Georgia Douglas Johnson was approximately forty-five years old at the height of the Renaissance. Chronologically she was not one of the younger writers who flourished during this period. However, this is another testament to the diversity of individuals who were involved in the Renaissance. In spite of her age, she remained young both at heart and in spirit and played a significant role as a writer and social arbiter through her Saturday night soirees. As stated in her Washington Post obituary, Her home at 1461 S Street, NW was once the site of a literary salon which attracted established literary figures .
In addition, she was actively involved with other writers through her affiliations with many organizations and groups. Some of those affiliations are as follows: the Rendezvous Poetry Club, Poetry Council of the National Womens Party, Poetry Society of Washington, Writers League Against Lynching, National Song Writers Guild, Poet Laureate League, League of American Writers, American Society of Africal Culture, and Negro Actors Guild.
Georgia Douglas Camp was born in Atlanta, Georgia on September 10 to George and Laura Camp. She attended the public elementary schools in Atlanta, and in 1893 entered the normal course at Atlanta University (AU), graduating in 1896. Approximately a year before her death in June 1965, she received an honorary doctor of letters degree from Atlanta University. At the time, she was the oldest living graduate of the University. Also, Johnson studied music at Oberlin Conservatory (Ohio) and the Cleveland College of Music.
Georgia Douglas Camp was married on September 28, 1903 to Henry Lincoln (Link) Johnson. She and Link had two sons, Henry Lincoln, Jr. and Peter Douglas. In 1901, the Family moved to Washington, DC where Link established a law practice. Georgia was in Washington for 56 years until her death in 1966.
After her husband died in 1925, she had no choice but to seek employment to maintain the household and rear her two sons. Mrs. Johnson was conciliator for the Labor Department for eight years (1925-1934). Although working full-time, she continued to feverishly produce literary works and maintain a column for 20 weekly newspapers. Throughout her career she wrote poetry incessantly, edited close to 100 books, wrote over 40 plays and 30 songs. One of the poems, I Want to Die While You Love Me, was read at her funeral:
I want to die while you love me,
While yet you hold me fair,
While Laughter lies upon my lips
And lights are in my hair.
I want to die while you love me
And bear to that still bed
Your kisses turbulent, unspent
To warm me when Im dead.
I want to die while you love me;
Oh, who would care to live
Till love has nothing more to ask
And nothing more to give?
I want to die while you love me,
And never, never see
The glory of this perfect day
Grow dim, or cease to be!
The literary gatherings that she hosted were very popular with the young writers as well as those who served as mentors. In 1925, Georgia Douglas Johnson began to host these literary evenings in her home. These salon gatherings were another milestone for the New Negro Renaissance. In her autobiographical notes, Johnson states that these gatherings began when Jean Toomer asked her to hold weekly conversations among writers in Washington. These talks continued for ten years and resurfaced on an intermittent basis to 1942.
This Saturday Nighters Club in Washington, as the group of individuals was called, was mentioned in Gwendolyn Bennetts Ebony Flute column in Opportunity magazine as early as 1926. Those associated with the Washington, DC area and who frequented these discussions included Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Bruce Nugent, Marita Bonner, Angelina Grimke, Lewis Alexander, Jessie Fauset, Alain Locke, May Miller, Willis Richardson, E. C. Williams, Kelly Miller, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Clarissa Scott Delaney.
In her Ebony Flute, July 1927 column, Bennett reported that The Saturday Nighters of Washington, D. C. met on June fourth at the home of Mrs. Georgia Douglas Johnson. Mr. Charles S. Johnson was the guest of honor. Bennett further elaborates
It was particularly pleasing to see and talk with Miss Angelina Grimke. She is a beautiful lady with ways as softly fine as her poems. The company as a whole was a charming medley . E. C. Williams with his genial good-humor; Lewis Alexander with his jovial tales of this thing and that as well as a new poem or two which he read; Marita Bonner with her quiet dignity; Willis Richardson with talk of plays and things and here and there a new poet or playwright and the whole group held together by the dynamic personality of Mrs. Johnson some poems by Langston Hughes were read.
(Opportunity, p. 212 )
One can only imagine the richness that these gatherings provided for the young black writers of that period. It was in such gatherings that they received encouragement and inspiration from their peers and mentors.
Three of Johnsons poems were published in Crisis as early as 1916. They were Gossamer (May), Fame (September), and My Little One (October). According to Winona Fletcher in Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, she states Johnson was labeled minor primarily because as a black woman of the genteel school she was over shadowed by the masculine literature of the New Negro. The poetry of Georgia Douglas Johnson was well represented in Countee Cullens Caroling Dusk (1927). In this anthology, Johnson states that Dean Kelly Miller at Howard University saw some of her poetic efforts and was pleased. William Stanley Braithwaite, an established poet and anthologist, was equally pleased with her poetry. In fact, he wrote the introduction to her first book, The Heart of A Woman (1918), for which Jessie Fauset generously helped to pull the material together.
In Braithwaites introduction, he states that the poems are intensely feminine and for me this means more than anything else that they are deeply human. Further, in the Journal of Negro History (October 1919), Jessie Fauset describes The Heart of A Woman in the following way:
The book has artistry, but it is its sincerity which gives it its value. There is no reason why she should not in the near future take rank among the best writers in the world.
The title poem from this book of verse follows:
THE HEART OF A WOMAN
The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar oer lifes turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.
Johnsons second volume of poetry, Bronze, appeared in 1922. By this time she was an active member of those writers who were bridging the genteel age and the New Negro. In this volume, she dealt with segregation and racism. Such themes placed her among the racially conscious poets of this period.
As Fletcher notes:
this second volume gives evidence of a new strength in Johnsons feelings of protest against injustice and racism. The impact that Alain Locke and others of the New Negro movement were having on her life and writings was clear in her deeper, more mellow note, as Benjamin Brawley described the change in her writing. (Fletcher, p. 158)
In the February 1923 issue of Crisis, Alain Locke states that in Bronze Mrs. Johnson has come to her own . A certain maturity that is expected is here, but it is the homecoming of the mind and heart to intimately racial thought and experience which is to be especially noted and commended.
Gloria Hull in her book of history and criticism, Color, Sex, and Poetry, emphasizes that Bronze was Johnsons weakest book that reads like obligatory race poetry. In spite of Hulls assessment, Bronze was a valuable book that enhanced Johnsons credibility.
The very acme of my woe,
The pivot of my pride,
My consolation, and my hope
Deferred, but not denied.
The substance of my every dream,
The riddle of my plight,
The very world epitomized
In turmoil and delight.
Her third volume of verse, An Autumn Love Cycle (1928), with an introduction by Alain Locke, focuses on the various states of love. In that introduction Locke states that Mrs. Johnson in a simple declarative style, engages with ingenuous directness the moods and emotions of her themes.
An Autumn Love Cycle has been considered her best volume of verse. Hull contends the poems ring genuine, authenticclearly conveying that the narrator knows the emotions about which she speaks. Hull continues the impact of An Autumn Love Cycle is cumulative. The work gives the satisfying completeness that comes from having done well all of the worthwhile task that it set out to do.
Believe mewhen I say
That love like yours, at this belated hour,
Stills the fount of thought!
I move as one new-born
And strange to swift transitions
As from my prison door
Into a blinding sunlight!
Although Johnson is best known for her poetry, she was an avid and successful playwright. Her first work to receive recognition was Blue Blood, which received an honorable mention in the 1926 Opportunity contest. Later in the same year the New York City Krigwa Players produced it. Hull states that
'Blue Blood' is an interesting creation, in that its essentially comic exterior is built upon a very un-funny substructure the grim fact of miscegenation via the rape of black women by white men in the South shortly after the Civil War.
Johnsons second play, Plumes, won a first prize in Opportunitys 1927 literary competition. It is a folk tragedy set in the rural South. As Hull states, Johnson in Plumes is as folk as she is academic in her poetry . (p. 170) Plumes appeared in Plays of Negro Life: a Source Book of Native American Drama by Alain Locke and T. Montgomery Gregory.
Johnson wrote a number of lynching plays. There was great deal of controversy on the subject of lynching during the 1920s. These plays included the following: Blue-eyed Black Boy, Safe, and A Sunday Morning in the South.
In order to accurately assess Johnsons place in literature it is essential that her drama be considered along with her poetry. It is not until her complete oeuvre is examined that a fair evaluation can be made of her literary works.
Bloom, Harold, editor. Black American Women Poets and Dramatists. New York: Chelsea House, 1976.
Cullen, Countee, editor. Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1927.
Fletcher, Winona, Georgia Douglas Johnson, in Dictionary of Literary Biography. vol. 51, Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, edited by Trudier Harris (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1987).
Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Locke, Alain LeRoy, Notes on the New Books, in Crisis (February 1923).
Johnson, Georgia Douglas. The Heart of A Woman and Other Poems. Boston: Cornhill, 1918. (*)
__________________________. Bronze: A Book of Verse. Boston: Brimmer, 1922. (*)
__________________________. An Autumn Love Cycle. New York: Harold Vinal, Ltd., 1928. (*)
*The three titles listed above were reprinted by Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, (New York) in 1971.
Blue Blood, in Fifty More One Act Plays, edited by Frank Shay (New York: Appleton-Century Co., 1938).
Plumes, in Plays of Negro Life: A Source Book of Native American Drama, edited by Alain Locke and Montgomery Gregory (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1927).
A Sunday Morning in the South, in Black Theatre, U.S.A.: Forty-five Plays by Black American Playwrights, 1847-1974, edited by James V. Hatch and Ted Shine (New York: Free Press, 1974).
Manuscripts of plays are in the Federal Theatre Project Collection at George Mason University
Photo Credit: Georgia Dougla Johnson, not dated. Photographer unknown. Reproduced with permission, Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
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The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., 1920-1930s
http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/ | last updated June 20, 2003