Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance to Rediscover and Read

Georgia Douglas Johnson on the cover of The Crisis

The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s was a fertile decade for African-American creatives of all kinds — writers, musicians, playwrights, and artists. Though like many movements, it was male-dominated, but many women rose to prominence.

We explore some of those who made a lasting impact in Renaissance Women: 12 Female Writers of the Harlem Renaissance, some of whom will also appear in the following list.

Here we present women poets of the Harlem Renaissance that have been somewhat or largely forgotten —but whose words and lives should continue to be celebrated.  In her preface to Black Sister: Poetry by Black American Women, 1746 – 1980, Erlene Stetson wrote:

“Black women poets have made a unique contribution to the American literary tradition. This contribution is shaped by their experience both as blacks and as women, an experience whose pressure they have resisted and at the same time as they have recognized its strategic survival value in life and exploited its symbolic power in their art.”

 

Respect for women poets

In her introduction to Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, editor Maureen Honey elaborated:

“Poetry was the preferred form of most Afro-American women writers during the 1920s. Well known in intellectual circles of their day and widely published, women poets achieved the respect of their peers and popularity with a middle-class audience.”

What happened to some of the women poets of the Harlem Renaissance era was what happened to many of the talents of that time. The Great Depression of the 1930s ended or curtailed the artistic aspirations of many African-Americans.

Some were able to later pick up where they left off; others never could recapture the magic of the 1920s. Still, a number of the women poets of the Harlem Renaissance excelled in other fields, especially as educators, social activists, and editors.

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Gwendolyn B. Bennett

Gwendolyn B. Bennett

 

Gwendolyn B. Bennett (1902 – 1981) was a multitalented poet, short story writer, visual artist, and journalist. Pride in African heritage and the influence of African dance and music were threads that ran through her work. In the mid-1920s, Her poetry and artwork were published in the The Crisis, NAACP’s journal, Opportunity magazine, and Alaine Locke’s New Negro.

Some of her best-known poems included “Moon Tonight,” “Heritage,” “To Usward,” and “Fantasy.” Her published short stories included “Wedding Day” and “Tokens.”

During the Depression, she worked as an administrator on the New York City Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project (1935-1941), and dedicated herself to advancing the careers of young black artists. 

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Carrie Williams Clifford

carrie williams clifford portrait - race rhymes


Carrie Williams Clifford
(1882 – 1958) was a fascinating figure from the civil rights movement of the early 1900s, as well as having been an accomplished poet. In her 1911 collection, Race Rhymes, she modestly stated:

“The author makes no claim to unusual poetic excellence or literary brilliance. She is seeking to call attention to a condition, which she, at least, considers serious. Knowing that this may often be done more impressively through rhyme that in an elegant prose, she has taken this method to accomplish this end …

The theme of the group here presented — the uplift of humanity — is the loftiest that can animate the heart and pen of man … she sends these lines forth with the prayer that they may change some heart, or right some wrong.”

Her second collection, The Widening Light (1922), contained one of her best known and most poignant poems, “The Black Draftee from Dixie.” More about Carrie Williams Clifford at Poem Hunter.

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Clarissa M. Scott Delaney clarissa M. Scott Delaney

Clarissa M. Scott Delaney (1901 – 1927) had the distinction of being born at Tuskegee Institute, where her father worked as a secretary to the African-American leader and educator Booker T. Washington. 

Before her untimely death at age twenty-six, she published poetry and articles in Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. Professionally, she was a teacher at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. There she worked with Angelina Weld Grimké, another poet of the period; the two were good friends.

Delaney’s biography on Black Renaissance states:

“During her brief writing life, she only had four poems published. She had a flair for language, good use of metaphors of nature, and she expressed her intensely felt emotions. She had an eye for unique detail, and she undoubtedly would have written more and her work would have matured had she lived longer.”

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Alice Dunbar-Nelson

 


Alice Dunbar-Nelson
(1875 – 1935) was a multifaceted writer, poet, journalist, and teacher. She used her pen to advocate for the rights of women and African-Americans during the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, and beyond into the Depression era of the 1930s.

In her searingly honest essays, she wrote of the hardships of growing up mixed-race in Louisiana and explored the complex issues faced by women of color. She was also considered one of the premier poets of the Harlem Renaissance. More about Alice Dunbar Nelson and a selection of her poems here on Literary Ladies Guide.

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Jessie Redmon Fauset

Jessie Redmon Fauset


Jessie Redmon Fauset 
(April 27, 1882 – April 30, 1961) was an American editor, poet, essayist, and novelist. Her literary output included four novels, the best known of which was Plum Bun. but her tenure as the literary editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, was significant.

With a keen eye for talent, she introduced readers to Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, and other notable authors and poets of the era. Considered one of the seven “midwives” of the Harlem Renaissance movement, she herself was an accomplished poet, here are 6 poems by Jessie Redmon Fauset to explore. 

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Angelina Weld Grimké

Angelina Grimke


Angelina Weld Grimké
(1880 – 1958) was an American journalist, essayist, playwright and poet whose work was extensively published in The Crisis, the influential journal of the NAACP, and other Harlem Renaissance anthologies. She was the great-niece of the abolitionist Grimké sisters, one of whom was also named Angelina.

Her play, Rachel (1920) was one of the first staged staged productions of a work by a woman of color. She lived a quiet life and her subtle love poems to women hint at a life not fully expressed. 

Angelina Weld Grimké considered hugely important to the growth of the Harlem Renaissance movement, yet her personal work and contributions are under-appreciated. More about Angelina Weld Grimké at Black History Now.

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Ariel Williams Holloway

Ariel Williams Holloway


Ariel Williams Holloway
(1905 – 1973) set out to be a concert pianist, having earned degrees in music from Fisk University and Oberlin College. Despite her formal training, she found that her professional aspiration was closed to African-American women.

Instead, she taught music at the high school and college level around the South, and in 1939, became the first supervisor of music in the Mobile, Alabama public school system. She held this post until her death.

Though she was never a New Yorker, Williams had her poems published in Opportunity, and The Crisis, the leading journals of the Harlem Renaissance, between 1926 and 1935.

Later, she published a volume of verse, Shape Them into Dreams (Exposition Press, 1955). “Northboun,’” a short poem written in dialect about the Great Migration, originally published in Opportunity in 1926, won an important prize and is considered her best-known work of poetry. More about Ariel Williams Holloway.

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Georgia Douglas Johnson

Georgia Douglas Johnson

Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880 – 1966) was best known as a poet active during the Harlem Renaissance era, though she also was an avid musician, and teacher, and an anti-lynching activist. She was one of the first African-American female playwrights and produced four books of poetry.

Her poem “The Heart of a Woman” (1916) influenced Maya Angelou, whose 1981 memoir of the same name pays direct homage to this work by Johnson. Threads running through her work included family, motherhood, and navigating life in America as a woman of color. Here are 10 Poems by Georgia Douglas Johnson.

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Helene Johnson
Helene Johnson, poet of the Harlem Renaissance


Helene Johnson
 (1906 – 1995) was only 21 when her poem “Bottled” was published in Vanity Fair in 1927. It was considered innovative and unconventional. Like her cousin Dorothy West, she moved to Harlem in the 1920s and befriended other literary figures like Zora Neale Hurston.

Readers began to take notice when Johnson’s poem “Bottled” containing innovative slang and unconventional rhythms was published in Vanity Fair, in the May edition of 1927.

A short poem called “Ah My Race” is also one of her best known. Her last published poems appeared in Challenge: A Literary Quarterly, in 1935. Though she stopped publishing, she continued to write a poem a day for the rest of her long life. Here is a selection of Helene Johnson’s poems.

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May Miller

May Miller, poet


May Miller
(1899 – 1995) was one of the most widely published female playwrights and poets of the Harlem Renaissance era, having published seven volumes of poetry. She began writing poetry at an early age, and though it was her first love, her accomplishments branched out widely.

She was the first African-American student to attend Johns Hopkins University, and would subsequently become one of the pioneers in the field of sociology. Miller augmented her work as a writer with a distinguished career as a teacher and lecturer in a number of prestigious institutions. Learn more about May Miller.

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Effie Lee Newsome

Effie Lee Newsome


Effie Lee Newsome
 (1885–1979) was best known for her poetry for children. Her writings were widely published in the NAACP’s The Crisis, and the Urban League’s Opportunity. She was also the editor of the children’s column “Little Page” in the Crisis.

Her poetry encouraged younger readers to appreciate their worth and beauty — it has been written that her poetry was a forerunner of the 1960’s Black is Beautiful movement. Later in her career, she worked as a children’s librarian in Ohio, continuing to promote books and literature to young readers. More about Effie Lee Newsome on poets.org.

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Esther Popel

Esther Popel 1920


Esther Popel
 (1896–1958), writer, teacher, and activist, wrote poetry that didn’t shy away from bitterness as her words reflected on injustice, racial prejudice, and violence against black Americans.

While a senior in high school, Popel self-published her first book of poetry, Thoughtless Thinks by a Thinkless Thaughter (1915). Like many of her contemporaries of the Harlem Renaissance, she published in The Crisis and Opportunity, winning several awards for her work.

Having been well-educated herself, she lobbied for opportunities for women of color and served on the board of the National Association of College Women for two decades. See more about Esther Popel on My Poetic Side.

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Anne Spencer

anne spencer, poet


Anne Spencer
(1882 – 1975) was born on a Virginia plantation. Though she endured a turbulent early life, she remained close to her mother, who saw to it that Anne received a good education.

After she married, her mother took over Anne’s household responsibilities so that she could pursue a life of the mind and develop collegial relationships with the prominent intellects of the time. The eminent James Weldon Johnson became her mentor, and he saw to it that her poetry was published.

Anne, who was also a political activist, one of those bright-burning lights that was dimmed by the Depression. She was unable to publish after 1931 and her works were never in a stand-alone collection. But she lived to age ninety-three and never stopped writing. Today, her life and legacy have been preserved at the Anne Spencer Museum.

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Shadowed Dreams - Women's Petry of the Harlem Renaissance edited by Maureen Honey

An excellent resource is Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Maureen Honey (Rutgers University Press, 1989). In it, you’ll find these and many other lesser-known writers of the era.

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OTHER POETIC VOICES TO REDISCOVER

Anita Scott Coleman
Mae Virginia Cowdery
Edythe Mae Gordon
Gertrude Parthenia McBrown

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