Wiggins, Bernice Love

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WIGGINS, Bernice Love

Born 4 March 1897, Austin, Texas; death date unknown

Daughter of J. Austin Love; married (Mr.) Wiggins

Bernice Wiggins may never have lived with her father, a college-educated black poet who worked as a laborer and later became state Sunday-school director for the Holiness church. When her mother died in 1902, Wiggins went to El Paso to live with an aunt. She grew up without a home library, but her first-grade teacher encouraged her in her habit of inventing and reciting rhythmical lines. In high school, Wiggins learned "some-thing of the art of versification"—perhaps to her detriment, as her weakest poems are those that follow the conventions of white writing of her day. Folklorist J. Mason Brewer praises Wiggins as a dialect poet, calling her the best of her contemporaries and comparing her favorably with Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Wiggins' reputation was probably made chiefly through performances in her own community. One of her poems, "Miss Annie's Playing," is marked for piano accompaniment. "Church Folks," a satire in dialect, was immortalized by J. Mason Brewer, who not only published it but also recited it to open all his speeches during several decades. Wiggins also had poems published in the black press, including the Houston Informer, the Chicago Defender, and Half-Century Magazine. Much of her work deals with political issues: poverty, racism, women's rights, lynching, the black soldier's role in World War I. She even essays a work on the injustice of the laws against prostitution, in which she assumes the persona of a "vampire."

In 1925 Wiggins herself published a book of her poems called Tuneful Tales. This 174-page volume is the chief storehouse of her work, and its introduction by her former high school principal is almost the only published source of biographical data. J. Mason Brewer mentions in 1936 that Wiggins had moved to Los Angeles. No further books by Wiggins have come to light.

The best poems in Tuneful Tales are characterized by excellent scansion, good narrative flow, and marvelous attention to detail. In "A Race with a Corpse," a broadly humorous ballad, Wiggins carefully lays the groundwork by stating, "dis t'ing yo' call 'Embalmin'/ Didn't hab dat in my day," and filling in details of a church funeral. Often her poems are tragicomic. In "Who's to Blame," a man walks home in the snow and puts his only pair of shoes in the oven to dry. In the morning, his mother has built a fire and reduced the shoes to cinders. Wiggins' characteristically loving tone comes through as the character ponders, "who's I gwine to blame fo' it,/ De party or de weather?" He does not blame his mother or himself.

Wiggins often does fresh and original work in male personas. Her "Sighs of a Soldier," for instance, picks up the voice of a black G.I., responding to "dis sawed off Sarjunt": "He 'lows, 'Whose givin' orders here?' 'Alright,' I sez, 'I'se cumin'.'/ 'Why surtainly, I no yo' is, mak' 'ace, an' cum a runin'."'

In "Ethiopia," Wiggins observes that black patriots answered the call to arms only to face a resurgence of lynching at home. She suggests, through the persona of the race itself, the radical step of revoking loyalty to the nation: "Take it back till they cease to burn them alive,/ Take it back till the white man shall cease to deprive/My sons, yea, my black sons, of rights justly won." In the next stanza, the author comments: "Mary forgave, 'twas her Savior son's will,/ Ethiopia forgives, but remembers still."

In "The Poetical Farmwife," Wiggins explains why it is difficult to write while doing housework. Yet many of her best works deal with relationships between parents and children and sacrifices lovingly made for family. More of her writing may be discovered among the papers of her friends or in the archives of churches or schools in one of her communities.


Brewer, J.M., Heralding Dawn (1936).