Valerie Jean on GEORGIA DOUGLAS JOHNSON
(September 10, 1880? - May 14, 1966)

 

To think of Georgia Douglas Johnson as only a poet would be to call her out of her name.  Add the labels of musician, playwright, fiction writer, mother, wife, friend, mentor, intellectual and gracious host, and one would begin to approach more of who she was-- a creative woman of her time.  One of the most loved and cherished participants of the Harlem Renaissance period, Georgia Douglas Johnson was the nurturer who gave to others not just her cadenced words, but much of her heart.  While acknowledging the oppressed position of women in her lifetime and documenting how this stiffled the creative spirit, she nevertheless proudly wore the mantle of the woman poet and fully embodied this restriction for herself.


(Schomberg Center).

Life was not easy for Georgia Blanche Camp, the name given to her at birth. She was born on September 10, but her birth year has been variously reported by equally validated sources as 1880, 1886 or 1887.  It was not unusual for women of her generation to conceal their ages, so the uncertainty only underscores Georgia's standing as a woman of her times.  Judging from what is known of her school and work history, the year 1880 seems most likely the correct one.  

Her parents were George Camp and Laura Douglass.  Their combined legacy of English, Native American and African American blood gave Georgia her light hue, a distinct advantage in the color-conscious world in which she grew up. Little is known about her early life, but through letters and anecdotes from friends, we learn that she was separated from her father as a young child.  Her mother moved with her from Rome to Athens, Georgia and shortly remarried.  There is no evidence that Georgia ever had contact with her birth father again and her relationship with her mother was not a close one.  In one curious remark, reported by Claudia Tate in her introduction to Douglas Johnson's Selected Works, Douglas Johnson once admitted that her mother was "rather resentful of her daughters."  Douglas Johnson was very private about her past, and the conventions of the kind of poetry she wrote did not allow for much confessionalism.  She was clearly educated in the classical rhetorical forms that her poetry never moved beyond.

Educated in the public schools of Atlanta, Georgia, she then taught there for about 10 years after graduation.  Music seems to have always been an important part of her life (she taught herself to play the violin and she played organ in her church), so after years of teaching, she went on to formally study music (taking courses in harmony, violin, voice and piano) at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Cleveland College of Music, both in Ohio.  Several sources also report that she studied music at Howard University in Washington, DC.  Whether this occurred before or after her attendance at Oberlin, or before or after her public school teaching remains unclear.  What is known is that after completing these musical studies, she went back to teaching and then became an assistant principal in Atlanta.

While there she met and fell in love with Henry Lincoln Johnson.  As was the norm for women then, she resigned her position to marry and they were wed on September 28, 1903. Uncharacteristically, Georgia dropped her father's last name and claimed a shortened version of her mother's maiden name to use forevermore as her middle name.  " Link," as her husband was known, was a Georgia delegate-at-large to the Republican National Convention.  An ambitious politician looking to establish his own law firm, Link moved the family, now including two sons (Henry Lincoln, Jr, born in 1906, and Peter Douglas, born 1907) to Washington, D.C. in either 1909 or 1910,.  In 1912, Link was appointed by President Taft to the prestigious position of Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia.

The move to Washington certainly widened Douglas Johnson's view of the world.  Due to her husband's political career, she was bought into contact with the established Black elite society of Washington, D.C.  There she came into contact with Jean Toomer.  Douglas Johnson's encouragement of Toomer's considerable energy, talent and intelligence allowed him to "light a fire" under her own creative leanings.

Despite the demands of motherhood, wifedom, and not a lot of support from her husband (who urged for her the traditional homemaker role), Douglas Johnson was able to carve out time to write.  She had published her first poem in 1905 in an anthology called Voice of the Negro while she was still in Atlanta.  She credited an urging by Howard University Dean Kelly Miller to send some of her verses to William Stanley Braithwaite, a poet she greatly admired, with giving her encouragement and the confidence that she could write.  Because of Braithwaite's generous critique of the poems she sent, Douglas Johnson then began to take herself seriously as a poet.  In 1916, three of her poems appeared in The Crisis.  Two year later, her first book of poems, The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems, was published.

In his introduction to The Heart of a Woman, Braithwaite writes: "The poems in this book are intensely feminine... deeply human."  But, he adds, "sadness is a kind of felicity with women, paradoxical as it may seem."  This last statement, viewed from today's more feminist perspective, points to the patronizing way women's lives were circumscribed.  The poems in this book are indeed sad, full of an intense sorrow, that is a lyrical expression of the kind of oppressive life Alice Walker writes about in the title piece of her book In Search of Our Mother's Gardens. Walker asks, "what did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmother's time?... This is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood." Although Walker goes on to describe the madness that surely would club down artists who were forced to serve masters during slavery, The Heart of a Woman speaks from the voice of one such artist whose creative talents were never fully allowed to develop because of the conventions of her time.  Over half of Douglas Johnson's poems in this 62-page collection reflect the pain that is a direct result of not being allowed free expression.

In the first stanza to her title poem, she uses the image of a "lone bird...winging, so restlessly on" to describe the breath and joy of having dreams and the freedom to explore them in a space that her "heart calls home."  But the second stanza graphically expresses that for this bird a kind of slavery still exists, since the reality is that the heart, trapped in "some alien cage... breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars."  This poem echoes the sense of frustration and perhaps madness that Walker imagined in creative women who were not allowed to do their art.  There is not much happiness in that kind of existence, and the fact that Braithwaite would see it and praise it as normal for women is deeply disturbing.  And Douglas Johnson's own complacency and even pride in her victimhood serve to give a true glimpse into what it was like to be a woman during her time. While Braithwaite's assessment of women's innate nature does not detract from the craft of these poems, what they lack is "a spirit of something other than articulate helplessness," as Gloria Hull writes in Color, Sex and Poetry.  Braithwaite thought that this state was where women found their happiness, and Douglas Johnson's unquestioning embrace of this view firmly establishes her as a woman of her time.

Her second book of poems, Bronze, makes even clearer the internal conflict and absurdity such restriction can cause.  Published in 1922, Bronze was written for the express purpose of  quelling the accusations leveled against Douglas Johnson's first book.  As she stated in an autobiographical note to Arna Bontemps, "someone said--she has no feeling for the race.  So I wrote Bronze--it is entirely racial..."   How telling that statement is of Douglas Johnson's lack of self-confidence and belief in her own artistic subjects!  She had fully internalized this patronizing role for Black women poets.  Further evidence of this kind of diminished existence is shown in her proudly using as a foreword a most unflattering review of her book by W. E. B. DuBois.  She should have bridled at DuBois' harsh critique of her best effort to please others and especially him, but decided that the value of his name attached to her, however unflatteringly, would increase her value.

And obviously she was right. With the publication of this volume, no small accomplishment for a "colored woman in 1922," Douglas Johnson's reputation as an important female Negro poet was established. She was the most widely published of all the women poets of the Harlem Renaissance period.

It was about this time same time, in the early 1920s, that Jean Toomer, approached her about hosting "Weekly Conversations among the writers here in Washington."  Toomer, starved for intellectual company to sustain his inspiration, persuaded Douglas Johnson to begin what fondly became known as the Saturday Nighters.  She opened her home to writers and other intellectuals and artists to come together as a community to encourage each other, to work on their craft, and to celebrate and debate Black culture and politics.  Hosting these weekly Saturday night gatherings was a role that Douglas Johnson relished, as they undoubtedly allowed her not only to showcase her gracious hospitality (which surely pleased her husband),  but the evenings also served to enhance her standing among the writers of the time. Secure in the idea of a woman's place to serve and nurture, she expended much energy and time for over 10 years providing Washington's Black cultural and political community a place to gather. with lavish refreshments.  Besides Toomer, those who attended these gatherings included a virtual Who's Who of important Black writers of the time.  Langston Hughes, Angelina Weld Grimké, Braithwaite, DuBois, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Jessie Fauset, Alain Locke and Zora Neale Hurston were just a few of the better-known writers who were privileged to attend these gatherings at Douglas Johnson's home.

Personal tragedy struck in 1925, when her husband of nearly 22 years died, leaving Douglas Johnson to provide for herself and two teen-aged sons.  Through fierce will and hard work, she put Peter through college at Dartmouth and medical school at Howard University, and she put Henry Lincoln, Jr. through Bowdoin College and law school at Howard. She did substitute teaching, worked as a clerk, and undoubtedly did some hack writing work until she was finally able to secure a more stable and financially rewarding job as the Commissioner of Conciliation in the Department of Labor in 1925.  By her own admission, Douglas Johnson used a variety of pen names, probably to conceal her work in trade publications. These pen names unfortunately rendered much of her work lost to future generations.  She continued to host the Saturday Nighters and remained a highly sought-after reader and speaker and traveled around the country extensively.

Undoubtedly encouraged and inspired by the gatherings she hosted, Douglas Johnson continued to pursue her own work writing poems, and, beginning in 1926, began to write plays.  The genre seemed to suit her creative temperment.  As Gloria Hull notes in Color, Sex and Poetry, "She was successful as a dramatist... she could just as easily have come down through history known predominantly as a playwright.  All of her existing plays portray excellent dialogue and dramatic impact.  They highlight Douglas Johnson's facility with language and storytelling.  Most of her central characters are women, a very interesting innovation at the time."  Most of the plays were lost (thrown away after her death by family members who did not understand their importance), but by the catalogue she herself made of her writings, where she listed her plays first, she probably would have better enjoyed being known primarily as a playwright. Best known of her plays were Blue Blood, which was awarded an honorable mention in 1926 by the Opportunity Play contest and  Plumes, which won first prize in the same contest the very next year.  

What is considered to be her best book of poetry, An Autumn Love Cycle, was published  in 1928.  In this book, Douglas Johnson returns to, or maybe one could say extends, the subject she began with The Heart of a Woman.  This time the focus is on love later in life, and although still shaped mainly by the traditional forms in which she had always worked, there is a new sense of passion infused throughout these poems that adds a powerful energy and truth to this book.

A prolific writer, Douglas Johnson also published a syndicated newspaper column from 1926 to 1932, managed a letter writing club, and wrote short stories.  In 1960, she listed her writings.  She stated that she had written "over 200 poems, 28 plays, and 31 short stories."   In 1962, Douglas Johnson self-published her final book of poetry, which she titled Share My World.  This work is a conscious rendering of the wisdom Douglas Johnson has gained over her lifetime.  These poems deal with the oneness of humankind and contain generous forgiveness and a love towards all. This attitude can probably be attributed to her introduction to the Baha'i faith by one of her correspondents. At the core of Baha'i teaching is the oneness, equality and preciousness of humans of every race.

Georgia Douglas Johnson is remembered for her considerable energy in fostering community among writers, and her deep commitment to honoring writing.  The various workshops (such as the Sterling Brown one which meets in Brown's last home), and literary organizations (such as Hurston-Wright Foundation) and even gathering places (such as Sisterspace & Books), that continue to nurture community among Black writers, artists and intellectuals in the Washington, DC area all have their roots in the Saturday Nighters. Douglas Johnson set the blueprint for how intellectual and creative talent could be nurtured and supported and her legacy here continues. Georgia Douglas Johnson died in her home at 1461 S Street NW on May 14, 1966.

Although not her best or best-known poem, "Your World," published in her last book, exemplifies how she had grown and matured in her understanding of life and humanity. From The Heart of a Woman who chafes under the restrictions of her time, she now sees a world where it is possible for her, for everyone, to soar "to the uttermost reaches with rapture..." I think this poem shows how this creative, giving soul would wish to be remembered.

 

YOUR WORLD by Georgia Douglas Johnson

Your world is as big as you make it
I know, for I used to abide
In the narrowest nest in a corner
My wings pressing close to my side

But I sighted the distant horizon
Where the sky-line encircled the sea
And I throbbed with a burning desire
To travel this immensity.

I battered the cordons around me
And cradled my wings on the breeze
Then soared to the uttermost reaches
with rapture, with power, with ease!

 

 

 

Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson

Poetry

The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems.  Boston: Cornhill, 1918.
Bronze: A Book of Verse.  Boston: B. J. Brimmer, 1922.
An Autumn Love Cycle.  New York: H. Vinal, 1928.
Share My World: A Book of Poems.  Washington, D.C.: The Author, 1962.

Drama

Plumes: A Folk Tragedy.  New York: French, 1927
"Blue Blood."  In Shay, Fifty More Comtemporary One Act Plays, 1928.
"Frederick Douglas" and "William and Ellen Craft." In Negro History in Thirteen Plays, ed. Willis Richardson and May Miller, New York: Associated Publishers, 1935.
"A Sunday Morning in the South." In Black Theatre, U.S.A.: Forty-five Plays by Black American Playwrights, 1947-1974, ed. James V. Hatch and Ted Shine, 1974.

Selected Works

Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson.  Introduction by Tate, Claudia.  G.K. Hall & Co., 1997.

 

Other Suggested Reading

Bontemps, Arna, ed. American Negro Poetry. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963.

Drake, William, ed. The First Wave: Women Poets in America 1915 - 1945. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1987.

Hine, Darlene Clark, Elsa Barkley Brown and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, eds. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Johnson, James Weldon, ed. Book of American Negro Poetry. New York: Harcourt, 1931.

McHenry, Elizabeth.  Forgotten Readers; Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies.  Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Perkins, Kathy A. and Judith L. Stephen, eds. Strange Fruit. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

 

Modern American Poets web site: http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/douglas-johnson/johnson.htm

DC Public Library web site: http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/bios/johnsongd.html

Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance web site (text of 7 poems): http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Coffeehouse/7266/gjohnson.html