Women poets of the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was also an important moment for women poets, many of whom published in magazines like Crisis and Opportunity and in anthologies like Cullen's Caroling Dusk (1927) and James Weldon Johnson's Book of American Negro Poetry (1931). Though relatively few of these women published their own volumes ofpoetry (Georgia Douglas Johnson being the major exception), the work of such poets as Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Anne Spencer, Angelina Weld Grimke, Helene Johnson, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Mae Cowdery serves as a significant and often overlooked contribution to the African American literature of the period. The poetry of these women exhibits many ofthe same qualities as the work oftheir male counterparts: a strong racial identification, an anger at manifestations of racism and racial violence, a determination to fight social oppression, a rejection of white culture, and an attempt to reconstruct a sense of black heritage. At the same time, women poets addressed themes such as love and nature far more frequently than the male poets of the Harlem Renaissance, and their poems often reflected their awareness of gender oppression and well as racial oppression.

While the work of male poets such as Hughes, Toomer, McKay, and Cullen has remained within the canon of twentieth-century American poetry - at least as measured by its inclusion in standard anthologies -poetry by black women of the period has been largely overlooked. Most of the attention that has been paid to African American women writers of the 1920s and 1930s has focused on the prose fiction of Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston. In fact, as Maureen Honey observes, many critical works do not mention the women poets at all, and others treat them as conventional, sentimental, and "out of step with the militant, rebellious race conciousness of the period."5 The most celebrated woman poet of the Harlem Renaissance was certainly Georgia Douglas Johnson, who published three volumes of verse between 1918 and 1928, in addition to stories and plays. Johnson's poems, while carefully crafted, are conventional in form and now seem rather dated in their language and conception. Two less published but more strikingly original poets of the period were Anne Spencer and Angelina Weld Grimke.

Spencer published fewer than thirty poems between 1920 and 1931, and she never published a book of poetry. Having lived through conditions of extreme poverty as the child of former slaves, she was strongly committed to social justice; several of her poems deal with explicitly political and racial themes. Spencer's most powerful poem is "White Things," which was published in The Crisis in 1923. The poem was inspired by a story she had read about a pregnant black woman who was seized by a lynch mob and cut through the abdomen, killing both her and her unborn child. The poem moves from a quiet, positive tone to one ofdefiance and determination, climaxing in a powerful statement ofits theme. In the first stanza, Spencer uses the traditional connotations of white and black (good versus evil, positive versus negative) only to reverse them through her imagery and language.

Most things are colorful things - the sky, earth, and sea.

Black men are most men; but the white are free! White things are rare things; so rare, so rare They stole from out a silvered world - somewhere. Finding earth-plains fair plains, save greenly grassed, They strewed white feathers of cowardice, as they passed; The golden stars with lances fine, The hills all red and darkened pine, They blanched with their wand of power; And turned the blood in a ruby rose To a poor white poppy-flower.

Spencer, herself of partly Native American ancestry, comments on the colonization of the New World by Europeans who "stole from out a silvered world - somewhere" and "blanched" the colorful landscape of North America with "their wand of power." The whites act in stealth and cowardice, covering the green grass with "white feathers" and destroying the

"red and darkened pine" of America's wilderness. As the color imagery suggests, the "red," "golden," and "darkened" races are included among the "colorful things" destroyed or whitened (perhaps through forced racial mixing) by the colonizers.

In the second stanza, Spencer shifts from an allegory of colonization to a denunciation of the terrorism perpetrated by whites against blacks:

They pyred a race of black, black men, And burned them to ashes white; then Laughing, a young one claimed a skull, For the skull of a black is white, not dull, But a glistening awful thing Made, it seems, for this ghoul to swing In the face of God with all his might, And swear by the hell that sired him: "Man-maker, make white!"

If we compare this poem with McKay's more famous "If We Must Die," we find in Spencer's poem a more inventive use of language and imagery. While still in the category of the "protest poem," Spencer's lyric is less strident in tone. Spencer skillfully interweaves images ofnature with a powerful statement of historical protest. She states the main thesis of the poem in the second line: "Black men are most men; but the white are free." White men may be "free" - of slavery and other forms of social subjugation - but they are out of touch with nature, having erected an artificial hierarchy based on skin color. The poem reveals the desire on the part of white settlers to subjugate both the natural world and human nature to their desires, and to deprive other men of their right to freedom. The poem progressively narrows its scope from the general ("black men" referring to all the darker skinned races ofthe world) to the specific (the history ofpost-slavery racism in the United States).

The first stanza does not prepare us for the horrors of the second, in which we witness first-hand the effects of the white race's hostility toward the black race. After the lynching and burning of the "black, black men," a young white man picks up a skull from the ashes. The man - who is later described as a "ghoul," lending another negative connotation of the color white - represents not only the white man's desire to annihilate the black race, but also the perverse pleasure he takes in destroying blackness itself. As J. Lee Greene suggests, the man's actions recall the practice of whites collecting souvenirs from their victims at the lynching scene.6 The poem ends with the man holding the skull (now ironically transformed into one of the title's "white things") and demanding that God create only white in the world: "Man-maker, make white!" Of course, the white man's hubris is a form ofblasphemy, for in his desire to rid the world of"colorful things" and supplant them with "white things" he has spoken against the divine plan of God's creation. "White Things" provides a frightening vision of American racial history. As Greene argues, the poem shows how "God's cosmic force has been so undermined and perverted by humans that it is subject to the dictates of whiteness."7

As might be expected, color imagery pervades much of the poetry by African American women of the period: whiteness is often treated as a malevolent force associated with invisibility, suffocation, and death, while blackness is celebrated as a source of beauty or an assertion of the self against white control. In Angelina Weld Grimke's poem "Tenebris," for example, she compares a tree growing outside a white man's house to a hand "huge and black" that "plucks and plucks / At the bricks" of the house. The poem's use of color imagery is heightened by the description of the bricks as "the color of blood," suggesting the plantation house of the Southern states built and maintained with the blood of slave labor. The poem's title comes from the Latin word for darkness, subtly associating the black poet, and not the white householder, with the classical culture on which white society is supposedly built.

In another poem, "The Black Finger," Grimke sees a black cypress tree as "A black finger / Pointing upwards." The final two questions which end the poem suggest both the oppressed position of African Americans and the hope for their continued aspiration to something better:

Why, beautiful still finger, are you black?

And why are you pointing upwards?

In addition to the poem of racial protest, the genre at which the women poets of the Harlem Renaissance excelled was the love poem. Many of these poems were addressed to other women, as in the case of Grimkee's haunting "A Mona Lisa." Grimke, a lesbian, could offer only a more muted version of her sexual feelings in her published poetry, although she made her attraction to other women more overt in her unpublished verse. In "A Mona Lisa," published in Caroling Dusk, she seeks a romantic union with another woman ("I should like to creep / Through the long brown grasses / That are your lashes"), but her unrequited love leads her to a vision of her own death. The metaphor of her lover's eyes as a pool of water becomes literalized in the second stanza: after she finds herself sinking to the bottom to "deeply drown," she wonders in a series of questions if she will be remembered as anything more than a "bubble breaking" or a wave "ceasing at the marge." Once again we find color imagery associating whiteness with death, as the speaker's "white bones" in the final image are contrasted with the highly erotic images of "long brown grasses" and "leaf-brown pools" used in describing her lover.

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