Monday, February 25, 2008

Women of the Harlem Renaissance

Browsing at Poets.org, I came across an interesting article by Anthony Walton titled Double Bind: Three Women of the Harlem Renaissance. When I think of poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, I almost always think of Langston Hughes or Countee Cullen. But this article brings our attention to three women poets of the Harlem Renaissance: Jessie Redmon Fauset, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Georgia Douglas Johnson.

In the decades following World War I, the double bind that Walton writes about (the fact that these poets were both black and female) made it almost impossible for them to gain "success" in their writing careers. Walton writes that the women poets of the Harlem Renaissance have,

in the history that has been written since, been relegated to the precincts of specialists in African American literature. Yet, in the face of what must have been corrosive psychic costs, in terms of the circumscription of their true ambitions and selves, the achievements of Fauset, Bennett, Johnson, the other women poets of the Harlem Renaissance stand among the most heroic in the twentieth century American poetry.
These women paved the way for great poets I've written about recently like Lucille Clifton and Elizabeth Alexander. Here are some poems from those women of the Harlem Renaissance:

Dead Fires
by Jessie Redmon Fauset

If this is peace, this dead and leaden thing,
Then better far the hateful fret, the sting.
Better the wound forever seeking balm
Than this gray calm!

Is this pain's surcease? Better far the ache,
The long-drawn dreary day, the night's white wake,
Better the choking sigh, the sobbing breath
Than passion's death!


Quatrains
by Gwendolyn Bennett

1
Brushes and paints are all I have
To speak the music in my soul—
While silently there laughs at me
A copper jar beside a pale green bowl.

2
How strange that grass should sing—
Grass is so still a thing ...
And strange the swift surprise of snow
So soft it falls and slow.


Black Woman

by Georgia Douglas Johnson

Don’t knock at the door, little child,
I cannot let you in,
You know not what a world this is
Of cruelty and sin.
Wait in the still eternity
Until I come to you,
The world is cruel, cruel, child,
I cannot let you in!

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!

Here are some links to biographies and additional information:
Gwendolyn Bennett
Georgia Douglas Johnson
Jessie Redmon Fauset

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