A Bold Modernist Imagination
In her introduction to The Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson, Claudia Tate argues convincingly that “beneath the veneer of Johnson’s traditionalist verse and genteel public persona, labored a ‘bold modernist imagination’” (xviii). Tate reads the conventional, occasionally simple quality of Johnson’s poetry as a calculated strategic response to the race and gender based expectations of the community in which she wrote. According to Tate, American society in general and the largely male-dominated New Negro literary scene both held strong views of what proper female behavior should be. In a similar fashion, the powerful members of the New Negro movement also had strong opinions concerning the form and function that New Negro art and writing should adopt. Thus, in order to earn recognition as a significant author, Johnson needed to make her work reflect the many strict expectations that her society had for both black and female authors. As a result, her verse sometimes appears conventional to the point of being trite. Whereas Johnson’s contemporaries tended to take her poems at face value, Tate looks beyond this veneer to find a passionate poetic voice masked by superficial conventionality. (xli-xliii)
This essay will build from Tate’s thesis by analyzing two poems by Georgia Douglas Johnson as they appeared in The Crisis’s March 1920 issue. This analysis will focus on The Crisis’s issue for March 1920, which was volume nineteen, number five. This issue houses two poems by Georgia Douglas Johnson and a wide range of other illuminating content. Because the goal of this essay is to examine the relationship between these particular poems and the content that surrounds them, the analysis will be limited to this single issue of the magazine. Analyzing Johnson’s poetry in this way is an ideal way to continue exploring the pattern that Tate points out because, in The Crisis, all the pressures that Tate identifies are at play. Because the magazine represented the NAACP to the public, it was very important for the pieces it published to adhere to the standards for New Negro artwork held by its editor, W.E.B. DuBois. It was equally important for those works to play to the (gender-based) expectations of The Crisis’s audience. Therefore, by closely examining the magazine itself, we can gain a better understanding of just what those standards were, and how they influenced Johnson’s work.
How to Read a Magazine (intro)
You do not read a poem in a magazine as you may read a poem on its own. Reading a poem requires reading the entire magazine surrounding it, as any one issue can be seen as “a single work, conducted by a single mind, for a single purpose” as Charles Whibley states, quoted in Scholes and Wuffman’s Modernism in the Magazines (143). You can discover a world about the poem, and the way in which it was read at the time, by analyzing its position in the magazine it was originally published in. Scholes and Wuffman advise that to begin reading a magazine, it is necessary “simply to read it – to read every page” (149). While when we read a page, we look simply at what closely surrounds the poem, when we read a magazine, we immerse ourselves in every aspect of it – from the front cover to the advertisement that ends each issue. Every page in between provides a clue, and as you collect these clues, you “enter a world and begin to learn its language. It is to follow the connections that link certain political view and certain view of art and literature” (167). These clues include everything from the table of contents and the contributors to the advertisements and how it all lines up. By reading the entire March 1920 issue of The Crisis, we can connect these clues with the two poems Johnson published in the issue in order to better understand her work and the magazine as a whole.
Georgia Douglas Johnson
Fire, tears, and the torture chamber,
And the last racking turn of the screw;
Only thus, life attaineth that wonderful brew, —
The attar-of-rose of the heart! (253)
“Attar” is the first poem found in the March 1920 issue of The Crisis. The short poem presents a speaker with a troubled life – one periled by tears and torture, that only seems to be getting worse. However, in line 3, we learn that the anguish the speaker experiences can be given a positive spin. Only by going through the torture chamber can one obtain the attar (an essential oil extracted from rose petals) of the heart. Therefore, her life experiences parallel the process of obtaining rose oil. It requires many rose petals to extract one ounce of rose oil, but people keep working to extract gallons. The speaker of this poem will put herself through deep pain, if only to reap a similar reward.
Georgia Douglas Johnson
Through you, I entered heaven and hell,
Knew rapture and despair;
I vaunted o’er the plains of earth
And scaled each shining stair,
Drank deep the waters of content,
And drained the cup of gall,
Was regal and was impotent
Was suzerain and thrall:
Now by reflection’s placid pool,
At evening’s tranquil hour,
I smile across the backward way
And pledge anew, my vow:
For every glancing, golden gleam,
I offer, gladly, Pain;
And I would give a thousand worlds,
To live it all again. (266)
This poem is significantly more ambiguous than “Attar,” leaving it open for interpretation who exactly the poem is addressing. However, like “Attar,” “Afterglow” turns on the theme of suffering as a necessary price for life’s joy.
The Crisis, March 1920
In our search for insight into how gender norms are understood by The Crisis and its audience, it would be difficult to find a more telling source of information than the representation of gender in the twenty-seven portrait photographs within the pages of this issue. They are catalogued in Table 1. (For this analysis, I have chosen to exclude the photographs from the advertising section found in the back of the issue.)
The body language of the twenty-three men pictured in these photographs carries a striking degree of uniformity. With the possible exception of George Ellis on page 273, all of the subjects sit or stand with their back straight, head erect, and gaze fixed confidently at eye level. The body language of the women also exhibits a high degree of uniformity, but the attitude it expresses is distinctly different. The salient features of this body language are exemplified by the subject of the magazine’s cover photograph, the illustrious Georgia Douglas Johnson herself. This image also fulfills a particularly important role as the magazine’s “face” to the public and is therefore worthy of particular attention. Firstly, Johnson’s appearance communicates respectability and approachability. She is neat, with a clear complexion and hair tied back tidily in a bun. Her jewelry indicates at least some degree of social station. Furthermore, a very strong sense of demureness accompanies her representation; her head is bent forward, face impassive, with eyes cast inexpressively downward. The photograph communicates mildness that borders on melancholy.
|Georgia Douglas Johnson
|M. W. Ovington
|“The mother” from the story “El Tisico”
|Mary L. Gaines
|J. E. Spingarn
|J. W. Johnson
|J. R. Shillady
|A. H. Grimke
|J. A. Grumbles
|W. A. Butler
|W. H. Steward
|F. E. Young
|Rev. F. A. Cullen
|Judge E. O. Brown
|W. R. Dyke
|H. H. Jones
|Booker T. Washington
|R. R. Moton
|S. A. T. Watkins
|R. L. Brokenburr
|Jacob G. Schmidlapp
|Bishop Alexander Camphor
|Dr. David Scott
Table 1. Portrait photographs in The Crisis volume 19, number 5 (advertisements excluded).
Having analyzed the photographs found in the magazine, it would also be particularly productive for us to examine the Opinion section, as it offers a direct look at the editor’s unfiltered opinion. Gender expectations play a particularly important role in the brief section entitled “Woman Suffrage,” which begins by reminding the reader that, “[i]t seems probable that in the next presidential election, three million Negro women will have the right to vote” (234). The piece emphasizes the importance of the women being prepared for this responsibility, concluding that “the political hope of the Negro, rests on its intelligent and incorruptible womanhood.”
This section is, at least superficially, somewhat dissonant with the representation of gender in the rest of the magazine. While the photographs, poetry, and short stories published repeatedly present women as passive, this opinion piece seems to be emphasizing their capacity to enact political change. I propose, however, that this is not the case; voting is presented less as a positive action in itself, but more as the avoidance of a negative action. To vote is not to cause a change, but to avoid being corrupted by forces that would cause a woman not to vote, or to be poorly informed.
The emphasis of the article is distinctly inward. Other similar articles might challenge readers to “use your vote to take down racist political leaders” or “fight for fairer tax laws,” but that language is completely absent in this piece. The emphasis is instead on passive preparation- studying the candidates, learning qualification laws, etc. Through careful self-perfection, the readers will avoid being corrupted by other influences. In summary, the emphasis is not on doing, but on self-purification; “the political hope of the Negro” does not depend on the women actually doing anything, but simply on them being exemplars of purity and civic responsibility.
This theme is taken up later in Brian O’Shasnain’s poem “Cecilia Isabel Warren.” This poem acts as a cautionary tale for soon-to-be female voters. The poem describes how its female subject (presumably the titular Cecilia) “eagerly” reads about atrocities committed by other cultures but cannot bear to read about racial violence by Americans, preferring to ignore such stories because they are “too horrible.” The poem concludes by pointing out the she maintains this attitude even though “she is now / A voter and a citizen, / And has two hundred years / Of American ancestry / Behind her” (259). This poem illustrates the theme of internal purification that Du Bois draws on in his editorial piece. The main challenge to the female voter is overcoming the horror of facing the reality of racial violence in America. The poem chastises its subject not for failing to perform any action, but for her unwillingness to be “intelligent and incorruptible.” It is important to note that Cecilia’s race is uncertain. If she is black, her horror could stem from facing the threat of racial violence, and if she is white (a more likely reading, in my opinion) it could come from confronting the burden of guilt that belongs to her race. In either case, though, the demons that she must face are internal rather than external.
Returning to Johnson’s Poetry
Suffering is a strong theme in “Afterglow,” with the narrator of the poem recounting “drain[ing] the cup of gall” and being “both suzerain and thrall.” Read within The Crisis, the “gall” referred to evokes the feelings felt by African Americans in the face of racial injustice, and the word “thrall” overtly implies slavery (though it might also be read as a reference to systemic economic inequality). The poem’s conclusion, then, acts as a powerful commentary on the condition of African Americans of the time. The image of the narrator offering pain in exchange for golden gleams of joy, as well as the narrator’s emphatic acceptance of both the pain and pleasure of life reclaim the painful history of African Americans, affirming it as a boon that will ultimately lead to joy.
“Afterglow” is a somewhat ambiguous poem, affording the reader a significant amount of leeway in interpretation. The poem is perhaps most readily interpreted as a love poem. The addressee of the poems seems to have had a long relationship and deep influence on the poem’s speaker; the poem recounts how “through” the addressee, the speaker had numerous extremely joyful and extremely painful experiences. The language here is extreme, evoking “heaven and hell” and “rapture and despair.” Lines six through eight also carry racial overtones; the references to “the cup of gall” and power relationships are easily read as references to slavery and/or persisting social inequality. The speaker concludes the poem by accepting both the bad and the good experiences, saying, “For every glancing, golden gleam, / I offer, gladly, Pain; / And I would give a thousand worlds, / To live it all again.”
Thus, the poem ends on a note of benign acceptance; the speaker is willing to go with the flow rather than assert herself, even in the case of extremely painful experiences. No indication is given that the speaker wants to effect a change in the amount of pain in her life, or that she (or he) would attempt to achieve the pleasurable parts of life without the painful ones. The speaker gladly accepts life as it is.
The juxtaposition of the page of “Afterglow” with the poem “A Nation’s Greatness” by Edwin Riley also serves to highlight the highly gendered quality of the former. “A Nation’s Greatness” constitutes a strong and overt political statement; it boldly lays out the qualities that define a great nation with the clear intention of compelling the poem’s audience to conform to them (266). By contrast, “Afterglow” expresses its speaker’s willingness to accept life as it is determined by others.
This theme of acceptance is exactly in line with the portrayal of women in the rest of this issue of The Crisis; the woman looks inward but doesn’t attempt to cause outward change. However, this attitude contrasts sharply with the passionately expressive tone used earlier in the poem. To highlight the passionate quality of the first half of the
poem, try re-reading the poem but omitting the second half, starting with line nine. Read in this manner, the poem is dangerously passionate; it ceases to benignly accept the painful elements of life but instead fervently calls attention to them. Though the addressee is lauded as the bringer of pleasure in the poem, he is also inculpated as the bringer of pain. On its own, this attitude is unacceptable. The speaker is much too close to sounding discontent with her situation, and that kind of dissatisfaction could imply the desire to effect a physical change in the world (much like the male speaker of “A Nation’s Greatness” wants to). Hence, second half of the poem; it veils and smooths over the fiery quality of the first, making the poem as a whole much more palatable to audience members used to the passive representation of women in the rest of the magazine.
The themes expressed in “Afterglow” are echoed in “Attar.” The language in “Attar” is even more fiery than the language in “Afterglow,” evoking “Fire, tears, and the torture chamber / And the last racking turn of the screw.” Yet again, we see this fiery language wrapped up in the end with the theme of acceptance; the speaker emphatically states that only through such pain is it possible to attain what she calls “[t]he attar-of-rose of the heart.” In summary, though the topic of modernism often conjures images of gleeful innovation, Georgia Douglas Johnson’s poetry presents a distinctly different picture of the topic. In it, we see Johnson making a bold claim to the modernist spirit of “[making] it new,” but within the context of persistent oppressive stereotypes.
DuBois, W.E.B. “Woman Suffrage.” The Crisis. W.E.B. DuBois, ed. 19.5 (1920): 234. Web.
Johnson, Georgia Douglas. “Attar.” The Crisis. W.E.B. DuBois, ed. 19.5 (1920): 253. The Modernist Journals Project. Web.
—. “Afterglow.” The Crisis. W.E.B. DuBois, ed. 19.5 (1920): 266. The Modernist Journals Project. Web.
O’Shashnain, Brian P. “Cecilia Isabel Warren.” The Crisis. W.E.B. DuBois, ed. 19.5 (1920): 259. Web.
Photograph of NAACP Presidents. 1920. The Crisis. The Modernist Journals Project. Web.
Riley, Edwin Garnett. “A Nation’s Greatness.” The Crisis. W.E.B. DuBois, ed. 19.5 (1920): 266. Web.
Scholes, Robert, and Clifford Wulfman. Modernism in the Magazines: An Introduction. New Haven: Yale UP, 2010. Print.
Tate, Claudia. “Introduction.” Georgia Douglas Johnson: The Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson. New York: G.K. Hall, 1997. xvii-lxix. Print.
The Crisis Cover Page. 1920. The Crisis. The Modernist Journals Project. Web.
Poet | Poem | Page | Play | Periodical