A Bitter Earth-Wound
In the Author’s Note of her book of poetry, Bronze, Georgia Douglas Johnson writes: “This book is the child of a bitter earth-wound. I sit on the earth and sing—sing out, and of, my sorrow. Yet, fully conscious of the potent agencies that silently work in their healing ministries, I know that God’s sun shall one day shine upon a perfected and unhampered people” (Johnson 3). This combination of maternal anxiety, inner despair, poetic vocation, and Christian faith characterizes much of her poetry, which often explores tensions between misery and might. W.E.B. DuBois, editor-in-chief of The Crisis and personal friend of Johnson, notes in his foreword that “Her word is simple, sometimes trite, but it is singularly sincere and true, and as a revelation of the soul struggle of the women of a race it is invaluable” (DuBois 7). DuBois’s praise, like that of many male critics of the time, is somewhat reductive: he sees Johnson’s sorrowful songs of personal anguish as ordinary demonstrations of the universal struggle of black women. Claudia Tate, in her 1997 introduction to The Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson, fires back with the claim that Johnson’s “love lyrics in particular are not sentimental abstractions but complex instruments for her intense self-reflection and retrospection” (Tate xix).
Reading Johnson as a Poet is our first attempt at placing Johnson and her work in different literary discourses. Is she modernist? A New Negro poet? Should we study her work alongside other female poets? Alongside Eliot? In its original periodical context? Though seemingly conventional, Johnson’s work reveals the difficulty of writing as a black woman and the complexities of being published within different discursive fields. While Johnson’s own poetic aims and DuBois’s more political ones often coincided, her poems seem more maternal when printed in The Crisis than when printed in a book of poems. But they also gain an intersectional layer in The Crisis that is not as present in the blank pages of an anthology. By reading Johnson’s work with attention to bibliographic and linguistic codes, we aim to explore the intersections of race and gender, stereotype and expectation, and convention and subversion that Johnson occupied as an artist.
In his 1901 book The American Negro: What He Was, What He Is, and What He May Become: A Critical and Practical Discussion, William Hannibal Thomas writes that,
Not only is negro immorality without shame, remorse, or contrition, but their unchaste men and women are perfidious, malevolent, and cowardly in their relations, and with reckless obliviousness to consequences eagerly gloat over each other’s frailties and readily betray the indiscretions of their companions in guilt. […] Soberly speaking, negro nature is so craven and sensuous in every fibre of its being that a negro manhood with decent respect for chaste womanhood does not exist. (Thomas 180)
Although Thomas was black (and much reviled by DuBois and Booker T. Washington), his work was often cited by white authors constructing stereotypes of black men as morally bankrupt and black women as lascivious. Part of DuBois’s mission with The Crisis was to fight against such images by portraying black men and women as cultured and upstanding. And yet even DuBois found Johnson’s poetry trite: in a letter to the Guggenheim Foundation he writes a rather damning letter of recommendation: “She is erratic, illogical and forgetful […] But on the other hand, she is liable at any time or anywhere to turn out some little thing of unusual power and beauty” (“Georgia” 1).
Reading Johnson’s work in The Crisis and her own books of poems reveals the nature of her modernity: always an in-between or go-between and seemingly never good enough – for black men, white men, white women. Johnson’s work occupies a space between her own poetic aims and the political aims of DuBois. When read in The Crisis her poetry seems intended for racial uplift; when read in her anthology her poetry seems intended to plumb the despair of her social situation.
“Shall I Say, ‘My Son, You’re Branded?’,” published in The Crisis in 1919 before it appeared in Bronze in 1922, exemplifies the complexity of Johnson’s poetic situation and the richness of reading with attention to what George Bornstein calls “material codes.”
The first stanza of “Shall I Say” is reminiscent of another considerably more well-known poem that was published five years earlier: the quintessential poem of modernist malaise, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In Eliot’s poem the speaker poses a question worded in a similar manner as Johnson’s titular one: “Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets / And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes / Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?” (Eliot 1). The speaker of each poem hesitates to speak (“Shall I say”) and images of dusk pervade each poem. Despite these verbal similarities, the poems are strikingly different. Eliot’s “Shall I say” is solipsistic and rhetorical: in a modernized, postwar world, why say anything at all? In Johnson’s poem, however, the anxiety of speaking is psychological but also has a clear source of social pressure, as well as a clear addressee. Her speaker’s anxiety comes not only from a looming sense of aphasia and impotence but also from actual forces of violence, abuse, and racial discrimination. While white men like Prufrock brood on growing old, black women like Johnson wonder if they – and their sons – ever will.
This difference between High Modernist ennui and New Negro fear is also evident in the different media of publication. Eliot’s poem was first published in the June 1915 edition of Poetry, much as it would later appear in anthologies: black text on white paper without any accompanying advertisements or photographs. Johnson’s poem, however, debuted in the August 1919 issue of The Crisis, which was not “A Magazine of Verse” like Poetry but “A Record of the Darker Races.” One was offerings of white, privileged genius; the other was the elevation of the black race. One was avowedly aesthetic, the other ardently political. At the time, the African American community put the immense pressure of “race uplift” on black women, expecting them to be “primarily responsible for upholding the morality of the family and the race,” meaning that “the black woman had the categorical duty to teach her own children and those from the community their moral lessons” (Stavney 535). Given DuBois’s emphasis on social uplift, the Crisis influences the poem by aligning it with expectations of black motherhood whereas Bronze gives Johnson more space to express her inner turmoil.
A Love Prophetic
The two versions of Johnson’s poems are also linguistically different. Many alterations seem cosmetic and minor: the title, for instance, has been altered from its original publication in The Crisis to the more colloquial “You’re,” presumably to fit the meter. And yet the linguistic variations, when taken together, do shift the mood of the poems: The Crisis version stresses the language of bondage — “binds,” “built,” and “Foully tethered, bound forever” are changed to subtler modes of confinement: “clogs,” “wrought,” and “By strange subtleties” make the racism that the son will face less allegorical and religious and more insidious and socially ingrained.
In both versions the first lines of Johnson’s poem make clear that the son’s predicament is socially determined and publicly perpetuated: “branded” not only echoes with images of punished runaway slaves but also requires a brander; “pageantry” implies ceremony and performance; “forum” implies public discourse (Johnson 45). Johnson collapses imagery of dusk (“soul-enchanneled eye,” “the young light(s) fading,” “dusky pall”) and death (“dusky pall of shadows”) to emphasize the hopelessness of the son’s future: setting like a sun, screened like a corpse, his future is already behind him (45). As darkness is identified with death, the dusky pall of shroud and sunset also functions as the boy’s own skin, a shade that limits his future in a racially stratified society.
The second stanza of Johnson’s poem gives a bold, inspiring foil to the first that is entirely absent from “Prufrock”: “Or shall I, with love prophetic, bid you dauntlessly arise,” the mother asks, with “bid” changing the mode of address from informing to inciting (45). Her love is prophetic: it foresees a better future for her son, one in which he breaks from his social confines (the pageant, the tether) with a combination of faith (in himself, perhaps in his family, his God) and language (perhaps the sort of lyric language she uses in this poem). The extent to which this encouragement is conclusive — whether or not the second stanza is further hesitation or final resolution — depends largely on the context in which it was published.
Bibliographic codes in The Crisis exaggerate the ornamental and decorous nature of her poetry while at the same time combating more overt stereotypes about black women. The header of the poem spans the full width of the page, marking off the images and text below as one complex verbal-visual text (Churchill’s phrase). If that has not drawn the reader’s attention, situated to the right of the Crisis edition of the poem is a photo of a young African American boy sitting on a low table. By visualizing an innocent infant the magazine emphasizes the child’s presence in the poem, prioritizing his plight over the mother’s.
As if the photo did not emphasize childhood enough, it immediately follows a story titled “The Brotherhood of Man” by E. Liebowitz, which ends with the mother of a child killed by a horse in a dreamlike state, being given a flower “as black as midnight” called “The Brotherhood of Man” by a child who says “flowers are like people – there are many colors among them. All are beautiful” (Liebowitz 188). A small icon of a book — perhaps the Bible, given the cruciform mark below it (and one that appears in many editions of The Crisis) — appears between the two stanzas of the poem, marking a physical division between the despairing first stanza and prophetic second stanza that highlights the religious call-to-arms of “a faith that shall not falter in your heart and on your tongue.” Though the second stanza gets structural preference in both poems, the wide-eyed infant, decorative pictures, and other texts in The Crisis draw attention to the child’s innocence and the speaker’s role as a dutiful mother.
Unlike The Crisis version the page in Bronze is devoid of any additional photos, pictograms, or articles. Whereas the bibliographic codes in The Crisis shift the focus of the poem to the son and the tone to one of triumph, the lack of surrounding material in Bronze shifts the focus to the maternal speaker and the tone to one of irresolution and paralysis. The collection includes nine sections: Exhortation, Supplication, Shadow, Motherhood, Prescience, Exaltation, Martial, Random, and Appreciation. “Shall I Say, ‘My Son, You are Branded?'” is the fifth poem in the Motherhood section, which emphasizes the importance of the mother as subject. This version is still divided into two stanzas, but the lack of the book icon makes the division between the stanzas less drastic and less overtly religious. In Bronze the poem seems less resolved: “Shall I say” in the second stanza changes to “shall bid,” but an answer is neither given nor strongly implied.
If a poetry anthology is typically an apotheosis from periodical to posterity — as it has been for Eliot — for Johnson the poem loses much of its original richness when isolated from its multilayered context. But while so much of that richness comes from how different images and texts create one complex bibliographic field, that field ultimately restricts the individuality of Johnson’s poetic expression for the sake of uplifting the race.
A Wide Reading
Georgia Douglas Johnson’s poetry has only recently been considered modernist by some critics — and remains rarely read, taught, or included in literary histories, excluded even from Nathan Huggins’s groundbreaking 1971 anthology, Harlem Renaissance. Although George Hutchinson points out that “our idea of ‘modernism’ today is quite different, generally, from the idea of it that prevailed when it was defined in relation to a few interconnected all-white coteries during the heyday of the New Criticism and shortly after” (quoted in McKible 443-4), any discussion of modernism nevertheless brings with it the ideologies of these coteries — and any author deemed modernist will be inevitably brought before the pantheon of High Modernism, the icons and altars of Pound, Woolf, Eliot. While newer conceptions of modernism as global and pluralist surely have room for Johnson’s work, her poetry still does not fit in the traditional canons of the great white egoists.
But perhaps we shouldn’t expect her to fit. After all, the evaluative systems of Pound and Eliot favor ambitious, allusive, impersonal, and formally experimental poetry as the mark of artistic genius — in short, poetry like theirs. Johnson’s “Shall I Say?” reflects a black female terror of racial violence and systemic oppression beyond the white male malaise of modernism’s mascots. Her poetry invites us to question whose modernity we have let modernism speak for, and how restrictive approaches to texts have shaped that understanding.
Since Johnson was writing at the start of the twentieth century, some critics have still tried to squeeze her into the canons of modernism. Melissa Prunty Kemp argues that women like Harper, Grimké, Johnson, and Spencer can be worked into existing canons of modernism (Kemp 790). But why should she be? Those rules are stacked against newer and richer ways of reading her work. As Suzanne Churchill writes, “Rather than adding women poets to existing canons, we must change the value systems, reading practices, and paradigms that have justified their exclusion” (Churchill 16). As a black, female poet she deserves more attention for which we must adopt new modes of reading.
Is Johnson a modernist? If modernism is, as Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman broadly define it, a response to the “social condition” of modernity, it would seem so. But she reacts to an experience of modernity that is markedly different from men like Eliot’s – a condition of living much more paralyzing than half-deserted streets and muttering retreats. Lynch mobs roam the streets of her modernity and men holler racial slurs worse than whatever dreary whispers Eliot could have imagined. Her poem about the anxiety of speaking fits into general themes of traditional modernism but also provides a fitting case study for the potential of an all-inclusive, newer modernism. “Shall I Say,” in addition to the verbal paralysis and psychological pain, presents a generational, almost anagogical anguish that other white modernists did not have to endure.
In his foreword to Bronze DuBois writes that “I hope Mrs. Johnson will have wide reading” (DuBois 7). So do we. Not just wide in the scope of the audience it reaches but also in the scope of the page itself — in how much of the magazine we must consider in our reading. To fault DuBois for calling Johnson’s poems trite or imbuing them with universality is unfair: her poems are often conventional and can be read as a window into the internal turmoil of a black mother at the turn of the century. But to ignore Johnson’s own desire to sing and the ways bibliographic material in The Crisis confines her artistic expression would be to deny her individuality and agency as a mother, a subject, a poet.
Bornstein, George. Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page. Cambridge University Press: New York, 2001. Print.
Churchill, Suzanne W. “Little Magazines and the Gendered, Racialized Discourse of Women’s Poetry.”
DuBois, W.E.B. Introduction. Bronze. B.J. Brimmer Company: Boston, 1922. 7. Web.
–. “Georgia Douglas Johnson recommendation.” November 16, 1927. W.E.B. DuBois Papers. Web.
Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Prufrock and Other Observations. 1920. Web.
–. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Poetry. Harriet Monroe, ed. 6.3 (1915): 130. Web.
Johnson, Georgia Douglas. “Shall I Say, ‘My Son, You’re Branded’?” Bronze. B.J. Brimmer Company: Boston, 1922. Web.
—. “Shall I Say, ‘My Son, You Are Branded’?” The Crisis. W.E.B. DuBois, ed. 18.4 (1919): 188. Web.
Kemp, Melissa Prunty. “African American Women Poets, The Harlem Renaissance, and Modernism: An Apology.” Callaloo 36.3 (2013): 789–801. Web.
McKible, Adam and Suzanne Churchill. Introduction: In Conversation: The Harlem Renaissance and the New Modernist Studies. 20.3 (2013): 427-431. Web.
Liebowitz, E. “The Brotherhood of Man.” The Crisis. 18.4 (1919): 184-8. Web.
Tate, Claudia. Introduction. The Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1997. xvii-lxxx. Print.
Thomas, William Hannibal. The American Negro: What He Was, What He Is, and What He May Become. The Macmillan Company: New York, 1901. Documenting the American South. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Web.