Theresa Harvard Johnson

Copyright 2017 Theresa Harvard Johnson

Of all the forms of writing that exist in the world today, poetry rests at the center of my heart – especially poetry from the Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1930s), an explosive period in Black history in which excellence in all forms of art, particularly literature and music, took the nation by storm and brought a level of healing to the races. For a short time, it became the cultural center of the nation and today, its legacy is so profound that it stands as the epoch of Black artistic diaspora.

This movement was baaaaad!

I owe my poetic awakening to my first grade teacher in the 1970s who would read the works of Black poets in homeroom every morning. She would bring the words from the book to life! I would slouch in my wooden desk as she enunciated every word with such grace, elegance and power as my pigtails swung back and forth and the heels of my Buster Browns tapped the floor. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her; and my ears were trained to hear every poem from that point forward that I would ever read.

I was captivated: A Black girl lost in poetry.

While the first poem I remember my teacher reading was, “A Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Langston Hughes, it was the writings of Georgia Douglas Johnson and Margaret Walker that captivated my soul.  Particularly, Georgia Douglas Johnson spoke to me over the course of my adolescence as I dug through the mature material in her books including The Crisis (1916), The Heart of a Woman (1918), Bronze (1922), An Autumn Love Cycle (1928) and Share My World (1962). I secretly identified with her journey to rationalize life, its struggles, her faith, womanhood and being Black. I stood in awe knowing that she was born in Atlanta; raised in Rome and graduated from Atlanta University’s Normal School in 1896.[1] Many people do not know this, but she is considered the most widely read and famous Black author in America outside of Abolitionist Francis G. Harper and Alice Walker.[2]

James Weldon Johnson said this about his dear friend, “Georgia Douglas Johnson is a poet neither afraid nor ashamed of her emotions. She limits herself to the purely conventional forms, rhythms and rhymes, but through them, she achieves striking effects. The principal theme of Mrs. Johnson’s poems is the secret dread down in every woman’s heart, the dread of the passing of youth and beauty, and with them love.”[3]

I could not help but agree with this hard-hitting assessment of her work. I, too, felt her emotions and drew from her strength to speak into life – whether the picture painted was pretty or dark. The raw honesty of her voice drew me in; reminding me of my own story even though it was several generations removed… and she lived and died before my soul would ever find its place in earth.

But I still heard her voice.

I continued to identify with her heart's cry.

Perhaps my favorite poem from her collection is entitled, “Common Dust.” It is believed to be based on Genesis 3:19 and reads:

And who shall separate the dust

What later we shall be:

Whose keen discerning eye will scan

And solve the mystery?

The high, the low, the rich, the poor,

The black, the white, the red,

And all the chromatic between,

Of whom shall it be said:

Here lies the dust of Africa;

Here are the sons of Rome;

Here lies the one unlabeled,

The world at large his home!

Can one then separate the dust?

Will mankind lie a part,

When life has settled back again

The same as from the start?

(Poem from the Poetry Foundation)

The majesty and depth of her writing still floors me. So much so, that those who know her work can see shadows of it in many of my poetic writings. My high school and college teachers would note this in my writing classes when the opportunities came for me to be creative. I would often say to myself and others that it is far easier for me to express my heart, thoughts and concerns through a poem… than in face-to-face conversation. I realize now that to know a poet, to TRULY KNOW A POET, is to see into the nakedness of their writing. Their souls rest there.

Georgia Douglas Johnson gave me that clarity. It is amazingly fitting for me to celebrate poetry month in remembrance of her, reflecting on the woman who provided definition to my existence when I had none.

She walked with the greats: Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, W.E.B. Dubois, Zora Neal Hurston, William Stanley Braithwaite. She enjoyed the culture of being a professional artist. She wrote 28 plays, numerous songs, short stories and left a legacy of unpublished works.[4] She was an educator in the public school system, a school principal and a self-taught violinist. She was active in civil rights and fought wars with pen and ink. She received numerous honors and recognitions for her writing; and eventually was inducted in the Georgia Writer’s Hall of Fame.

Georgia Douglas Johnson taught women how to live free even in the midst of oppressive environments, and to live boldly, unashamedly before all men.

Honestly, I cannot imagine my writing life without her influence. But I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to grow and learn from her literary life legacy. How fitting it is to conclude my tribute with this poem she wrote, “Black Woman,” which is in public domain. May you appreciate the art form and her interpretation of the world in which she lived and died.

 

Black Woman

Georgia Douglas Johnson

 

Don’t knock at the door, little child,

     I cannot let you in,

You know not what a world this is

     Of cruelty and sin.

Wait in the still eternity

     Until I come to you,

The world is cruel, cruel, child,

     I cannot let you in!

 

Don’t knock at my heart, little one,

     I cannot bear the pain

Of turning deaf-ear to your call

     Time and time again!

You do not know the monster men

     Inhabiting the earth,

Be still, be still, my precious child,

     I must not give you birth!

 

[1] Georgia Douglas Johnson, Georgia Writer’s Hall of Fame, http://www.georgiawritershalloffame.org/honorees/georgia-douglas-johnson

[2] Ibid.

[3] James Weldon Johnson, The Book of American Negro Poetry, The Floating Press (1922): 47.

[4] Georgia Writer’s Hall of Fame, http://www.georgiawritershalloffame.org/honorees/georgia-douglas-johnson

 

Comments   

#2 Theresa Harvard Johnson 2017-04-06 17:36
Thank you so much for commenting!
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#1 Marion Ingram 2017-04-05 14:18
Wow! Inspiration received by you and inspiration given now through you! What an exchange!
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