Georgia Douglas Johnson
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Georgia Douglas Johnson (September 10, 1880 – May 14, 1966) was an American poet and playwright associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Born Georgia Douglas Camp in Atlanta, Georgia, she grew up in a mixed-race family with African-American, Native American, and English roots.
Her poetry addressed issues of race as well as intensely personal yet ultimately universal themes including love, motherhood, and being a woman in a male-dominated world. Four collections of her poetry were published: The Heart of a Woman (1918), Bronze (1922), An Autumn Love Cycle (1928), and Share My World (1962). She wrote nearly thirty plays and numerous other works, though many have been lost.
Settling in Washington, D.C.
Georgia graduated from Atlanta University’s Normal College 1893, then studied music at Oberlin Conservatory and the Cleveland College of Music. Her first line of work was as a teacher and an assistant principal in Atlanta.
After her marriage to Henry Lincoln Johnson, an attorney and government worker, the couple had two sons, and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1910. He wanted her to be a traditional wife and mother, caring for their home and two sons. Despite the lack of enthusiastic support from her husband, Georgia managed to find a way to write.
Georgia was in her mid-thirties when she first had her poems published in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine in 1916. Her first book of poetry, The Heart of a Woman, was published in 1918. Jessie Redmon Fauset, who was poised to become the literary editor of The Crisis, helped select the poems for the book.
The Heart of a Woman featured poems that were personal to her life, yet universal to the female experience. They spoke of love, loneliness, and life’s disappointments. In graceful terms, her frustration with women’s constrained roles was expressed as well. The title of this book was the inspiration for Maya Angelou’s 1981 memoir of the same name.
Bronze, Geogia’s second collection of poetry was published in 1922. In this volume, the poems more directly confronted themes of race.
A literary salon in the capital
Though Georgia was never a resident of New York City, the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, her Washington home became an important literary salon. She became a welcoming host to her fellow writers, Among the regular visitors were Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Alain Locke, and many of the noted women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. It was considered one of the great literary salons of the era, removed as it was from its geographic center.
The house at 1461 S Street NW came to be known as the “S Street Salon” — a satellite of sorts for writers in the nation’s segregated capital. Georgia called the home “Half-Way House” and provided not only a welcoming haven for visitors, but shelter for artists in need.
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A productive decade
When Georgia’s husband died in 1925, she was forty-five years old and had to find a way to support their teenage sons. She worked at temporary jobs, including as a file clerk for Civil Service and as a substitute teacher. Though she was finally hired by the Department of Labor, she worked long hours for low pay.
Despite these obstacles, the twenties were a busy and productive period. She wrote a weekly syndicated column, “Homely Philosophy,” which ran from 1926 to 1932, and a number of plays. Blue Blood was staged in 1926 and Plumes in1927. She also traveled far and wide in the twenties, doing readings and giving lectures.
An Autumn Love Cycle (1928) returned to the more personal themes explored in The Heart of a Woman. This collection included “I Want to Die While You Love Me,” perhaps her best-known and most widely reprinted poem. An Autumn Love Cycle is generally Georgia Douglas Johnson’s most widely praised collection.
Georgia lost her job at the Department of Labor job in 1934. She returned to doing temporary clerical jobs and whatever other work she could find. Through her hard work and determination, she sent her sons through college. Henry Johnson, jr., went to Bowdoin College and Howard University Law School. Peter Johnson attended Dartmouth college, and completed his medical degree at Howard University.
Maintaining her literary career while having to survive financially and send her sons through college was difficult. In the 1940s and 50s, Georgia sporadically published poems and appeared on radio programs, but it wouldn’t be until the early 1960s that her next collection would be published.
Though she often lacked material support, Georgia never gave up on the creative fire that was inside her soul nor her commitment to encouraging other artists in their endeavors.
Bronze by Georgia Douglas Johnson on Amazon
Later in her life, Georgia moved in with Henry Lincoln, Jr. and his wife. Her last collection of poetry was published in 1962. Share My World reflected her life experience and wisdom. Despite the challenges she faced, Georgia continued to be generous to fellow artists, and an enthusiast of all things literary and artistic.
In 1962 – 63, Georgia compiled a “Catalogue of Writings.” She listed twenty-eight plays, though only a few have been preserved. She also listed a manuscript about her literary salon and a novel, both of which have also been lost. Of thirty-one short stories she listed, only three have been found. Her personal papers are gone.
All of these published and unpublished works might have been thrown away by mistake while clearing out her belongings after her death. It’s tragic to think that the prolific output of this talented and determined writer will never be recovered. There are hardly any surviving photos of her, either.
Georgia Douglas Johnson received an honorary doctorate in literature from Atlanta University in 1965. She remained active into her eighties and died of a sudden stroke in 1966.
Though Georgia Douglas Johnson’s surviving body of work isn’t large, it continues to be well regarded. In The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States (1995), Eugenia Collier wrote:
“Georgia Douglas Johnson’s poems are skillfully crafted lyrics cast in traditional forms. They are, for the most part, gentle and delicate, using soft consonants and long, low vowels. Their realm is emotion, often sadness and disappointment, but sometimes fulfillment, strength, and spiritual triumph. Yet Johnson herself was never otherworldly. She remained in the forefront of political and social events of her time.
Her plays were moving portrayals of the tragic impact of racism upon African-Americans. Frequent themes in both her poetry and drama are the alienation and dilemmas of the person of mixed blood and the goal of integration into the American mainstream.”
More on this site by Georgia Douglas Johnson
- The Plays of Georgia Douglas Johnson, edited by Judith L. Stephens (2006)
More information on Georgia Douglas Johnson
- Poetry Foundation
- Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Life and Career
- Georgia Douglas Johnson: Harlem Renaissance Writer
- All Poetry: Georgia Douglas Johnson
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