11 Poems by Helene Johnson

Helene Johnson, Harlem Renaissance poet

Here is a selection of 11 poems by Helene Johnson (1906 – 1995), an American poet associated with the Harlem Renaissance whose body of work, though not large, is worthy of reflection and reconsideration.

Her poems explore themes of gender and racial politics of the era in which she wrote, primarily in the late 1920s. “Bottled” and “Ah My Race” are arguably her most famous poems.

These are the poems presented in this post:

  • Bottled
  • The Sandman
  • Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem
  • A Missionary Brings a Young Native to America
  • The Road
  • Metamorphism
  • Poem
  • A Southern Road
  • Fulfillment
  • Ah My Race
  • He’s About 22, I’m 63

“Bottled” needs an introduction and context, without which it can be misconstrued. It was first published in 1927 in the May issue of Vanity Fair. Katherine R. Lynes in Project Muse offers much insight into the story behind the poem:

“In ‘Bottled,’ Johnson puts authentic and inauthentic into dialogue when she puts an imagined African jungle into a poem set on the real streets of New York City. The speaker of the poem admires the (imagined) cultural adornments and proud dancing of a man in the streets of Harlem.

The speaker reports that he dances to jazz, American music that has some of its roots in Africa but is not in and of itself wholly African; she also imagines this man as he would be if he were in Africa.

He functions as a cultural object in the poem, a cultural object with contested authenticities. Johnson’s use of a mixture of cultural tropes reveals her awareness of and attentiveness to theories of cultural relativism.” 


Read the rest of this analysis at Project Muse. Helene Johnson’s legacy is encapsulated in this excellent analysis of her life’s work at University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy:

“Regardless of her fading presence in the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson’s work is being rediscovered and revived by several scholars today. Verner Mitchell, Nina Miller, and Maureen Honey have acknowledged Johnson’s inventiveness and said that poetry of this ability from of woman of Johnson’s time was unique.

Because she experienced much independence and sovereignty as a child and young adult, Johnson conveys in her poems an extremely powerful female perspective and image. Johnson is described as having been painfully shy while growing up.

Her discretion is not displayed in her poetry, however, in which she speaks boldly about her race and her gender. Her 1925 poem, ‘My Race’ challenges the feminine themes of love and motherhood through bold and aggressive stances. Johnson, when writing about race, is brave and empowering.”

. . . . . . . . . .



Upstairs on the third floor
Of the 135th Street library
In Harlem, I saw a little
Bottle of sand, brown sand
Just like the kids make pies
Out of down at the beach.
But the label said: “This
Sand was taken from the Sahara desert. ”
Imagine that! The Sahara desert!
Some bozo’s been all the way to Africa to get some sand.
And yesterday on Seventh Avenue
I saw a darky dressed fit to kill
In yellow gloves and swallow tail coat
And swirling a cane. And everyone
Was laughing at him. Me too,
At first, till I saw his face
When he stopped to hear a
Organ grinder grind out some jazz.
Boy! You should a seen that darky’s face!
It just shone. Gee, he was happy!
And he began to dance. No
Charleston or Black Bottom for him.
No sir. He danced just as dignified
And slow. No, not slow either.
Dignified and proud! You couldn’t
Call it slow, not with all the
Cuttin’ up he did. You would a died to see him.
The crowd kept yellin’ but he didn’t hear,
Just kept on dancin’ and twirlin’ that cane
And yellin’ out loud every once in a while.
I know the crowd thought he was coo-coo.
But say, I was where I could see his face,
And somehow, I could see him dancin’ in a jungle,
A real honest-to-cripe jungle, and he wouldn’t have on them
Trick clothes — those yaller shoes and yaller gloves
And swallow-tail coat. He wouldn’t have on nothing.
And he wouldn’t be carrying no cane.
He’d be carrying a spear with a sharp fine point
Like the bayonets we had “over there.”
And the end of it would be dipped in some kind of
Hoo-doo poison. And he’d be dancin’ black and naked and gleaming.
And he’d have rings in his ears and on his nose
And bracelets and necklaces of elephants’ teeth.
Gee, I bet he’d be beautiful then all right.
No one would laugh at him then, I bet.
Say! That man that took that sand from the Sahara desert
And put it in a little bottle on a shelf in the library,
That’s what they done to this shine, ain’t it? Bottled him.
Trick shoes, trick coat, trick cane, trick everything — all glass —
But inside —
Gee, that poor shine!

. . . . . . . . . .


The Sandman

He catches dust o’ dreams to carry in his sack,
The dust a falling star leaves shining in its track,
He walks the milky-way, then down the dark-staired skies,
His tinkling footsteps hush the world with lullabies.
And when he reaches you, his fragrant gentle hands
Fill deep your drowsy eyes with fairy golden sands.

. . . . . . . . . .

Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem

You are disdainful and magnificent—
Your perfect body and your pompous gait,
Your dark eyes flashing solemnly with hate,
Small wonder that you are incompetent
To imitate those whom you so despise—
Your shoulders towering high above the throng,
Your head thrown back in rich, barbaric song,
Palm trees and mangoes stretched before your eyes.
Let others toil and sweat for labor’s sake
And wring from grasping hands their need of gold.
Why urge ahead your supercilious feet?
Scorn will efface each footprint that you make.
I love your laughter arrogant and bold.
You are too splendid for this city street.

. . . . . . . . . .


A Missionary Brings a Young Native to America

All day she heard the mad stampede of feet
Push by her in a thick unbroken haste.
A thousand unknown terrors of the street
Caught at her timid heart, and she could taste
The city of grit upon her tongue. She felt
A steel-spiked wave of brick and light submerge
Her mind in cold immensity. A belt
Of alien tenets choked the songs that surged
Within her when alone each night she knelt
At prayer. And as the moon grew large and white
Above the roof, afraid that she would scream
Aloud her young abandon to the night,
She mumbled Latin litanies and dream
Unholy dreams while waiting for the light.

. . . . . . . . . .

The Road

Ah, little road all whirry in the breeze,
A leaping clay hill lost among the trees,
The bleeding note of rapture streaming thrush
Caught in a drowsy hush
And stretched out in a single singing line of dusky song.
Ah little road, brown as my race is brown,
Your trodden beauty like our trodden pride,
Dust of the dust, they must not bruise you down.
Rise to one brimming golden, spilling cry!

. . . . . . . . . . .


Women writers of the Harlem Renaissance
Renaissance Women: 12 Female Writers of the Harlem Renaissance
. . . . . . . . . . .


Is this the sea?
This calm emotionless bosom,
Serene as the heart of a converted Magdalene ––
Or this?
This lisping, lulling murmur of soft waters
Kissing a white beached shore with tremulous lips;
Blue rivulets of sky gurgling deliciously
O’er pale smooth-stones ––
This too?
This sudden birth of unrestrained splendour,
Tugging with turbulent force at Neptune’s leash;
This passionate abandon,
This strange tempestuous soliloquy of Nature,
All these –– the sea?

. . . . . . . . . .



Little brown boy,
Slim, dark, big-eyed,
Crooning love songs to your banjo
Down at the Lafayerre —
Gee, boy, I love the way you hold your head,
High sort of and a bit to one side,
Like a prince, a jazz prince. And I love
Your eyes flashing, and your hands,
And your patent-leathered feet,
And your shoulders jerking the jig-wa.
And I love your teeth flashing,
And the way your hair shines in the spotlight
Like it was the real stuff.
Gee, brown boy, I loves you all over.
I’m glad I’m a jig. I’m glad I can
Understand your dancin’ and your
Singin’, and feel all the happiness
And joy and don’t care in you.
Gee, boy, when you sing, I can close my ears
And hear tom-toms just as plain.
Listen to me, will you, what do I know
About tom-toms? But I like the word, sort of,
Don’t you? It belongs to us.
Gee, boy, I love the way you hold your head,
And the way you sing, and dance,
And everything.
Say, I think you’re wonderful. You’re
Allright with me,
You are.

. . . . . . . . . .


A Southern Road

Yolk-colored tongue
Parched beneath a burning sky,
A lazy little tune
Hummed up the crest of some
Soft sloping hill.
One streaming line of beauty
Flowering by a forest
Pregnant with tears.
A hidden nest for beauty
Idly flung my God
In one lonely lingering hour
Before the Sabbath.
A blue-fruited black gum,
Like a tall predella,
Bears a dangling figure,—
Sacrificial dower to the raff, Swinging alone,
A solemn, tortured shadow in the air.

. . . . . . . . . .


To climb a hill that hungers for the sky,
To dig my hands wrist deep in pregnant earth,
To watch a young bird, veering, learn to fly,
To give a still, stark poem shining birth.

. . . . . . . . . .

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.

. . . . . . . . . .


He’s About 22, I’m 63

He’s about 22. I’m 63
A pity! He’s so pretty!
He runs up the stairs.
I climb step by step.
We’ve never really met, and yet
If I could stop him, what would I say?
“How’s my young man today?”
Absurd! He’d give the sweet unspecial smile
You give a sweet unspecial child.
At most, some gingham word.

He’s slightly effete, completely elite,
His grace unsurpassed, a young prince at mass.
My cardiac wheezing is frantic and panting.
He’s enchanting!

Why was he born so late,
And I so soon?

A turn of chance
The nearest happenstance,
But move, if you’re that

Then I won’t know if I fit,
Whether to sit back and
Sit, or quit altogether.
To wit.

Do I have it, or is it gone?
Do I still belong? Can I bluff?
Suppose he turns schoolboy-tough?
Oh, it’s all too much!

Look, get his name from the mailbox
And see if he’s in the book.

Well, it won’t hurt to look.
Here it is.

Then phone. If he’s divine,
He’s probably at home, a “want-to-be-alone”

My God, he is home!
6D? 6C.

I’m so sorry but my zipper’s caught,
With my hair in it.

Yes, it is ridiculous,
But would you? For just a minute?

Come in. The doors unlocked.
God! He glows! And even younger than I thought.

You knew all that before.
You’re becoming a bore.

But how can I reach him?

Teach him, then beseech him.

He seems a little scattered.

How does it really matter? At 22, at 63,
Any eccentricity?

But will it all be left to me?
That’s the idea.
Breathe heavily
(Asthma with rhythm)

You mean, a mini-cataclysm?

Yes. More or less.
Relax. It isn’t worth the
Sweat. Don’t forget, its luck, not skill.

He’s virile?


How droll.
But better droll than cold, and no reason for
distress. Last night
You had far less.

You’re right.
Last night the futile-victory
The lonely ecstasy
The peakless summit
The remote spasm
The chasm, the gap,
the hi without the hoe.

Tonight I might not touch the sky
But I’ll be on tippy-toe.

Burgeoning 22,
Ripening 63,
Enjoying your buoyancy.
Whisper triumphantly,
“Merci, Merci.”

(Or less jubilantly, “Mercy!”)

. . . . . . . . . .


Georgia Douglas Johnson on the cover of The Crisis

Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance to Rediscover and Read


11 Responses to “11 Poems by Helene Johnson”

  1. Thanks for your preserving and sharing this work.
    I read that Helene Johnson, though born in Boston, grew up in Brookline. Any information about any specific address? or school?

  2. Thank you for this wonderful information about these little known female poets and their poems. Where might I find publication dates for the individual poems?

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Deborah. That’s our mission! I don’t have more specific info on dates for the poems, but it’s widely accepted that most of Helene’s poems were written in the mid- to late-1920s. Her last poem was published in the mid-1930s.

  3. Hello David,
    This is Abigail MGrath, Helene’s daughter. Allow me to thank you for your generosity in getting my mother’s works out to the public.
    Something odd has happened and I wonder if you can help me.
    I have just been gifted with a box full of my mother’s handwritten poems. Do you have any ideas on how I can go about archiving them?
    Yours in good faith,

    • Hello Abigail, it’s so good to hear from you — we’d been in touch about the retreat you were offering to mothers with children a couple of years ago. David is a commenter, so you’re talking to Nava here — the owner of this website.

      What an amazing gift to have your mother’s poems, hand written! The first thing I would do would be to make a couple of copies of each of them for safekeeping. Then perhaps you can donate them to an institution that would appreciate them. The first thing that comes to mind is the Schomberg branch of the NY Public library in Harlem, which has a collections of papers of notable African Americans. Other collections that have strong focus on African American history and literature are the Beineke Library at Yale, and the Rubenstein Library at Duke.

      If you’d like to take this conversation offline, please contact me via this site’s contact form. I do want to ask, just out of curiosity, are the poems dated? And are there some that have never been published before?

    • Hi Abigail I might be able to help you. My mother is a cataloguer at William & Mary College. She may be able to get that done for you!

  4. This literary body of Poetry is so fulfilling to my Soul. Although not born during that time as a Black born in America. I can feel the pain, joy, and wondering nature of their poetic verses.
    Thank you

    • Thank you, David. I went on your foundation’s website, it looks fascinating; and thank you for all that you do. Literary Ladies is committed to elevating the voices of classic women authors, including Black and Latina writers of the past. You may be interested to know that Abigail McGrath, Helene Johnson’s daughter, runs a writer’s retreat in Oak Bluffs (Martha’s Vineyard), MA. She asked me to post about a grant they were giving last year: https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/literary-travel/renaissance-house-a-retreat-for-writers-and-artists/ — it was thrilling to be in touch with her, like touching history. We both agreed that her mother’s work is not as well known today as it should be.

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