Creative Women of the Harlem Renaissance
In the 1920’s, creative and intellectual life thrived within African American communities in the North and Midwest, but nowhere more so than in Harlem. It was a time nothing short of marvelous - a phenomenon.
This three-mile, New York City neighborhood swarmed with black writers, poets, artists, and musicians. Black-owned businesses, from newspapers, publishing houses, nightclubs, and theaters helped complete the neighborhood’s scene.
Some of the most important literary and artistic figures migrated to or passed through this “Negro capital of the world,” helping to define a period in which African American artists reclaimed their identity and racial pride.
Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Georgia Douglas Johnson explored the beauty and pain of black life and wanted to define themselves and their community outside of white stereotypes.
The women poets of the Harlem Renaissance faced one of the classic American double barriers: they were black, and they were female, during a time when the building of an artistic career for anyone of either of those groups was a challenge.
Jessie Redmon Fauset was born in 1882 in New Jersey. She grew up in Philadelphia and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell in 1905 – as one of the first, if not the first, black women to attend that university – she taught French at Washington’s Dunbar High School.
After receiving her master’s degree in French from the University of Pennsylvania in 1919, she moved to New York. She worked closely with W.E.B. Dubois as literary editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, and served as editor of Brownie’s Book, a children’s magazine also published by the NAACP.
Fauset’s close friend was Georgia Douglas Johnson – the only woman of the Harlem Renaissance to actually publish a collection of verse. She was born in 1880 in Atlanta, Georgia and attended Atlanta University.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s husband did not think much of her literary career but she still managed to establish herself as a literary presence. After her husband’s death, she began holding gatherings in her home on Saturday nights - attended regularly by Jean Toomer, Alain Locke, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Angelina Grimké, and Alice Dunbar Nelson, as well as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. They would all later describe these gatherings as critical to the development of their projects.
Also a regular at the weekly gatherings was Gwendolyn Bennett - born in Giddings, Texas in 1902. She attended Columbia University but graduated from Pratt Institute in 1924. She then became an instructor at Howard University, worked as an editor at the African American magazine Opportunity, and was one of the founders of the magazine Fire!!
Bennett traveled and wrote poems about the beauty she found in African American people and creativity. She gave up her career as a writer to marry a doctor and unfortunately never quite got back to writing.
One of her poems “Fantasy” begins, “I sailed in my dreams ...” The poem inspires the reader to think of a woman courageously traveling, seeing, thinking these things—revealing other possibilities, even if they were not able to be fully lived at that time—a time when black women were trapped in stereotypes.
Women were librarians, playwrights, teachers, dancers, political organizers, decision makers, and singers. Some were even social workers, like Elise Johnson McDougald, who used her work to help further identify various gender issues and class separation and identities in New York City.
The Harlem Renaissance was very significant because it marked a moment when white America started recognizing the intellectual contributions of Blacks, and more importantly Black women.