difference, but ultimately his “Star” would rise. Clifford’s sense of optimism is also representative of many of the other writers in this group. While they were outraged at the frequency and intensity of racial violence that affected their community, and while they were frustrated at the prospect of their children growing up in a racist society, they continued to believe that racial justice in the United States was possible. The scaffolding for this belief might be traced to their Christian faith.

Works Cited
Crawford, Margo Natalie. “‘Perhaps Buddha is a woman’: women’s poetry in the Harlem Renaissance.” The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. Edited by George Hutchinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Gallon, Kim, “Making the Case for a Black Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press. Digital version accessed here: http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/55.
Grant, Jacqueline. White Women's Christ and Black Women's Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response. New York: AAR Academy Series, 1989.
Honey, Maureen, Ed. Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Second Edition, Revised and Expanded. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006.
Huggins, Nathan. Harlem Renaissance (Updated Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Hutchinson, George. “Introduction.” The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. Edited by George Hutchinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Hull, Gloria. Color, Sex & Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance.. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.
Lewis, David Levering, Ed. The Portal Harlem Renaissance Reader. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Locke, Alaine. The New Negro: an Interpretation. New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1925.
McKay, Claude. Harlem Shadows. Accessed via “Claude McKay’s Early Poetry, 1911-1922” Digital Archive by Amardeep Sing. https://scalar.lehigh.edu/mckay/
Patton, Venetria and Maureen Honey, Eds. Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.
Pinkard, Michelle. “‘Don’t knock at my door, little child’: The Mantled Poetics of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Motherhood Poetry.” In Christopher Allen Varlack, Ed. Critical Insights: Harlem Renaissance. Ipswitch, Massachusetts: Salem Press, 2015.
Spencer, Jon Michael. “The Black Church and the Harlem Renaissance.” African American Review, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 453-460.
Splawn, P. Jane. “Introduction.” Writings of Carrie Williams Clifford and Carrie Law Morgan Figgs. New York: G.K. Hall and Company, 1997.
Tate, Claudia. “Introduction.” Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: G.K. Hall and Company, 1997.
Tracy, S.C. “Harlem Renaissance.” Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Edited by Roland Greene, Stephen Cushman, Clare Cavanagh, Jahan Ramazani, Paul Rouzer. Fourth Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.
Wall, Cheryl. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

This page has paths: