- The Poetry of Vesta Stephens: In Search of Black Girls’ Gardens
What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmothers’ time? In our great-grandmothers’ day? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood.–Alice Walker, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”1
Jennie Brown was old and bent From hoeing cotton and corn Bones all twisted, bones all molded Shaped like she was hoeing, hoeing.
Jennie dressed up fine on Sunday In her best attire But she’d worn it till ‘twas rounded Just like she was hoeing, hoeing.
Jennie’s husband died and left her In black she went mourning But all the black in which she grieved Was shaped like she was hoeing, hoeing.
Then Jennie died, yes, Jennie died The casket makers knowing Had made a casket, grey bent casket In the shape of Jennie hoeing.–Vesta Emily Stephens, “Jennie”2
Jennie Brown’s sickled casket has haunted me ever since I came across her in the archives at the Amistad Research Center, located at Tulane University in New Orleans. Poet Vesta Emily Stephens was born in August 1914 in the Jim Crow South.3 She attended Talladega College, a segregated, historically black college in Alabama during the mid-1930s. Nearly a dozen of Stephens’s poems, along with two plays, were saved by her professor Lillian Welch Voorhees and later donated to Amistad Research Center, an archive dedicated to black history.4 I came across the ghostly images from Stephens’s work while looking for black girls’ voices in archives and searching for girls’ own articulations of the pain of growing up in the storm of southern American violence. [End Page 449]
Black girls and young women growing up under Jim Crow laws navigated the strictures of white supremacy. They often pushed back through bodily performance and by managing simply to survive, but black girls and young women rarely had the opportunity to record and share their thoughts about racism and sexism in the United States. They also did not have leisure time to dedicate to artistry, as Alice Walker deftly explores in her path-breaking essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” (1974). In the tradition of Walker, the editors of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (2015) ask, “Can we recover the intellectual traditions of thinkers who were often organic intellectuals and whose lives and thoughts are only modestly documented?”5 Such a query exposes a problem inherent to the archive: how do we trace the intellectual and artistic explorations of black women and girls whose lives have been disregarded in their own time and then again by record-keepers and archivists? Walker and the contributors in Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women find black women’s writing, thoughts, and imagination in obscure places, such as on long-forgotten pages, in gardens, and on quilts. It is incumbent upon modern critics to seek also to uncover intellectual traditions for thinking about black girlhood, to find ways to write about black girls and young women as intellectuals who contribute to conversations about race, gender, oppression, and southern life.
In Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans (2015), I argue that black schoolgirls’ writing was part of a rich black counterpublic.6 I explore writing culture as part of black girls’ imaginative worlds of pleasure, detailing intimate friendships, romantic love, and heartbreak. The writings of black schoolgirls and college students from the 1920s to the 1940s demonstrate the influence of New Negro writing on everyday black culture. Studying young people’s writing from this period reveals black girls’ shared texts, merged reading and writing cultures, and a youth culture specific to New Negro and Modern Girl influences.7 Indeed, an earlier cohort of Voorhees’s students published their poems in a volume titled The Brown Thrush: Anthology of Verse by Negro Students (1932), which Voorhees circulated to her colleagues and to New Negro writers, soliciting feedback and support for the publication.8 Referencing the youth of the students, well-known poet and orator Alice Dunbar Nelson wrote, “The Brown Thrush is unique...