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  • African American Women Poets, the Harlem Renaissance, and ModernismAn Apology
  • Melissa Prunty Kemp (bio)

The study of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century African American literature encompasses shifting forms and functions of poetry by poets engaged in bolder expression of the African American experience. African American women poets were pioneers who more frequently than their male counterparts opted for “art for art’s sake,” defying the smothering, if often unspoken, requirement that all African American literature, art, music, and theatrical production of the period espouse racial uplift. Yet, affecting African American writers were the same or similar social and literary movements, modernity and modernism for instance, that influenced many others of this period. African American writers would inevitably write about modernist subjects and through its methods. The broad literary and artistic period named “Harlem Renaissance” proliferated a mosaic of cultural and racial experience; no one lens can be used, or denied use, in interpreting this period. The breadth of the idea of a “Harlem Renaissance” itself encompasses arts and letters in several cities—New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, Detroit, Boston, even Paris; history and social development through the shift from agrarian to industrial environments; the constant threat of violence; the influence of prohibition—and ultimately generates Harlem Renaissance literature, its marketing, and consumption. This discussion seeks to review some of the major themes and definitions of modernism, explore controversy surrounding its use as appropriate in African American literary criticism, and speculate on the future of modernism as a viable critical approach for examining the poetry of Harlem Renaissance poets Angelina Weld Grimké (1880–1958), Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880–1966) and Anne Spencer (1882–1975), and an important precursor to these, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911).

In the introduction to Peter Childs’s Modernism, modernity and modernism are defined, modernity being a reaction to realism “characterized by its attempt to offer up a mirror to the world, thus disavowing its own culturally conditioned processes and ideological stylistic assumptions” (3). Broadly, modernist seems an accurate classification for the “mirrors of the world” of Harlem Renaissance literature like Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928), or Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928), or the poem “At the Carnival” (1922) by Anne Spencer. Modernist writers sought to “break from the iambic pentameter as the basic unit of verse, to introduce vers libre, symbolism, and other new forms of writing” (Childs 3). Grimké constitutes a prime example, with about a third of the published poems and half of the unpublished poems fitting this description. Further, modernists sought “to represent consciousness, perception, emotion, meaning and the individual’s relation [End Page 789] to society” (Childs 3). Johnson’s poetry is a clear representation of these characteristics, particularly evident in Heart of a Woman (1918) and in poems like “Pent,” “Query,” and “Thrall.” Childs believes modernist writers therefore struggled, “in Ezra Pound’s brief phrase, to ‘make new,’ to modify if not overturn existing modes and subjects of representation, partly by pushing them toward the abstract or the introspective, and to express the new sensibilities of their time” (Childs 3–4). An example is the poem “Vashti” (1895) by Frances E. W. Harper, a poem where a queen defies her husband’s command to unveil and thus defile herself in front of visiting dignitaries. Harper’s poem is one of the earliest and most daring advocacies for a woman’s right to be free of male tyranny in African American poetry. A modernist introspection in the poetry is the monologue held by Aunt Chloe in Harper’s poem “Learning to Read” published in Sketches of Southern Life (1891). Here Chloe, a figure who also appears in the Joel Chandler Harris Uncle Remus stories, is appropriated by Harper and rewritten into a strong, persistent woman. Chloe critically thinks about the ingenuity of herself and her people in learning to read despite the threat of severe punishment or death, which is a daring perspective for poetry of this time. A modernist interpretation of the poetry and criticism of Harper, Grimké, Johnson, and Spencer will illustrate an increasingly expressive continuum of many of Childs’s assertions in a uniquely African American female voice.

Childs delineates other modernist theories relevant...