1922: The Year in African American Poetry

The theme of the Modernist Studies Association annual conference this year (happening next week) is "Making Modernism: 1922 100 Years On."  I am not going to be in Portland this year, but I did have some thoughts to share on the topic of 1922; perhaps the post below is the conference talk I would be giving if I were there.

1922 is an apt topic, though it seems important to flag that to a great extent that year is pivotal within the framework of white modernism -- it's the year of the publication of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, the first complete edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room. All three monumental works are, to be sure, worth celebrating and revisiting. But there were others writing and publishing in 1922 as well. Most readers will know lines like these, from The Waste Land:

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

How many readers will be equally familiar with the following lines from Langston Hughes, also from 1922? 

The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo.
They lynch me now in Texas. ("The Negro," published in The Crisis, January 1922)

Whose version of 1922 still centers our narrative of early 20th-century literature? 

As I have been working on African American poetry for the past few years for various digital collections, I've come to see 1922 as an important year in African American literature as well, though in truth the term "modernism" does not always seem relevant to those conversations. Indeed, at the time the worlds of African American literature and that of white modernism were quite separate (segregated?), with only a few people connecting them (one of them might be William Stanley Braithwaite, who often published white and Black authors together in his yearly installments of the Anthology of Magazine Verse; another might be Carl Van Vechten). 

Here, I would like to explore 1922 as a fairly important year for African American poetry, not in relation to "modernism" or the Anglo-American canon, but internally, as part of a conversation among Black poets, editors, and readers. (I am trying to keep things brief here so I won't go too deep into why I think this is an important framing. For a good, detailed overview of African American poetry in this period, see Lauri Ramey's A History of African American Poetry [Cambridge UP, 2019])

The Role of Anthologies

The three signature events in African American poetry from 1922 might be the publication of James Weldon Johnson's anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry, Claude McKay's collection Harlem Shadows, and Georgia Douglas Johnson's collection, Bronze. Of the three, the most important in terms of the long-term trajectory of African American writing is probably Johnson's anthology. The Book of American Negro Poetry, published by Harcourt, Brace, and Company, was the highest-profile anthology of African American writing that had appeared to date (a couple of anthologies had also appeared in 1920, but both were a bit more niche; see more here). Anthologies would come to play a major role in the dissemination of African American writing as a genre through the 1920s and 30s and beyond -- the 1925 anthology edited by Alain Locke, The New Negro: an Interpretation, is often cited as the starting point for the Harlem Renaissance. (Important anthologies for African American modernism include the 1926 Fire!!! Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists (intended to be the first issue of a literary journal that fell apart) and the 1927 anthology edited by Countee Cullen, Caroling Dusk.) 

Johnson's 1922 anthology is a compelling snapshot of African American poetry leading up to the 1920s, with just enough of a hint of the new voices emerging to point forward as well (there are poems by younger poets like Jessie Fauset and Anne Spencer, along with older and more established voices). The 'old guard' -- poets of the 1900s and 1910s -- are represented by Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Edwin Campbell, James D. Corrothers, Georgia Douglas Johnson (about whom, more below), William H.A. Moore, William Stanley Braithwaite, James Weldon Johnson himself, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Of that group, the most influential is of course Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was extraordinarily prolific in the 1890s and early 1900s before passing away at the age of 33, of tuberculosis (with alcoholism possibly also an aggravating factor). Dunbar in effect created a template that many other writers would follow: a mix of social justice and racial justice themes, African American folk culture (often expressed in Black English vernacular), and lyric verse. (Curiously, the collection of Dunbar's poems in the Johnson anthology does not include Dunbar's most famous poem, "We Wear the Mask."

Many of the names in Johnson's anthology are likely unknown today, though they would have likely been well-known to readers of African American magazines like The Crisis and Negro World in the 1910s, as their poetry appeared frequently there. Of the Crisis poets included in the Johnson anthology, three I would particularly recommend might be Roscoe C. Jamison ("Negro Soldiers"), Fenton Johnson, and James D. Corrothers (see "At the Closed Gate of Justice"). A poet important to the readers of the UNIA's Negro World might be Leslie Pinckney Hill

Johnson's learned preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry is a comprehensive account of African American poetry up to that time, including writing connected to popular culture (he discusses ragtime at length) as well as more high-culture figures like Phillis Wheatley. The section on Dunbar might be the most interesting and relevant to my larger goals here, as it shows the poet engaged in self-critique pointing to a shift in style occurring more broadly in Black poetry in the 1910s: 

Often he [Dunbar] said to me: "I've got to write dialect poetry; it's the only way I can get them to listen to me." I was with Dunbar at the beginning of what proved to be his last illness. He said to me then: "I have not grown. I am writing the same things I wrote ten years ago, and am writing them no better." His self-accusation was not fully true; he had grown, and he had gained a surer control of his art, but he had not accomplished the greater things of which he was constantly dreaming; the public had held him to the things for which it had accorded him recognition. If Dunbar had lived he would have achieved some of those dreams, but even while he talked so dejectedly to me he seemed to feel that he was not to live. He died when he was only thirty-three. (James Weldon Johnson, Preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry)

One way of historicizing the trajectory of African American Poetry in the 1910s and 20s (again, "modernism" might not be an important analytical distinction here) is as marked by a shift away from vernacular and folk culture style, and towards civil rights / social justice concerns, as well as an engagement with established poetic forms like the sonnet. (A good place to see that conversation spelled out explicitly is William Stanley Braithwaite's essay "The Negro in American Literature" [1925]) 

Bronze and Harlem Shadows 

Both of the other poets I'll talk about now -- who published breakthrough collections of poetry in 1922 -- exemplify those two dynamics. Let's start with Georgia Douglas Johnson, whose collection Bronze appeared in 1922 with a preface by W.E.B. Du Bois. For African American readers at the time, Johnson would have been a very familiar name, as she had published many poems in The Crisis throughout the 1910s, and also published an earlier collection called The Heart of a Woman. For Johnson, the turn to race-conscious poetry in Bronze reflected a conscious choice, as she described in a letter to Arna Bontemps in 1941: 

My first book was The Heart of a Woman. It was not at all race conscious. Then some one said--she has no feeling for the race. So I wrote Bronze--it is entirely racial and one section deals entirely with motherhood--that motherhood that has as its basic note--black children born to the world's displeasure. (cited in Hull, 160)

Looking at Johnson's prodigious output in The Crisis in the 1910s, I cannot help but think that her later comments undersell the degree to which her poems from the period leading up to 1922 were already deeply invested in racial justice themes. From Bronze, the poems I find most memorable and compelling are the ones that explore race and racism using traditional forms, like "Sonnet to the Mantled," or those that have a personal tone ("Black Woman").

Don’t knock at my door, little child,
I cannot let you in.
You know not what a world this is
Of cruelty and sin.
Wait in the still eternity
Until I come to you,
The world is cruel, cruel, child, 
I cannot let you in! 
Don’t knock at my heart, little one,
I cannot bear the pain
Of turning deaf-ear to your call
Time and time again!
You do not know the monster men
Inhabiting the earth.
Be still, be still, my precious child,
I must not give you birth!


Finally, 1922 also saw the New York publication of Claude McKay's Harlem Shadows (Harcourt, Brace, and Company), with prefaces by both Max Eastman and the author himself. This is not quite as big a breakthrough as it is sometimes presented to be, since McKay had published many of the poems in Harlem Shadows in the collection in an earlier, British collection called Spring in New Hampshire, but it is undoubtedly still an important moment for African American poetry (and Afro-Caribbean poetry!) as a whole. 

Again, the most powerful poems in this collection bring together social justice themes with traditional forms -- like the sonnet, "America":

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.


Harlem Shadows also of course contains "If We Must Die," the pro-Bolshevik poem, "Exhortation: Summer 1919," and "The Lynching." McKay notably left out some of the more propagandistic communist poetry he had been publishing in Workers Dreadnought. And while he did engage with themes of migration and his Jamaican background in several poems, none of the poems in Harlem Shadows use the patois he had used to great effect in his first two collections of poetry (for collections of all of this material, see my digital project, Claude McKay's Early Poetry).

In terms of African American literature more broadly, the key innovation perhaps in McKay's collection might be the "Harlem" themed poems ("Harlem Dancer"), and even the branding of the collection using the title Harlem Shadows. This idea -- the space of Harlem as an emerging Black metropolis, and as a hub of African American nightlife, music, and street culture -- proved to be a hugely influential one. The Harlem Renaissance poets who would emerge a few years later, especially Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen (along with many others) would embrace Harlem settings and take them further. McKay's ability to use his collection of poems to help create a sense of an African American literary space of invention seems to be the real breakthrough -- and the reason literary historians tend to invoke Harlem Shadows much more than Spring in New Hampshire or Constab Ballads

1922 in The Crisis

The accounts I've given above are by no means comprehensive; there was quite a bit going on elsewhere, including especially in African American periodicals. Perhaps most significant for many readers, both Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen were beginning to publish in these magazines (by 1923, The Messenger and Opportunity would also begin to publish poetry.) Their main works were still largely ahead, though Hughes' poem "The Negro" represents an aesthetic and intellectual breakthrough for the young college dropout:

I am a Negro:
Black as the night is black,
Black like the depths of my Africa.
I've been a slave:
Caesar told me to keep his door-steps clean .
I brushed the boots of Washington.

I've been a worker:
Under my hand the pyramids arose.
I made mortar for the Woolworth Building.

I've been a singer:
All the way from Africa to Georgia
I carried my sorrow songs.
I made ragtime. 
I've been a victim:
The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo.
They lynch me now in Texas.

I am a Negro:
Black as the night is black,
Black like the depths of my Africa.

I will wind up here with a list of a few other poems published in The Crisis from 1922, and encourage readers to explore them:

Langston Hughes, "The Negro"  ("Proem" in The Weary Blues)