“Georgia Douglas Johnson has as many aliases as Lon Chaney had faces,” wrote Alice Dunbar-Nelson in her column in the May 13, 1927 issue of Opportunity magazine, “One is always stumbling upon another nom de plume of hers” (quoted in Hull, 202).
Poet, playwright, mother, and friend, Johnson has long been considered a minor figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Though more recent scholarship seeks to reclaim Johnson’s work as more than minor and not relegated to Harlem (where she never actually lived), she remains relatively obscure.
Not much is known about Johnson. Even her birthdate is unclear: either September 10, 1877 or September 10, 1880, born as Georgia Blanche Douglas Camp. Johnson was raised in Atlanta where she received the bulk of her early education before continuing on to Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio followed by Howard University in Washington, D.C. (Roses & Randolph 201). In 1903, she married Henry Lincoln Johnson, a leading African-American figure in politics at the time, who was appointed Recorder of the Deeds for the District of Columbia by President William Howard Taft. Johnson gave birth to two children, Henry Lincoln Johnson, Jr. and Peter Douglas Johnson.
While Johnson is commonly recognized as a writer of the Harlem Renaissance, she never lived in Harlem. She wrote from Washington, D.C., where she had an immense influence on New Negro writers from all over the country, in part by holding a literary salon in her home often referred to as the “Saturday Nighters”. These Saturday Nighters, also known as the “Round Table” or “S Street Salon,” included Countee Cullen, W.E.B DuBois, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, and Jessie Fauset, among other prominent African-American writers of the time. Johnson’s Saturday Nighters provided a much-needed venue in which these authors “read their works, exchanged criticisms, and argued views on literature, art, and politics [and] found the nurture, encouragement, and reception that black Washington seemed unwilling to extend” (Johnson 494). Johnson’s literary salon had standards; as Washington journalist and poet J.C Byars put it, “if dull ones come, she weeds them out, gently, effectively” (Johnson 496).
Building off of connections that she made with the likes of Jessie Fauset and William Stanley Braithwaite, her literary career began to flourish. In 1918 she published her first collection of poetry entitled The Heart of a Woman. William Stanley Braithwaite referred to this book as being, “intensely feminine . . . which means more than anything else that [the poems] are deeply human” (Qtd. In Roses & Randolph 202). Her following publication in 1922, entitled Bronze, was much more racially charged, as she herself confided in a letter to Arna Bontemps: “My first book was The Heart of a Woman. It was not at all race conscious. Then someone said she has no feeling for the race. So I wrote Bronze. It is entirely race conscious” (Roses & Johnson 203). While modernist critics have criticized Johnson’s poetry as exemplifying, “stereotypical female sentimentality […that] draws on the classical, neoclassical, romantic, Victorian, and early twentieth-century traditions,” recent scholarship has sought to show the ways this seeming stuffiness subverted stereotypes (Roses & Randoph 202). She maintained a healthy and fruitful relationship with W.E.B. DuBois and his publication, The Crisis, in which she published many of her poems.
In addition to writing poetry, Johnson was also a playwright, publishing many anti-lynching plays like Blue Eyed Black Boy and A Sunday Morning in the South. Her one-act folk play Plumes won first prize in a 1927 Opportunity contest (Tate xxxi). However she was seemingly “disheartened by the reception of her efforts to bring serious matters of black life to the American stage, [and] gave up playwriting and returned to writing poetry in the 1940s” (Qtd. In Shafer 231).
Following the death of her husband in 1925, Johnson, a widowed, African-American single mother of two, began working “a series of nine-to-five public service jobs to pay her sons’ tuitions and to support herself” (Tate xxxi). She showed dedication to her family, especially continuing her son’s education, shedding light on why motherhood was such an emphasized theme throughout her poetry The money she made allowed “Henry Jr. to complete Bowdoin College and Howard University Law School and Peter to finish Dartmouth College and Howard University Medical School” (Tate xxxi). The increased demand on her time did not stop her from writing, as evident by the collection of poems she published in 1928 titled An Autumn Love Cycle.
She continued living in Washington, D.C. until her death in 1966. As she passed, her close friend May Miller repeatedly whispered “Poet Georgia Douglas Johnson” to Johnson – a title she most definitely earned (Roses & Randolph 206).
Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Print.
Kemp, Melissa P. “African American Women Poets, the Harlem Renaissance, and Modernism: An Apology.” Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters 36.3 (2013): 789–801. Print.
Roses, Lorraine Elena, and Ruth Elizabeth Randolph. Harlem Renaissance and Beyond: Literary Biographies of 100 Black Women Writers, 1900-1945. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1990. Print.
Shafer, Yvonne. American Women Playwrights, 1900-1950. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. Print.
Tate, Claudia. Introduction. The Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1997. xvii-lxxx. Print.