Johnson, Georgia Douglas 1880–1966
Georgia Douglas Johnson 1880–1966
Poet, playwright, columnist, writer
Georgia Douglas Johnson was the first moden African-American female poet to gain widespread recognition. As part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Johnson gave a voice to black women through her passionate poems. Although she was criticized for not addressing racial issues in her poetry, Johnson tackled these serious issues in her plays and short stories. Johnson is the most prolific and varied black woman writer of her time. She wrote hundreds of poems and dozens of plays, short stories, newspaper articles, and songs.
Georgia Blanche Douglas Camp was born on September 10 in Atlanta, Georgia. Her birth year has been reported as early as 1877 or as late as 1886, but most sources indicate it was most likely 1880. Her mother was Laura Jackson Camp and her father was George Camp. Johnson was of mixed ancestry including black and Native American on her mother’s side and black and possibly white on her father’s side. Not much is known of her father except that his family descended from England. Johnson grew up in Rome, Georgia, where she attended public schools. She did not have any siblings and was not very social in school. Her writings reflected a lonely childhood.
Johnson attended Atlanta University Normal School and graduated in 1893. She briefly worked as a teacher and as an assistant principal in Atlanta and Marietta, Georgia. Johnson was very interested in music as a child and she taught herself to play the violin. She then attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio in 1902 and later went to the Cleveland College of Music. At these institutions Johnson was trained in music, harmony, violin, piano, and voice. As a young woman Johnson was interested in musical composition, but she soon turned to lyrical poetry instead. “Long years ago when the world was new for me, I dreamed of being a composer—wrote songs, many of them,” Johnson was quoted in Gloria T. Hull’s book Color, Sex, and Poetry.
In 1903 Johnson married Henry Lincoln Johnson, who was an attorney and prominent member of the Republican Party. Her husband was born to ex-slaves in 1870. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Atlanta
At a Glance …
Born Georgia Blanche Douglas Camp on September 10, 1880, in Atlanta, GA; died on May 14, 1966, in Washington, DC; married Henry Lincoln Johnson in 1903 (died September 10, 1925); children: Henry Lincoln, Jr., Peter Douglas. Education: Atlanta University Normal School, 1893; attended Oberlin Conservatory of Music, 1902; attended Cleveland College of Music; attended Howard University. Politics: Republican.
Career: Teacher and assistant principal, 1893–1903; poet, playwright, columnist, short-story writer, 1916–62; U.S. Department of Labor, Commissioner of Conciliation, 1925–35.
Memberships: American Society of African Culture; DC Matrons; DC Women’s Party; League for the Abolition of Capital Punishment; League of American Writers; League of Neighbors; National Song Writers Guild; New York City Civic Club; Poet Laureate League; Poet’s Council of the National Women’s Party; Poets League of Washington; Washington Social Letter Club; Writers’ League Against Lynching.
Awards: Honorable mention for Blue Blood, Opportunity magazine poetry contest, 1926; First place for Plumes, Opportunity magazine poetry contest, 1927; Third prize, poetry contest, D.C Federation of Women’s Clubs; honorary doctorate, Atlanta University, 1965.
University in 1888 and a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1892. The couple had two sons together. Henry Lincoln Johnson, Jr. was born in 1906 and Peter Douglas Johnson was born in 1907. In 1910 the young family moved to Washington, D.C. At some point Johnson took classes at Howard University, but it is not known what she studied or for how long. Henry Johnson was appointed to the position of recorder of deeds by President William Howard Taft in 1912. This was a government position that was traditionally held by black men since Frederick Douglass. Johnson was reappointed by President Wilson in 1916 but his second appointment was not confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Johnson served as the Republican National Committeeman from Georgia from 1920 until his death in 1925.
During the 1920s the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing as African Americans were making significant contributions to American literature. The period between World War I and the Depression saw the emergence of many prominent black writers. “The peculiar blend of romanticism, hedonism, anger, and faith in the capacity of art to effect change makes the twenties as a special time, one that has lessons for us today about the nature of racism and the Black artist’s relationship to political change. For Black women, especially, this was a time of expansion, renewal, and promise,” explained Maureen Honey in Shadowed Dreams. The literary movement was not confined to New York and Johnson quickly asserted herself as one of the leading black female poets of that era. She even opened her home in Washington, D.C., as a salon for writers to gather to read and discuss their works. The Saturday Nighters’ Club attracted many prominent African-American writers including Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Angelina Grimke, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Marita Bonner.
In 1916 Johnson published her first three poems called “Gossamer,” “Fame,” and “My Little One” in Crisis magazine. This was the beginning of a prolific writing career that would span 50 years. In 1918 Johnson published her first book of poetry called The Heart of a Woman. The book consisted of lyrical poetry and addressed the difficulties and frustrations faced by women. The poems were full of emotions and the prominent themes were nature, love, desire, sorrow, death, memory, aging, solitude, and joy. While some critics have called this book stereotypically sentimental, others have recognized it as a deeply autobiographical work with feminist awareness. Johnson’s style of writing reflected her musical inspirations. “Into my poems I poured the longing for music,” Johnson was quoted as saying by Claire Buck in the Bloomsbury Guide to Women’s Literature.
Johnson’s first book was also criticized by the African-American community for not explicitly addressing racial issues. “Rejected by white women and ignored by black men, Afro-American women were not permitted to comfortably support both causes,” explained Lorraine Elena Roses and Ruth Elizabeth Randolph in Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. Johnson responded directly to this criticism with her next book of poetry called Bronze, which was published in 1922. In these poems Johnson wrote about interracial relationships and the difficulties of mothering in a racist world. Although she was not necessarily comfortable writing poems about race, her efforts were applauded by the African-American community. In the introduction to Bronze, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “those who know what it means to be a colored woman in 1922—and know it not so much in fact as in feeling, apprehension, unrest and delicate yet stern thought—must read Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Bronze. ” Later critics have cited Bronze as Johnson’s weakest book of poetry and Gloria T. Hull referred to it as “obligatory racial poetry” in her book Color, Sex, and Poetry.
Johnson was probably the most prolific black woman writer of her time. Although many of her works were not published or preserved, she is credited with writing over 200 poems, 40 plays, and 30 songs, and editing 100 books between 1918 and 1930. This volume of work is even more impressive given the demands of being a wife and a mother as well as an author. Henry Johnson wanted his wife to be a traditional mother and homemaker and he was frustrated when her writing interfered with these duties. Nonetheless, he continued to support Johnson financially while she wrote and he even quoted her poems in some of his political speeches. Johnson’s financial situation changed dramatically when her husband died of a cerebral hemorrhage on September 10, 1925. At the age of 45 Johnson was left to support her sons’ educations on her own. She succeeded in not only paying for college for both boys, but also supporting Henry’s law degree and Peter’s medical degree.
In 1925 Johnson was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge as commissioner of conciliation for the Department of Labor. She continued to write despite her additional responsibilities. In 1926 Johnson wrote her first play called Blue Blood about the rape of black women by white men in the South after the Civil War. The play earned an honorable mention from Opportunity magazine’s play contest. A year later Johnson won first place in the same competition with her folk tragedy called Plumes. In 1928 Johnson published her third book of poetry called An Autumn Love Cycle, where she returned to writing about themes with which she was comfortable, namely a woman in love. This book is considered her best volume of poetry. From 1926 until 1932 Johnson also wrote a weekly newspaper column called “Homely Philosophy” that was syndicated in 20 newspapers across the country.
The Great Depression was difficult for Johnson, as it was for many Harlem Renaissance writers. In 1934 she lost her job at the department of labor and she supported herself with temporary work as a substitute teacher, librarian, and file clerk. She also continually applied for fellowships to support her writing. In 1934 Johnson won third prize in a poetry contest sponsored by the D.C. Federation of Women’s Clubs. She also continued to write plays, although only five of her plays were ever published and only three were ever produced. Johnson submitted several plays to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Federal Theater Project. Two of these plays were historical skits of slaves searching for freedom and three of them were drama about rape and lynching. All of her submissions were rejected because of the politically-charged themes. Johnson is known as a significant contributor to the genre of “lynching plays.” During the 1920s and 1930s, hundreds of African Americans were lynched annually and Johnson was compelled to speak out against the practice. Most of these plays were not published, however, because the content was considered depressing. Johnson wrote other plays that focused on the lives of average African Americans or that discussed racial intolerance.
Johnson remained an active writer until her death, although she published little in her later years of life. During World War II she read her poetry over the radio. She also began writing short stories. Johnson used many pseudonyms throughout her career so it is difficult for literary critics to account for all of her works. However, three of her short stories were written under the pseudonym “Paul Tremaine.” In her later years Johnson also returned to her first passion of song writing. Johnson’s last book of poetry, Share My World, was published in 1962 when she was 82 years old. Three years later she received an honorary doctorate from Atlanta University for her great contributions to American literature. Johnson died of a stroke on May 14, 1966 in Washington, D.C.
The Heart of a Woman, The Cornhill Company, Boston, MA, 1918.
Bronze, B.J. Brimmer Company, Boston, MA, 1922.
An Autumn Love Cycle, Harold Vinal, Ltd., New York, 1928.
Share My World, Washington, D.C, 1962.
The Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson, Prentice Hall International, New York, 1997.
A Sunday Morning in the South: A One Act Play, Washington, 1924.
Blue Blood, Appleton Publishing, New York, 1927.
Plumes: Folk Tragedy, French, New York, 1927.
Attucks, (never produced) 1930s.
Frederick Douglass, (never produced) 1930s.
The Starting Point, (never produced) 1930s.
William and Ellen Craft, (never produced) 1930s.
Arata, Esther Spring, and Nicholas John Rotoli, Black American Playwrights, 1800 to the Present, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1976.
Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, Yale University Press, 1990.
Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth (ed.), Wines in the Wilderness: Plays by African-American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, Greenwood Press, 1990.
Buck, Claire, The Bloomsbury Guide to Women’s Literature, Prentice Hall General Reference, 1992.
Estell, Kenneth (ed.), The African-American Almanac, Gale Research, Inc., 1994.
Hine, Darlene Clark (ed.), Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Carlson Publishing, Inc., 1993.
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Hull, Gloria T., Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Indiana University Press, 1987.
Knox, Marcy (ed.), The Sleeper Wakes: Harlem Renaissance Stories by Women, Rutgers University Press, 1993.
Krasner, David, A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910–1927, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
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—Janet P. Stamatel
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