The Harlem Renaissance was a period in history where the influence of African American literature, culture and music became part of mainstream American life. African American creativity and ideals were at a peak and more influential than they had ever been. Many great authors and poets came out of this amazing time period. Poets such Gwendolyn B. Bennett and Georgia Douglas Johnson are just two of the wonderful female poets to come out of this period in African American history.
Georgia Douglas Johnson was born in Atlanta, Georgia on September 10th in 1877 to Laura Jackson and Douglass Camp. Her artistic roots most likely came from her grandfather. He was a British citizen who came to Marietta, Georgia when he was a child. He enjoyed a successful career as a musician during his life.
Ms. Johnson spent most of her formative years in Rome, Georgia. She did very well in reading and recitation. She taught herself violin and playing this instrument led to a lifelong love of music. After teaching for many years, she went to Cleveland to study, piano, harmony and voice. She attended Oberlin Conservatory of Music from 1902 to 1903. It is during these years that she began writing stories and poetry. She said that a poem by William Starkey Braithwaite inspired her to write and she began submitting her poetry to newspaper and small magazines. In 1916, when Georgia was thirty six years old, her first poem was published. She published four volumes of poetry during her career. She taught music as well. At one point she hosted weekly Saturday night open houses for authors such as Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Alain Locke.
Johnson was considered to be the first African American female poet of the twentieth century. Her poems were tinged with a sense of sorrow and hope that could be felt and understood by a reader. This sense of sadness can be seen in the poem 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
Another prominent participant in the Harlem Renaissance was Gwendolyn B. Bennett. Gwendolyn B. Bennett was born on July 8th 1902 in Giddings, Texas to Joshua and Maime Bennett. As a youth, Gwendolyn attended Brooklyn’s Girls High from 1918 until 1921. While attending school there Gwendolyn won first place in a school art contest and was the first African American to join the school’s literary society. Gwendolyn wrote her school play along with the class graduation speech and song.
Gwendolyn attended Columbia University and Pratt Institute after high school. She wrote the poem HERTIAGE in November of 1923. HERITAGE was published in the magazine Crisis. HERITAGE was also published in Opportunity, a magazine published by the National Urban League. Bennett later became the assistant editor for the magazine.
The themes such as of racial pride, African music and dance, were very evident in the work of Gwendolyn Bennett. Bennett’s poem SONG is an example.
I am weaving a song of waters
Shaking from firm, brown limbs,
Or heads thrown back in irreverent mirth
My song has the lush sweetness
Of moist, dark lips
Where hymns keep company
With old forgotten banjo songs.
Abandon tells you
That I sing the heart of a race
While sadness whispers
That I am the cry of a soul………….
Although Gwendolyn Bennett never published a volume of her own poetry, she influenced the Harlem Renaissance by writing about community pride and by romanticizing being African in her lyrics.
Gwendolyn Bennett and Georgia Douglas Johnson are just a miniscule example of the immense talent and creativity that came out of the Harlem Renaissance or what is also called the Black Arts Movement. By looking back on the influence of these artistic heroes we can feel a great deal of pride during this Black History Month and well beyond.