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

"The Widening Light," by Carrie Williams Clifford (1922)

Carrie Williams Clifford was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1862. She was born free, though it's worth noting that that point in American history, many other African Americans remained enslaved. Clifford was born into a middle-class family; her mother was a successful businesswoman. As a young adult, Clifford lived in Cleveland, where she worked as an editor for the Cleveland Journal.  She married William H. Clifford from Cleveland; the couple later moved to Washington, DC, where the Cliffords hosted gatherings with many prominent African-American activists, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Mary Church Terrell. 

In her introduction to a recent edition of Clifford's poetry, P. Jane Splawn wrote of Clifford: 

In her poetry and in her life, Clifford did indeed speak with a determination and resolve that would not be quenched by America's accomodationist desires for its black constituency. Clifford was unwavering in reminding America of African Americans' contributions of both their blood and labor for the progress of this country and in warning the 'boastful, white American[s]' who, as she saw it, must one day account to an avenging God for the offenses committed against blacks and other people of color. (Splawn, xvii-xviii)

Clifford's second book of poetry was published by a well-known publisher based in Boston, Walter Reid (an imprint of Conde Nast).  The Widening Light represents considerable growth in thematic scope and narrative authority, with several poems using the sonnet form and a selection of love poems in the second half. Many of the poems in the first half respond to recent events affecting the African American community in the late 1910s, up through 1920. Several deal with World War I -- specifically the contribution of black soldiers to the war effort. Others deal with lynching, race riots, and major historical landmark events (like the tercentenary of the transatlantic slave trade, which occurred in 1919). 

Some poems of particular note in this collection include "Our Women of the Canteen" and "Mothers of America." Both of these poems are inspired by World War I, and focus specifically on the contribution of women to the war effort. "Our Women of the Canteen" particularly celebrates black women who had gone abroad and served the war effort, alongside male soldiers ("These dark women of the canteen / Would mirror to our boys / A bit of home, in France"). 

Another noteworthy poem from this collection might be "Little Mother," which tells the story of the lynching of Mary Turner, a black woman and mother of two who was lynched in Georgia in 1918 after she protested the lynching of her husband a day earlier. "Race-Hate" describes Clifford's outrage at the bloody East St. Louis riots of July 1917 (also referred to by some historians as the "East St. Louis Massacre"), and "Silent Protest Parade" documents the African American community's response to that event. 

Clifford was particularly invested in the Sonnet form in this collection of poems; readers are encouraged to click on the "Sonnet" tag to explore this further (some sonnets marked by this tag will be by other poets whose works are included in this site). From among Clifford's sonnets, I would particularly recommend "The New Year," a poem of human progress and optimism. 

--Amardeep Singh, Lehigh University
--Additional proofreading and editing contributions from Joanna Grim, Lehigh University

Works Cited 

P. Jane Slawn, "Introduction." Writings of Carrie Williams Clifford and Carrie Law Morgan Figgs. New York: G.G. Hall & Co., 1996.


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