What’s in a Page?
How do you read a page? You look at the words, from left to right, top to bottom. Perhaps a picture on the opposite page catches your eye, but it seems marginal, separate, irrelevant. But if you’ve ever read articles in The New Yorker and been struck by the sudden placement of cartoons or if you’ve ever mistaken a camera advertisement for photojournalism in National Geographic you may have realized that reading is more than just looking at words. Georgia Douglas Johnson’s poems in the October 1917 issue of The Crisis seem conventional; but when read with attention to context—images, articles, fonts, and verbal patterns—they become rather revelatory of a modernity inflected by racial terror, gender constraints, and class imperatives. George Bornstein, arguing that a simple reading is not necessarily the best strategy, provides an alternative to the traditional way we think about reading a page. In “Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page,” he explains that “the literary text consists not only of words (its linguistic code) but also of the semantic features of its material instantiations (its bibliographic code)” which “might include cover design, page layout, or spacing, among other factors” (6). This alternative bibliographic reading makes what seems like a quaint collection of poetry a window into the social expectations, intersectional identity, and racial struggle that Johnson negotiated in her work.
Her Utter Woe
Johnson’s poems do not leap off the page. Set neatly beneath gothic lettering in two columns, they seem ordinary and typical. On a page where melancholy is the dominant mood—from “the acme of her utter woe!” to “the limpid trustful gaze / In innocence serene” to “the frail children of sorrow,” her poems read like Poe stripped of the macabre. But by paying attention to the celebrations of motherhood and infancy on the verso page as well as the decorous, feminine typographical arrangement of the text itself, we gain some insight into the expectations placed upon black women writers at the time–into a modernity defined by its complexity, its intersectionality, its various nexuses of grief.
Within the context of this issue Johnson’s role is that of the mother, the chaste and dutiful presence raising the children heralded throughout the magazine as the future of the race. This position of dutiful mother was very much expected of black women: In “Mothers of Tomorrow” Anne Stavney argues that black women were expected to behave with proper feminine decorum because “black woman had the categorical duty to teach her own children and those from the community their moral lessons” (535). In many ways this new expectation served as the challenge to the “assertions of black female immorality, impurity, and licentiousness . . . in white discussions of black America” (535). Thus black women writers of the New Negro movement began to embody, demonstrate, and perform traditional behavior, which in most cases was synonymous with motherly conduct. Claudia Tate observes in her Introduction to The Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson that “Johnson’s poetic style . . . veiled her criticism of racial and gender oppressions behind the demeanor of ‘the lady poet’” (xviii). These pages reveal how Johnson occupied this conventional role to subvert negative stereotypes of black women–at the expense, perhaps, of her own artistic autonomy.
The verso more explicitly expects women to be good mothers, but even the way the poems are laid out underscores expectations of feminine responsibility. This page comprises six different poems, “Heritage,” “The Mother,” “My Boy,” “Guardianship,” “Hope,” and “Let Me Not Lose My Dream,” arranged in two neat columns. Each poem starts with a drop cap; the large first letter spanning two lines perpetuates the traditional nineteenth century poetic sentiment. The two columns, ornate font, and drop caps all point to a customary, formal style of printing poetry. The bold, gothic font of the title and Johnson’s name is reminiscent of traditional nineteenth century poetry, making her poetry seem even more conventional. The page layout mirrors traditional mother-child roles within the poems.
The formal, traditional page layout simultaneously supports the goals of The Crisis and restricts Johnson’s artistic expression. The mother-child themes and traditional formatting helped The Crisis frame women as mothers in order to undermine the image of black women as licentious and immoral, as Du Bois attempted to paint “a portrait of black women as strong, self-sacrificing, and long-suffering” (Rabaka 41). However, this use of the conventional page format confines “Johnson to fit early twentieth-century cultural prescriptions of woman as mother” (Tate xxi). This cultural prescription resonated differently for black women than it did for white women. For a black woman in the twentieth century to assume the iconic mother role meant that she both subverted social and racial stereotypes, but also contradicted the reality of many black women’s experience with poverty, inadequate housing, and racial violence. The bibliographic codes highlight the material conventions of the poems but also allow us to see the complexity of her negotiation with intersectionality. Examining the intersectionality of Johnson’s poems reveals the way they transcend the label of iconic mother figure.
Other bibliographic codes on the verso side that precede Johnson’s poems bolster Johnson’s persona as the “lady poet.” The material on the verso temporally and visually influences the reading of Johnson’s “Poems” when reading the magazine cover to cover: the text sets up the reader for a certain interpretation of Johnson’s poems. “Little Mothers of Tomorrow,” describes an organization developed by the U.S. Health Department to prevent infant mortality by teaching young African American girls how to be good mothers. It ends with a resounding endorsement of early maternal education: “The little girls have taken to the work with avidity, and, proud though they may be of many other things they possess, they take no more pride in any of those than they do in the small, white shield badge that proclaims them of the League of Little Mothers!” (292). At the bottom of the page are two photographs of wide-eyed infants in white, both winners of baby contests (“Score 100% at Cheyenne, Wyo. Baby Show” and “First Prize, Philadelphia Better Baby Contest”) (292). Not only are they pathos-inducing because they are babies—they’re the best babies. In this bibliographic field, purity—materialized in their white clothes in and the white badges of their “little mothers”—is defined by whiteness. Johnson’s poems, near these images and texts of perfect motherhood become more an ode to motherhood as a pure and desirable–and even white–concept.
This overtly maternal discourse shapes our reading of Johnson’s already decorously presented poetry. Each poem – with the exception of “Let Me Not Lose My Dream” – refers to motherhood, childhood, and the sense that a difficult future lies ahead for black children who have been “dethroned by a hue.” The best babies, odes to motherhood, and dedication of the entire issue shift the focus of these poems from despair or poetic anguish to proof that black women an be caring mothers, and that black children are indeed the future of the race. If these poems were across from photographs of underfed children or mistreated mothers, they would take on a more despairing tone that the text certainly contains. “Let Me Not Lose My Dream,” which is a plea of personal anguish,thus is subsumed into a narrative of mothers and sons, obscuring the poetic and individual identity of the speaker. While Johnson uses the persona of lady poet to subvert white stereotypes and make a space for herself in a world stacked against black women, the material field of these pages make her work more maternally and generationally charged than they appear as mere text in an anthology.
In a similar manner, the traditional page layout coupled with the title, “Poems,” supports the idea of Johnson as an iconic mother figure but also betrays the scope of her work. The title itself is important: the collection of poems is not titled “Poems About Mothers and Children.” Nor is it titled, like in Johnson’s anthology Bronze, “Motherhood.” Rather, this page is simply titled “Poems,” implying, not necessarily intentionally but still falsely, that the following six poems are representative of Johnson’s entire collection of work. The mother-child themes in these poems fit conveniently into the narrative created by the previous two articles but do not accurately represent Johnson’s diverse body of work. It exaggerates the maternal and domestic qualities of Johnson and thus confines her to a stereotype of black motherhood without acknowledging that she is working within intersectional contexts.
My Boy of Tarnished Mien
Johnson’s seemingly conventional mother-child poems reveal her complex negotiation with intersectional issues of the twentieth century American society that at best, excluded black children from opportunity, and at worst, resulted in the lynching of young black men – a topic which many of Johnson’s plays addressed. Yet comparing this set of poems provokes an interesting question: why does “the son” appear so frequently? Johnson’s “lady poetry” persona, which veiled her societal criticism, required her to properly uphold patriarchal ideals and the primacy of the male child. Johnson’s poetry serves the needs of this metaphorical New Negro son in order to uplift her race. Whereas daughters were faced with the same intersectional experience as the mothers, through simultaneous racial and gendered oppressions, a son may be more likely to actually perform the duty of racial uplift. Anne Stavney argues that, “the New Negro, or Harlem, Renaissance” was a “cultural movement of highly visible men” (533), and Tate observes that, “According to Locke the ‘average’ black writer of the early twentieth century” was usually a “characteristically conservative and conformist’” male (xxi). These scholars show that the New Negro Movement was a masculine construct born out of the inherently patriarchal culture of the early 20th century. From this perspective, Johnson’s poetry fosters and uplifts the metaphorical son of the New Negro Movement in an effort to uplift her race. Yet even within traditional page layout and conventional mother-child themes, Johnson’s poetry works in a variety of complicated ways; she grapples with intersectional constraints by developing her own racially charged poetic lexicon.
Claiming the Mantled
By reading the entire page of mother-child poems, you discover something peculiar: a repetition of certain words. If you read only one of these poems by itself, you might miss the pattern. Examining the entire page, however, reveals a racially inflected poetic lexicon. As Suzanne Churchill argues, when the poem are read as a collective, instead of isolated pieces, the seemingly “conventional mother/child poems” actually build “on the race-conscious lexicon established by W. E. B. DuBois in his 1903 Souls of Black Folk” (Churchill 12).
DuBois writes in the Foreword of The Souls of Black Folk that he “sketched in swift outline the two worlds within and without the Veil” (6). Johnson alludes to DuBois’s “veil” when she says in the final poem of the set “Let me not lose my dreams, e’en though / I scan the veil with eyes unseeing / through their glaze of tears.” Readers of the time would have almost certainly understood this reference in context of DuBois’s “veil.” The use of this word in her poetry signifies a collaborative attempt to create a racially charged poetic lexicon. “Just as DuBois develops concepts such as the ‘veil’” to refer to the literal darkness of African American’s skin, the social division between the races, and the superior insight black people gain through their subjugation, Johnson also “cultivates a vocabulary that is racially pointed, yet universally applicable” (Churchill 12). Johnson builds on this poetic lexicon by nuancing the meanings of words such as “Mantle,” “bars,” and “tears.”
DuBois endows the term “veil” with social, political, and spiritual valences, and while Johnson uses his term, she prefers the word “mantle.” The word mantled appears in this set of poems twice, once in “Heritage” and once in “The Mother.” According to the OED, the use of mantle “is now chiefly restricted to long cloaks worn by women and to the robes worn by royal, ecclesiastical, and other dignitaries on ceremonial occasions.” Part of her motivation to repeat the word “mantled,” instead of a word such as “veil,” could have been the potentially empowering connotations of cloaks worn by women and royals. Yet this definition does not provide any insight to the racial implication of the word. Churchill provides an alternative observation: “Like DuBois’s “veil,” “Mantled” has a double valance, not only connoting cloaking or concealing, but also symbolizing the prophetic authority of the Biblical prophet Elijah” (Churchill 12). Johnson uses the word “mantled” to both “emphasize the oppression of the black race and to assert their rich cultural heritage and visionary powers” (Churchill 12). Churchill calls attention to this in order to show how Johnson evokes the ancient, biblical roots of the term in order to endow her poems and her people with the power of prophecy and with religious cultural heritage.
In light of this lexical thread, “Let Me Not Lose My Dream” fits with the other poems in a narrative of almost prophetic blackness: “Let me not lose the vision, gird me,” the speaker asks, looking to God for perhaps a different kind of mantle–one to protect not her child but herself. Reading the poems as a single text gives us access to a richer reading, one in which Johnson’s work is not merely the subversive banality of a black lady poet or the political poetry of a downtrodden race: lexical patterns throughout the poems place more emphasis on the internal anguish and religious power of the poet in a way that balances out the more confining maternalism of the text and photography on the verso.
In Johnson’s poems the idea of prophetic succession relates back to the image of “voices ringing / Down the corridor of years” in “Heritage”; this poem speaks to a culture and identity that is passed down through generations. When the speaker in the first poem “Claims the Mantled for her own,” she claims prophetic authority to speak about the heritage of black women. Her prophetic voice reveals to the tumultuous emotions that accompanies black women’s heritage. Johnson uses the word “Mantle” in a similar way that DuBois uses the word “veil.” The word “Mantle” serves as a race marker that represents both a burden and an inheritance that carries certain authority and knowledge.
Escaping the Bars
Whereas Johnson uses “mantle” to connote a vision of inheritance, she repeats the term “bar” to emphasize the gender and culture constraints within society. Johnson uses the word “bar” in three separate places in this set of poems. The first appears in the poem “The Mother,” second in “My Boy,” and third in “Guardianship.” She uses bar figuratively: “branding bars,” “bar of years,” and “iron-barred,” respectively, often symbolizing the oppression that black men, including her son, will face. The first occurrence, “branding bars,” evokes thoughts of branding iron often used to identify slaves. Branding slaves served not only to signal who owned them, but by doing so, the act of branding also demonstrated that the slaves were seen as subhuman – an idea that persisted into Johnson’s era. The mother’s thoughts explain the anguish she experiences over the persistent dehumanization of her race. The second poem focuses on the son’s will to succeed because of a different bar that inhibits the son – years. The bars of years, while a hindrance, can be bypassed through the son’s “buoyant flight” beyond. While the reader still experiences the mother’s pain – “A thousand javelins of pain / Assault my heaving breast” – the poem ends on her urging him to reach for his goals.
While the first two instances speak to historical and temporal roots of oppression, the the third poem, “Guardianship,” uses the word “iron-barred” to imply that the future of black children is prison-like, as “the highways to renown” for the “dusky child” has been “iron-barred by fortune’s frown.” The son’s race relegates him to a life of few opportunities with a higher risk of being imprisoned or lynched. The poem emphasizes the protection earned through faith in God. Although oppression and prejudice might bar the “dusky child” from opportunity, belief in the “breath of God’s eternity” can help the son “forge the master key” of destiny. Despite the fact that the future seems bleak for the speaker’s son, the guardianship of God will see him through adversity. The master key allows the son to move beyond the bars that keep him back – including physical prison cell bars, the societal imprisonment he experiences, or this earthly world instead of heaven. This last instance of bar imagery describes a way beyond the rigid structures that keep the son, and all African American men, from success.
When we view the page of poems as one text with a single purpose, we can see intra-poem patterns such as the “bar” imagery in “The Mother,” “My Boy,” and “Guardianship.” Reading the page from top to bottom, left to right, we start with the worry of a mother, move to her son’s power to overcome, and finally see that with God, the son will escape the bars restraining him. The poems creates a tumultuous but ultimately uplifting message. They sets the son on a path – one that begins with a mother’s recognition of the very bars that will keep him back. Only with this acknowledgement and her continued worry, seen through the whole page of poems, will the son have the chance to breakout of the bars. Moreover, by instilling religiosity in him at a young age, the mother educates the son about how to move fully beyond the bars. Beginning with “The Mother,” and displayed on a page of “motherhood poems,” Johnson’s use of bar imagery helps us understand her work in helping her son move beyond societal constrictions, and ultimately to racial uplift. Reading the entire page of poems reveals a more interesting, complicated, and politically suggestive narrative than when the poems are read individually.
Just as the patterned imagery creates meaning, the titles of these poems work together to create an intersectional narrative. The first poem on the page is titled “Heritage,” which evokes thoughts of artifacts or qualities passed down through generations. The last poem of the set is “Let Me Not Lose My Dream,” which builds on the previous poem “Hope.” By starting with the idea of “heritage” and ending with the “hope” to hold onto dreams, the set of poems embraces the tumultuous culture and history of black women and inspires the readers to hold onto their dreams of opportunity. These six poems create a powerful narrative about the maternal conventions of Johnson’s poetry while also revealing her complex struggle with intersectional realities. While the two columns of poetry seem like any page of poems in any modern magazine at first glance, the bibliographic and linguistic codes that surround Johnson’s poems highlight their more complex significance. As a mother, a black woman, and a poet, her poetry enters into larger conversations of black motherhood and racial uplift in The Crisis. However, through this page of poetry, we also see her, as an individual, through the art she was driven to create.
 Thanks to Suzanne Churchill for sharing her notes and ideas
Bornstein, George. “How to read a page: modernism and material textuality.” Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page. New York: Cambridge UP, 2001. 5-31. Print.
Churchill, Suzanne W. “Little Magazines and the Gendered, Racialized Discourse of Women’s Poetry.” A History of 20th-Century American Women’s Poetry, ed. by Linda Kinnahan, Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 2015. Print.
DuBois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk, 1996. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/408.
Johnson, Georgia Douglas. “Let Me Not Lose My Dreams” Bronze. Boston, Mass: B. J. Brimmer Company, 1922. Print
–. “Poems.” The Crisis Oct. 1917: 292-93. The Modernist Journals Project. Web. 6 Nov. 2015.
“Mantle, N.” OED Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed November 11, 2015. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/113712.
Rabaka, Reiland. “W.E.B. Du Bois and ‘The Damnation of Women’: An Essay on Africana Anti-Sexist Critical Social Theory.” Journal of African American Studies 7.2 (2003): 37–60. Print.
Stavney, Anne. “‘Mothers of Tomorrow’: The New Negro Renaissance and the Politics of Maternal Representation.” African American Review 32.4 (1998): 533–561. JSTOR. Web.
Tate, Claudia. “Introduction” Georgia Douglas Johnson: The Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson. New York: G.K. Hall, 1997. xvii-lxix. Print.