Helene Johnson, Poetic Voice of the Harlem Renaissance

Helene Johnson, poet of the Harlem Renaissance

Helene Johnson (July 7, 1906 – July 6, 1995) was an African American poet who was active in the Harlem Renaissance era.

Born in Boston and raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, her father left shortly after her birth, leaving her to be raised by her mother, Ella, and grandfather, Benjamin Benson, who was born into slavery.

Helene Johnson grew up surrounded by her mother and aunts, a group of strong women who later influenced her distinctive voice in poetry. She was also the cousin of novelist and short-story writer Dorothy West.

While living in Brookline, Johnson joined the Saturday Evening Quill Club and won a short story contest in the Boston Chronicle. She later continued on to attend classes at Boston University, but never graduated. Johnson’s poems explore gender and race. “Bottled,” one of her most famous poems, was published in the May 1927 issue of Vanity Fair.


Rise to recognition

Johnson began publishing poetry in African-American magazines such as the NAACP’s The Crisis, which was founded in 1910 and edited by W.E.B. Du Bois.

She began to attract attention when she was published in Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life in 1925 when she was nineteen years old. A year later, the journal published six of her poems.

Her work was in the first and only issue of Fire, a publication edited by Langston Hughes, a driving force of creativity during the Harlem Renaissance.

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Helene Johnson, Harlem Renaissance poet

11 Poems by Helene Johnson
This photo of Helene Johnson is inscribed to “Dorothy,”
presumably Dorothy West, her cousin
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Harlem in the 1920s

Johnson and her cousin, Dorothy West, were drawn to the energy of Harlem in the 1920’s. In 1927, the two moved to New York, and enrolled in classes at Columbia University, eventually developing a friendship with writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston.

She became deeply engrossed in the struggles of the economic and racial divide in Harlem, and wrote passionately about these issues. She was later described as a writer who “… combines an expression of unquenchable desires with realistic description of ghetto life and a discovery of the roots of her people.”

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“Ah My Race”

Readers began to take notice when Johnson’s poem “Bottled” containing innovative slang and unconventional rhythms was published in Vanity Fair, in the May issue of 1927. A similar piece is reproduced here, a short poem called “Ah My Race”:

Ah my race,
Hungry Race,
Throbbing and young–
Ah, my race,
Wonder race,
Sobbing with song,
Ah, my race,
Careless in mirth,
Ah, my veiled race,
Fumbling in birth …


Motherhood and marriage a priority

In 1933 Johnson’s dreams of motherhood and family came true when she married William Hubbell. In 1935, her last published poems appeared in Challenge: A Literary Quarterly. She focused her attention and time on their daughter, Abigail. She and Hubbell later divorced, and having to make a living impacted her ability to write regularly.

Her work appeared less regularly in publications, though it was published sporadically in anthologies including Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk,  The Poetry of the Negro (1949), American Negro Poetry (1963), and Voices From the Harlem Renaissance (1976).


A powerful female voice

Although described as being a painfully shy child, her voice blossomed in poetry. Johnson’s upbringing inspired her poetry, having become independent at an early age. Her poems conveys a powerful female perspective and influence, exploring love and motherhood. Poet Rita Dove said of her work:

“Helene Johnson proved herself a lyricist of utmost delicacy yet steely precision; restraint attends her every meditation on love, race and loss.”

Helene Johnson was a brilliant yet under-appreciated woman poet of the Harlem Renaissance, partly in part to her disappearance from the literary scene after she started her family. She valued the working class and took pride in their accomplishments, capturing in her poetry the voice and rhythms of the streets of Harlem.

Much of her poetry was written for her own interest and pleasure, with little intention to be published. Indeed, there are no published collections of her works; they are scattered among journals and magazines.


The literary legacy of Helene Johnson

In Notable Black American Women  (1992), edited by Jessie Carney Smith, T. J. Bryan wrote:

“In African-American literary history, Helene Johnson’s works are models for aspiring poets — especially for African-American women poets who have long been led to believe that no tradition of achievement exists among black American women in this genre prior to the 1960’s.

Additionally, in African-American literary history, Helene Johnson is a transitional poet whose works of the 1920’s and 1930’s signal a striking out in new directions among black American women poets, who began to abandon romantic themes and poetic conventions at this juncture.”

Her obituary in The New York Times cited Ronald Primeau, who wrote in a 1972 essay, “The Harlem Renaissance Remembered”

“Ms. Johnson and other relatively unsung poets of that day helped establish the Harlem Renaissance’s validity as a movement.

Helene Johnson combines an expression of unquenchable desires with realistic description of ghetto life and a discovery of the roots of her people,” he added. “In her most famous work, ‘Poem,’ the speaker praises the whole way of being of a ‘little brown boy,’ calling him ‘a jazz prince’ and celebrating her participation in his heritage.”

Helene Johnson died in her Manhattan home at the age of 89.

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More about Helene Johnson

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Selected works

  • “Trees at Night” – Opportunity (May 1925)
  • “Night” – Opportunity (January 1926)
  • “Metamorphism” – Opportunity (March 1926)
  • “Fulfillment” – Opportunity (June 1926)
  • “Fiat Lux” – The Messenger (July 1926)
  • “The Little Love” – The Messenger (July 1926)
  • “Futility” – Opportunity (August 1926)
  • “Mother” – Opportunity (September 1926)
  • “Love in Midsummer” – The Messenger (October 1926)
  • “Magula” – Palms (October 1926)
  • “Bottled” – Vanity Fair (May 1927)
  • “Poem” – Caroling Dusk (1927)
  • ”Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem” – Caroling Dusk (1927)
  • “What Do I Care For Morning” – Caroling Dusk (1927)
  • “A Missionary Brings a Young Native to America” – Harlem (November 1928)
  • “Cui Bono?” – Harlem (November 1928)
  • “I Am Not Proud” – Saturday Evening Quill (April 1929)


This Waiting for Love: Helene Johnson, Poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Mitchell, Verner D. ed. 2000

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