Georgia Douglas Johnson (ca. 1877-1966)
Georgia Douglas Johnson was an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance, the literary and cultural movement that flourished in the predominantly black Harlem
Johnson was born in Atlanta on September 10, around the year 1877, to Laura Jackson and George Camp. Johnson graduated from Atlanta University Normal College in 1896. She also studied music at Oberlin Conservatory and at the Cleveland College of Music, both in Ohio. She met her husband, Henry Lincoln Johnson, a lawyer and government employee, while at Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University). With her husband she moved in 1910 to Washington, D.C., where she remained for the rest of her life. After the death of her husband in 1925, Johnson was forced to support herself and her two sons through a series of temporary jobs. She worked as a substitute teacher and a file clerk for the civil service, ultimately securing a position with the Department of Labor, where she worked for a number of years.
Johnson called her home at 1461 S Street Northwest in Washington the Half-Way House, in the spirit of her willingness to provide shelter for those in need. On Saturday nights she hosted open houses attended by such Harlem Renaissance writers as Louis Alexander, Gwendolyn Bennett, Marita Bonner, Countee Cullen, Clarissa Scott Delaney, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Angelina Weld Grimke, Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Kelly Miller, May Miller, Bruce Nugent, Willis Richardson, Anne Spencer, Jean Toomer, and E. C. Williams. The gathering became known as the S Street Salon, and prominent writers often debuted new works at the gatherings. The writer Zora Neale Hurston was a regular at the salon as well.
Johnson's first collection of poems, The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems, established her as one of the notable African American woman poets of her time. Built on themes of loneliness, isolation, and the confining aspects of the roles of women, the title poem substitutes the metaphor of "a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on" for "the heart of a woman," which ultimately "falls back with the night / And enters some alien cage in its plight, / And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars." Although some critics have praised the richly penned, emotional content, others see a need for something more than the picture of helplessness presented in such poems as "Smothered Fires," "When I Am Dead," and "Foredoom."
Johnson's second collection of poems, Bronze: A Book of Verse, deals primarily with the issue of race, while her third collection, An Autumn Love Cycle, returns to the feminine themes explored in her first collection. From this collection the poem "I Want to Die While You Love Me" is the most often anthologized of her work. It was read at her funeral.
In addition to poetry, Johnson wrote several plays. During the fall of 1926, her play Blue Blood was performed by the Krigwa Players in New York City and was published the following year. In 1927 Plumes, a folk tragedy set in the rural South, won first prize in a literary contest sponsored by the National Urban League's African American magazine Opportunity. Johnson also submitted plays to the Federal Theatre Project, but none were ever produced. Johnson wrote a number of plays dealing with the subject of lynching, including "Blue-eyed Black Boy," "Safe," and "A Sunday Morning in the South." According to the "Catalogue of Writings" that she produced in 1962-63, Johnson wrote twenty-eight dramatic works, but few were ever published or produced, and most have been lost.
The catalog also lists a manuscript dealing with her literary salon, a collection of short stories, and a novel—all have been lost as well. Workers may have unknowingly thrown away some of these unpublished works when they cleaned out her house after her death in 1966.
Johnson accepted an honorary doctorate in literature from Atlanta University in 1965, and in 2010 she was inducted posthumously into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in his foreword to her poetry volume Bronze, "Her word is simple. . . . It is singularly sincere and true, and as a revelation of the soul struggle of the women of a race it is invaluable."
Harold Bloom, ed., Black American Women Poets and Dramatists (New York: Chelsea House, 1996).
Countee Cullen, ed., Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1927).
Gloria T. Hull, Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).
Judith Stephens, "'And Yet They Paused' and 'A Bill to Be Passed': Newly Recovered Lynching Dramas by Georgia Douglas Johnson," African American Review 33 (autumn 1999): 519-22.
Carmine D. Palumbo, Middle Georgia College
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