-Georgia Douglas Johnson
1880 - 1966
Georgia Douglas Johnson was not an obscure poetess, but I am including her for two reasons. First, I wanted to include at least one black woman (more, if I can find them!), and there are few "obscure" or unknown black women poets to be found. Part of the reason is probably that, prior to 1960, fewer black women had the means to self-publish. So any poetry by black women would have been published by a publishing house, and therefore she would probably have been well-known or famous, at least during her lifetime.
Secondly, I love this woman's poetry! And, many people probably wouldn't have heard of her these days which is a shame, as her poetry, dealing with diverse themes, is heartfelt and poignant. So, she's invited here to grace my pages. If anyone knows of a more "obscure" black woman poet who I might include, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Georgia Blanche Camp was born 8 September 1880 in Atlanta, Georgia. Her parents were both of mixed race. Her father, George Camp, was African-American and English, and her mother, Laura Douglas, was African and Native American. Georgia grew up mainly in Rome, Georgia where she excelled in school and developed a love of reading and music. She taught herself to play the violin at a young age.
Her higher education and professional life was quite successful. She graduated from Atlanta University's Normal School in 1896, and then got a job teaching in Marietta, Georgia.
Georgia Douglas Johnson
Later, she served as assistant principal before heading to Cleveland, Ohio where she pursued studies in piano, harmony and voice. She studied at Oberlin Conservatory of music in 1902 and 1903. Oberlin, located in Oberlin, Ohio, was one of the first schools to admit black students, a policy that was in place even prior to the Civil War.
In September of 1903, Georgia married Henry Lincoln Johnson who was a well respected lawyer and active in politics in the Republican party. The couple had two sons, Henry Lincoln Jr and Peter Douglas.
It was about 1910 when Georgia began her writing, after the family had moved to Washington DC where Henry had been appointed Recorder of Deeds by President William Howard Taft. She submitted her poems to newspapers and magazines, and had her first one published in 1916 when she was 36 years old. Eventually she would publish four volumes of poetry:
Georgia Douglas Johnson home, 1461 S Street SW, Washington, DC
The Heart of a Woman in 1918, Bronze: A Book of Verses in 1922, A Sunday Morning in the South in 1925 and An Autumn Love Cycle in 1928. In addition, she wrote plays and songs, taught music, and she was organist for a time at the Congregational Church where she attended.
But the road to fame would not be an easy one for Georgia. Her husband died in 1925, and in the day before insurance and social security, she was forced to take low-paying jobs to support herself and her sons. However, President Coolidge would come to the rescue, appointing her to a position at the Department of Labor, partly in gratitude for her husband's contributions to the Republican party. She proved to be more than able in her new position.
Georgia is known today as having been part of the "Harlem Renaissance" (roughly from 1919 to 1930), which was period of time in which black writers supported one another and flourished, including such famous names as Langston Hughes, Angelina Weld Grimké and Richard Bruce Nugent. Georgia hosted many of these luminaries at her home over the next forty years at gatherings she termed "Saturday Salons".
Georgia Douglas Johnson died on 14 May 1966 at the age of 86. She leaves for us a collection of beautiful poetry which includes themes of womanhood (I especially love her heartbreaking poems on motherhood), love and racial issues as well. She was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2009.
The Heart of a Woman
by Georgia Douglas Johnson
Bronze: A Book of Verse
by Georgia Douglas Johnson
Our separate winding ways we trod,
Along the highways, unto God,
Unbonded by the clasp of hand,
Without a vow — we understand,
Estranged for aye, the fusing kiss,
Omnipotent, we bide in this—
They need no trammeling of bars
Whose souls were welded with the stars.
Her life was dwarfed, and wed to blight,
Her very days were shades of night
Her every dream was born entombed,
Her soul, a bud, — that never bloomed.
My Little Dreams
I have swung to the uttermost reaches of pain,
'Mid the echoes of sighs, and a deluge of rain,
But ah! I rebound to the limits of bliss,
On the rapturous swing of an infinite kiss.
I'm folding up my little dreams
Within my heart tonight,
And praying I may soon forget
The torture of their sight.
For time's deft fingers scroll my brow
With fell relentless art—
I'm folding up my little dreams
Tonight, within my heart.
That dusky child upon your knee
Is breath of God's eternity;
Direct his vision to the height—
Let naught obscure his royal right.
Although the highways to renown
Are iron-barred by fortune's frown,
'Tis his to forge the master-key
That wields the lock of destiny!
Don't knock at my 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!
(Georgia Douglas Johnson)
The mother soothes her mantled child
With incantation sad and wild;
A deep compassion brims her eye
And stills upon her lips, the sigh.
Her thoughts are leaping down the years,
O'er branding bars, through seething tears,
Her heart is sandaling his feet
Adown the world's corroding street.
Then, with a start she dons a smile
His tender yearnings to beguile,
And only God will ever know
The wordless measure of her woe.
The right to make my dreams come true
I ask, nay, I demand of life,
Nor shall fate's deadly contraband
Impede my steps, nor countermand.
Too long my heart against the ground
Has beat the dusty years around,
And now, at length, I rise, I wake!
And stride into the morning-break!
Let Me Not Lose My Dream
Let me not lose my dream, e'en though I scan the veil
with eyes unseeing through their glaze of tears,
Let me not falter, though the rungs of fortune perish
as I fare above the tumult, praying purer air,
Let me not lose the vision, gird me, Powers that toss the worlds, I pray!
Hold me, and guard, lest anguish tear my dreams away!