by Kim Roberts
Poetic Ancestors, Issue 13:4, Fall 2012
Georgia Douglas Johnson is a hero of mine, a talented poet and community builder who organized and hosted a weekly literary salon in her Washington, DC home during the time we’ve come to call the Harlem Renaissance.
Of all the sites associated with that time period, my favorite by far is Half-Way House, Johnson’s home, which still stands at 1461 S Street NW, in the greater U Street neighborhood. Gathering weekly for cake, wine (even during Prohibition), and stimulating discussions, the Saturday Nighters Club brought together the era’s young, ambitious writers as well as older mentors. Regular attendees included: Kelly Miller, dean of Howard University; his daughter, the playwright May Miller (who would, forty years later, be one of the first Arts Commissioners for the brand new DC Commission on the Arts); critic and anthologist Alain Locke; historian Carter G. Woodson; Angelina Weld Grimké, the author of the first play by an African American to receive a fully-staged, professional production; writer and actor Richard Bruce Nugent; essayist and playwright Marita Bonner; poet and short story writer Alice Dunbar Nelson (who had outlived her famous first husband Paul Laurence Dunbar and trekked in regularly from her home in Baltimore); poet and musician Waring Cuney; and novelists Jessie Fauset, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale Hurston.
Langston Hughes was a regular at the Saturday Nighters Club. In his autobiography, The Big Sea, Hughes wrote: Georgia Douglas Johnson, a charming woman poet, who had two sons in college, turned her house into a salon for us on Saturday nights…[we] used to come there to eat Mrs. Johnsons cake and drink her wine and talk poetry and books and plays…My two years in Washington were unhappy years, except for poetry and the friends I made through poetry. I wrote many poems. I always put them away new for several weeks in a bottom drawer. Then I would take them out and re-read them. If they seemed bad, I would throw them away. They would all seem good when I wrote them and, usually, bad when I would look at them again. So most of them were thrown away.
Jessie Fauset, a novelist and the editor of The Crisis Magazine, wrote to Hughes on August 3, 1925: Im so glad youre seeing Mrs. Johnsonshe is so kind and charming and stimulating. I covet her disposition. Cultivate hershe will be balm to your troubled spirit. Others admired her for her calming influence as well.
Evenings consisted of discussions centered on historical and cultural topics, alternating with evenings in which writers shared and critiqued one another’s work-in-progress. Johnson was an excellent leader. As Elizabeth McHenry writes in Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies (Duke University Press, 2002): “She took it upon herself to invite talented but undiscovered individuals she came across to participate in the Saturday Nighters’ weekly meetings and did not hesitate to mention the names of those whose work she believed should receive recognition to the prominent literary figures whose influences she knew could advance their careers…While the door was always open to new members, and members were welcome to bring their friends and literary colleagues to the meetings, Johnson acted decisively if she felt that a new attendee might limit the Saturday Nighters’ productivity. The gentle but firm control she exerted over the group is confirmed by J.C. Byars, a Washington journalist and poet. In his 1927 anthology of Washington writers he noted that Johnson monitored those who attended her Saturday evening meetings: ‘If dull ones come, she weeds them out, gently, effectively. The Negro’s predicament is such, Mrs. Johnson believes, that only the white people can afford to have dull leaders.'”
For writers, working in isolation, such community gathering sites are crucial connections. For younger writers especially, a group such as this serves as a first real audience. By taking younger writers seriously, Johnson allowed them to take themselves seriously as well. By creating this point of connection, Johnson not only helped birth the Harlem Renaissance, she helped jump-start literary modernism in general. And this is part of her fascination for me, since she was not fully a modernist herself. Instead, her work serves as a bridge between older and newer writing styles and sensibilities.
Georgia Douglas Johnson was the author of four books of poems, six plays, and 32 song lyrics, making her the best-published woman author of the Harlem Renaissance. In the introduction to her second book, Bronze, she wrote this credo: “This book is the child of a bitter earth-wound. I sit on the earth and singsing out, and of, my sorrow. Yet, fully conscious of the potent agencies that silently work in their healing ministries, I know that God’s sun shall one day shine upon a perfected and unhampered people.”
Much of her work addresses love and personal relationships, and much of it is aracial. Johnson wrote in a 1941 letter to Arna Bontemps: “Whenever I can, I forget my special call to sorrow, and live as happily as I may. Perhaps that is why I seldom elect to write racially. It seems to me an art to forget those things that make the heart heavy. If one can soar, he should soar, leaving his chains behind. But, lest we forget, we must now and then come down to earth, accept the yoke and help draw the load.”
Born in 1877, she married and raised two sons. After her husband’s death in 1925, she became the family’s primary wage earner, working at a series of government jobs, including for the DC Public Schools and the US Department of Labor, and selling freelance articles to newspapers, earning enough to send both her sons to college.
She began publishing actively in 1916, prior to the start of the Harlem Renaissance period, and her first book, The Heart of a Woman, came out in 1918, followed by Bronze: A Book of Verse in 1922, and An Autumn Love Cycle in 1928. A final book of poems, Share My World, was self-published in 1962 near the end of her life. Her newspaper column, “Homely Philosophy,” was syndicated to twenty newspapers between 1926 and 1932.
A gifted organizer, a generous friend, a mentor to many, Johnson hosted her salons weekly from 1921 to approximately 1928; she continued hosting gatherings more sporadically through the Great Depression and into the early 1940s. She wrote that she named her house Half-Way House because “I’m half way between everybody and everything, and I bring them together.”
Owen Dodson wrote, “She took in anybodyold lame dogs, blind cats…Then she took in stray peoplemostly artists who were out of money. People like Zora Neale Hurston who stayed there…or some artists who were a little bezerk. And she was capable of giving them a soothing balm. She knew how to do for people. Of course, the house was a mess! You’ve never been in any house like it! When you entered the hallway, you knew that you were entering another country.”
In an undated letter to Langston Hughes (probably from 1930), she wrote: “I have been fortunate in having the friendship of all of you winged artists. It has been one of my blessings. Somehow all that I have missed in the big ways of the world with its fanfare of trumpets, have more than been compensated for through the fragrant friendships I have known.”
Three Poems by Georgia Douglas Johnson
THE HEART OF A WOMAN (1918)
The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars,
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.
LITTLE SON (1922)
The very acme of my woe,
The pivot of my pride,
My consolation, and my hope
Deferred, but not denied.
The substance of my every dream,
The riddle of my plight,
The very world epitomized
In turmoil and delight.
Through you I entered heaven and hell,
Knew rapture and despair,
I flitted o’er the plains of earth
And scaled each shining stair:
Drank deep the waters of content,
And drained the cup of gall,
Was regal and was impotent,
Was suzerain and thrall.
Now, by Reflection’s placid pool
On evening’s mellowed brow,
I smile across the backward way
And pledge anew my vow;
For every glancing, golden gleam,
I offer gladlypain!
And I would give a thousand worlds
To live it all again!
Johnson’s four books of poems are, alas, long out of print. But she is included in most anthologies of African American literature, including:
The Poetry of the Negro: 1746-1970, ed. Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps
Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets, ed. Countee Cullen
The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry, ed. Arnold Rampersad
Harlem’s Glory: Black Women Writing, 1900-1950, ed. Lorraine Elena Roses and Ruth
Nonfiction on Johnson’s life and influence include
Color Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance by Gloria T. Hull
Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies by Elizabeth McHenry
To read more about Georgia Douglas Johnson
Valerie Jean on Georgia Douglas Johnson: Memorial Issue
An earlier version of this essay was first presented at the 2011 Associated Writers and Writing Programs Annual Conference in Washington, DC, in a panel entitled “Four by Four: Beltway Poetry Quarterly Celebrates the Poetic Lineage of the Capitol City.” The panel was moderated by Holly Bass, and the presenters, in addition to Roberts, were Regie Cabico, Brian Gilmore, and Dan Vera. The author wishes to thank all four of them, and Francisco Aragón as well, who helped her to develop the idea for the panel.
Georgia Douglas Johnson (September 10, 1880? - May 14, 1966) was one of the best-published women writers of the Harlem Renaissance era. She published four books of poems: The Heart of a Woman (1918), Bronze (1922), An Autumn Love Cycle (1928), and Share My World (1962). In addition, she wrote plays, song lyrics, and journalism. She worked for the DC Public Schools and the US Department of Labor, and her newspaper column, "Homely Philosophy," was syndicated to twenty newspapers between 1926 and 1932. After her husband's death in 1925, she raised two sons on her own. A gifted organizer, a generous friend, a mentor to many, Johnson hosted weekly salons in her home at 1461 S Street NW in DC from 1921 to approximately 1928; she continued hosting gatherings more sporadically through the Great Depression and into the early 1940s. To read more about Georgia Douglas Johnson: Valerie Jean on Georgia Douglas Johnson: Memorial Issue
Kim Roberts is the editor of the anthology By Broad Potomac’s Shore: Great Poems from the Early Days of our Nation’s Capital (University of Virginia Press, 2020), selected by the East Coast Centers for the Book for the 2021 Route 1 Reads program as the book that “best illuminates important aspects” of the culture of Washington, DC. She is the author of A Literary Guide to Washington, DC: Walking in the Footsteps of American Writers from Francis Scott Key to Zora Neale Hurston (University of Virginia Press, 2018), and five books of poems, most recently The Scientific Method (WordTech Editions, 2017). http://www.kimroberts.org