Johnson, Georgia Douglas (Camp)
JOHNSON, Georgia Douglas (Camp)
Born 10 September 1886, Atlanta, Georgia; died May 1966, Washington, D.C.
Also wrote under: Paul Tremaine
Daughter of George and Laura Jackson Camp; married Henry L.Johnson, 1903
Little is known about Georgia Douglas Johnson's early childhood or her parents. She studied at Atlanta University (through the Normal program) and Oberlin College, Ohio. In 1909 she moved to Washington, D.C., with her lawyer husband. While living in the capital, Johnson wrote lyrics, poetry, short stories, and plays. She established the Literary Salon, a weekly Saturday night meeting place for a burgeoning group of young poets, including many of the Harlem Renaissance writers. Johnson was active in several literary organizations, the Republican party, the pan-African movement, and human rights groups connected with the Congregational church. Following her husband's death in 1925, she became a commissioner of conciliation with the Department of Labor (1925-34), held other government positions, remained active in racial and political organizations in New York and Washington, and continued to publish individual poems sporadically.
Johnson was the first black female to receive national recognition as a poet since Francis Harper, an abolitionist writer. Although her three major volumes were published within a 10-year span, each represents a distinctly different period in her life, flowing from the naive inquiry found in The Heart of a Woman (1918), through the pain and deprivation of being black recorded in Bronze (1922), to the mature acceptance of grief expressed in Autumn Love Cycle (1928). Johnson received many awards not only for her poetry but for her plays and short stories. Although Johnson's literary strength is found in her poetry, her plays and short stories remain significant to the development of black American literature from a literary as well as from a political and a historical perspective.
The 62 poems in The Heart of a Woman are four-, eight-, and 12-line queries regarding the nature of womanhood. While many of these poems are trite, Johnson expresses a haunting sensitivity toward women's unfulfilled aspirations in "The Dreams of the Dreamer" and "Dead Leaves." Although sadness prevails in this volume, Johnson does not paint a bleak picture of womanhood. She finds solace in nature ("Peace" and "When I am Dead") and fulfillment in requited love ("Mate"). Johnson apparently believed that women were destined to the life of a voyeur—declaring that they lacked the freedom to express themselves openly, that they lacked the means of fulfilling their dreams, and that only through their lovers could they fully experience life.
Bronze is an energetic expression of the pain, humiliations, and fears of a 1920s black woman. The 65 poems in this volume are grouped under nine headings. Johnson's greatest literary contribution to an understanding of womanhood and of her era is found in the 10 poems in the "Motherhood" section. "Maternity" expresses a mixture of emotions as a child is awaited: pride is coupled with fear that, at worst, the child would be lynched and, at best, rejected by the world. "Black Woman" implies that it is cruel to bring black children into this world.
In Autumn Love Cycle, an obvious stylistic and thematic maturity is displayed. Johnson's dominant theme is the depth of mature love, as expressed in "I Want to Die While You Love Me," "Autumn," and " Afterglow," but there is the fear that lost youth can result in infidelity or in impotency. Many of these poems were probably written during the period when her husband suffered three strokes and eventually died. A dozen of the poems describe her adjustment to life without the physical presence of love.
Johnson, together with other black writers after World War I, was responsible for bringing black poetry out of the bonds of dialect and into the realm of a high art form. The poets of her period eventually were overshadowed by the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, but their importance to the movement should not be underestimated. Johnson's significance as both a black and a woman writer cannot be denied.
Blue Blood (1927). Plumes: Folk Tragedy (1927).
Bontemps, A., ed., American Negro Poetry (1974). Bontemps, A., The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (1972). Henderson, D. F., "Georgia Douglas Johnson: A Study of Her Life and Literature" (thesis, 1995). Hull, G. T., Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance (1987). Johnson, J. W., The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922). King, E. C., "The Construction of the South by Southern Woman Playwrights" (thesis, 1996). Locke, A., The New Negro: An Interpretation (1968). Martin-Liggins, S. M., "Georgia Douglas Johnson: The Voice of Oppression" (thesis, 1996). Mays, B., The Negro's God As Reflected in His Literature (1968). Shockley, A. A., Afro-American Women Writers (1988). White, N., and W. Jackson, eds., An Anthology of Verse by American Negroes (1924). Whitmore, W., "Georgia Douglas Johnson: An Artist Out of Time" (thesis, 1981).
Black American Writers Past and Present (1975). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Crisis (Dec. 1952). Journal of Negro History (July 1972). Obsidian (Spring/Summer 1979).
—LINDA S. BERRY