Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Escape

When I look through an old anthology like Locke’s The New Negro from 1925, my eye is not just looking for the well-known work featured there, but to the ones that somehow got overlooked, and that’s how today’s piece “Escape”  by lesser-known Black poet Georgia Douglas Johnson came to my attention. Unlike Countee Cullen from last time, or several other authors in that handsome book that served as the bound and determined launch point of what would be called The Harlem Renaissance, I don’t think I even knew Johnson’s name.

Why would I not know Johnson’s work, or even her name? I’ve got some initial theories. Like a few others classed as part of the Harlem Renaissance (old favorites from this blog Anne Spencer and Fenton Johnson are two others) she never spent any significant time in New York City, and so missed out on the direct network effects of that vibrant cultural scene. She was a woman, and by 1925 that was not where literary culture was focused. She was politically engaged, but as far as I can tell, not closely associated with the Communist left that was an important nexus for Afro-American radicalism between the world wars, and her early poetry from which The New Negro  had to draw from was more like the work of some other American women poets* of her time: lyrical, interested in presenting complex interpersonal relations and emotions considered at the time as being outside of politics.

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Georgia Douglas Johnson, 16 of her lines brought her to my attention, and now to yours.

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Johnson spent most of her life in Washington D. C. where she was married to a man who had a lower-level government job when her first books of poetry were published. The short biographical notes say that her husband wasn’t fully supportive of her literary efforts — but then her situation changed again without advantage when she was widowed at age 45 with two children to support. Somewhat like one of my grandmothers, she was forced to scramble for low-paying clerical jobs that were among the few open to middle-aged women in the days when the want ads were as segregated by gender** as many public accommodations were by race.

One good thing that came to her from widowhood was that she founded a long-standing literary salon in her modest home in Washington which seems to have been — like Anne Spencer’s home in Lynchburg, Virginia — a place to celebrate, support, and promote Afro-American thought, activism, and arts.

But if it’s her poem that brought Johnson to my attention instead of her fame, we should move onto that. “Escape”  is another of those short lyric poems that can seem slight on first reading, something that might justify itself solely for being musical on the page. Here’s a link to the text of the poem if you’d like to follow along. Yet, if one looks closely at what it’s saying, its insight should come forward. This is a poem of withdrawal into solitude to escape sorrow. Though short, the poem makes clear this isn’t some kind of graceful meditative solitude either. She calls it a “black abyss.” Though the cause of the sorrow that the poem’s speaker is fleeing is not stated, I note that Georgia Douglas Johnson genders this pursuing sorrow as “She.***”  If one stays with the poem a bit, as I had to as I composed today’s music and figured out how to perform it, its easy to consider that the poem’s speaker’s “Escape” has her fleeing one sorrow for another, and an even lonelier one at that.

Here’s another quick judgement to avoid with this or other poems. Johnson isn’t necessarily advocating for what the speaker of the poem describes. Because the poem doesn’t go into specifics, we are free to supply from our own experience what is the sorrow that has caused the poem’s speaker to flee to an abyss. Patriarchy? Racism? Poverty? The struggle to create art in a society that has many competitors to that? Something else?

Johnson’s life tells us she fought off that sorrow, suspended herself from that abyss of loneliness, sought to advance her art and other Black artists, and to redress the inequalities of racism. I think she left us with a statement about what such sorrowful obstacles feel like, and it also tells us, “Yes, I know how that feels — but it’s a trap.”

Besides composing today’s music, I made two additions to Johnson’s words for today’s presentation of “Escape.”  Because I was attracted to the “music of thought” in how Johnson uses parallels/refrains in her account of fleeing from sorrow, I decided to end the piece with the same word, “sorrow” that ended the first stanza. A second addition happened as I was performing the song. As I got to the second or third take, I started to sense somehow a song by the American composer Moondog was asking to be let in, and so I sang a phrase from his piece “Loneliness”  using the variation of his lyric that Janis Joplin used when she sang it.

Musically, I think it’s an interesting chord progression I used. The song is in the key of E, but besides using the obligatory 5th more as a passing tone, I dwell on the key of E’s 2nd and 6th degrees in this piece. The player gadget to hear my performance of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “Escape”  should be below, but if you don’t have it in your blog viewer, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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*Examples of non-Black American woman writers working with these subjects include Sara Teasdale, early Genevieve Taggard, Elinor Wylie, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Taggard and Millay were moving to political engagement in causes also championed by male writers by this time, and Georgia Douglas Johnson is noted in many passing mentions of her work as also being an anti-lynching activist. For Taggard and Millay this change in subject matter didn’t really prevent them from being de-emphasized by the more male-centric literary culture of mid-century America.

**I don’t know how many young people read this blog, but when I was growing up a great many job listings were printed in pages of small print in daily newspapers. Hard as it may be to believe, they were explicitly split into jobs for men and jobs for women.

***My reading? This is something she feels women may inflict on themselves.

In Memory of Colonel Charles Young

A new month, and I hope to have some new pieces here with a focus on February and Black History Month. It’s also a new year, and there are now some new books and works available in the public domain that I can freely adapt for use here.

I found today’s piece “In Memory of Colonel Charles Young”  while reading one of those newly PD books, Alain Locke’s anthology The New Negro, An Interpretation published in 1925. This book was something of the premier book-length publication of what became known as The Harlem Renaissance. Unlike James Weldon Johnson’s anthology of just three years prior, The Book of American Negro Poetry, Locke’s book was a collection containing only the work of living writers, and with a particular focus on younger Afro-Americans who were just then coming to the fore. And so it is that after an introductory essay on “Negro Youth Speaks*”  by Locke that I began to read his selection of youth of his day with the first poet in the alphabetical section: Countee Cullen.

illustration of Countee Cullen by Winold Reiss from The New Negro

Locke’s The New Negro is a beautiful book too, with striking woodcuts and illustrations of the authors.

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Let me once more demonstrate the gaps in my scholarly education. I knew Cullen’s name and little else about him. The various short literary assessments I’ve since read to get some quick handle on him concentrate on his eventual estrangement from the development of Afro-American literature and poetic Modernism in general because his verse used 19th century Romantic poets as its models, and as his career progressed there was a feeling that his youthful promise didn’t sufficiently develop. After the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance passed by, Cullen in the 1940s was teaching middle school. One of the young teenagers he taught? A kid named James Baldwin.

So, what stood out as I came upon “In Memory of Colonel Charles Young”  in Locke’s anthology? Well, there’s a mystery there for one thing. The poem read alone on the page seems to evoke something, but I suspect few readers will grasp what it means. Here’s a link to the text of Cullen’s poem. For me, and probably for you, that mystery starts right-off with the title. You may well ask: who the hell is Colonel Charles Young? Why would this young Afro-American be writing a poem about him? I need to tell you a story.

It starts in 1865. The American Civil War is raging. An enslaved Black man in Kentucky, Gabriel Young, escapes to Ohio leaving his wife and one-year-old son in order to join the Union army. After the end of the war, Gabriel uses his veterans’ pension to buy some land and a house for his young family. That toddler grows up to be a very sharp student, graduating first in his class in his high school. Perhaps thinking of the way his father had used military service to advance himself, that young man, Charles Young, decides to enter the U. S. Army military academy at West Point in 1884.

To say the least this was not an established path for an Afro-American in 1884. Indeed, Charles Young was only the second Afro-American to attend, and the first had entered only the year before and would become Young’s roommate at the school. The Academy had a well-established culture of hazing and a peer-discipline system based on fellow students issuing demerits on their own initiative. These pioneering Black students where therefore subject to every racist and discriminatory action the white student body could generate, and it was all so-easily cloakable as “tradition.”

Young persevered through all that, graduated, and was given his commission as a second lieutenant. He began his career in the still segregated U. S. Army in Nebraska and Utah with an Afro-American cavalry regiment. In 1894 he was assigned to Wilberforce College back in Ohio where he established the military services department at that historically Black college. He left there to serve during the Spanish American War of 1898, commanding a Black regiment in that conflict. After that war his military career took him to various assignments, including a time as the Superintendent of Sequoia National Park, various overseas assignments with Military Intelligence working at American embassies, and even a gun battle during the Pancho Villa expedition into Mexico in 1916. By this point he had risen to become the Colonel Charles Young of Cullen’s poem’s title.

And this brought upon the most remarkable event of his career as the United States entered WWI the following year. As the U.S. mobilized rapidly to enter the war, a veteran officer with war and foreign experience like Young should have been a prime resource. A white officer with a similar resume would have been rapidly promoted to general and put in charge of one of the regiments of the newly created expeditionary force. But this situation pointed out a problem with a segregated Army: there was no way to do that without making an Afro-American the out-ranking commander of some white soldiers. If there’s one thing white supremacists can’t account for it’s that, just maybe, there might be some Black folks with every demonstrated reason to out-rank them. Drives them nuts.

The Army decided to “solve” this problem by pulling Young from active duty, declaring him unfit for the war due to high blood pressure. Young attempted to refute that claim by riding on horseback from Wilberforce college in Ohio to Washington D. C., but less than a week after he arrived, the Armistice was signed to end WWI.

Charles Young at Fort Des Moines

Colonel Charles Young at Fort Des Moines in Iowa, which was a leading training center for Black troops during WWI.

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Young was returned to active duty however, and he died in 1921 while serving overseas with Military Intelligence in Nigeria. He was buried with military honors at Arlington cemetery, and thus we have the grave that Cullen would use as the scene for his poem.

So now that you know this as you read the text of this poem, or hear Cullen’s references to Young’s career in my performance, you should have a sense of its full import, one that should inform you as we celebrate Black History Month. Charles Young gave his full measure of service to America even if America gave him back something less than that. This is an example of what history is about. You may feel anger, puzzlement, gratitude, regret, or admiration at Young’s life. It might be most appropriate to feel all of those things. One task for poets and singers, from Homer to Countee Cullen, and onto you or me, is to be the trees with tongues to tell that Cullen ends his poem with.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Countee Cullen’s “In Memory of Colonel Charles Young”  is below. If you don’t see a player to click on, you can also click on this highlighted hyperlink to play the performance.

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*There’s nothing untoward about that categorization. Odd as it seems to think of these men and women who I think of as of my grandparents’ generation as ‘youth,”  Countee Cullen was just 22 in 1925, the exact same age as our recent Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman is today.

Her Lips are Copper Wire

Today’s piece brings the Parlando Project to 300 published audio pieces since we officially launched in August 2016. Is that a small or large number? Both. Certainly, a great deal of effort has gone into it, including effort to not use the same kind of poem throughout, and to vary the music that meets up with the words; but I can viscerally feel the smallness of that number when I come upon another poem, yet another author, I was not aware of, and I am struck by that encounter.

John Keats’ sonnet said this was like seeing an unknown Pacific Ocean for the first time. Emily Dickinson famously said it was that “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I still get those moments. This project has presented a good number of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits;” and like my last post, even there I’m often surprised at how unfamiliar those “well-known” poems can be when looked at anew. But I so enjoy this when I’m working with a poem I don’t know, one I’ve never seen, one that seems as new as it is new to me.

John Keats’ sonnet said this was like seeing an unknown Pacific Ocean for the first time. Emily Dickinson famously said it was that “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I still get those moments.

And so it was last month when I first saw Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire.”  This is not a poem that sneaks up on you, it starts right-out with its audacious title, and then every stanza of it draws you deeper in, until you reach the end and the poem’s tongue is in your mouth, and you are, like it, incandescent.

I knew the name Jean Toomer, but only as a name. I’d filed him away in the mental-drawer “Harlem Renaissance,” and that’s a place that’s difficult to go to with this project because most of the work of this between-the-world-wars blossoming of Afro-American culture is not yet in the public domain. Still, I was drawn in, I had to start looking.

Huzzah! this is another of the works from the year 1923, now freed for other artists to respond to. I then spent some time this month getting at least a shallow grasp of Toomer’s life and outlook, enough effort to say that there’s a great deal more there to apprehend. Toomer himself had an ambiguous relationship with being classified as part of the Harlem Renaissance, or even with being an Afro-American artist, and he may have gone even beyond Robert Hayden’s insistence that he was an artist who was Afro-American, not an Afro-American artist. Modern scholarship has unearthed paperwork where he was classed as white, possibly by his own doing.

Like most Afro-Americans, Toomer was mixed-race. He was light-skinned enough to “pass.” His first wife was white, and after he was widowed, so was his second—and least we forget, many U. S. states held those marriages as a criminal act in his time. And since the first duty of an artist is to survive, I’m not going to rush to second-guess his motives from my ignorance. And after all, a lighter skin tone didn’t immunize Toomer from racism—no American, whatever their ethnic background or genetic mix can escape it.

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American writer Jean Toomer. The typewriter is manual, the poem is electric.

For now, let me leave the artist’s life, and those great and momentous social issues, and return to his work.

How does this poem capture you, stop you in your tracks? It starts out in an intermittent state. Is the opening stanza paraphrasing a lover’s soft conversation about lights along a street, or is it a metaphor that the lights in fog have been diffused to be in a synthesic vision like the sound of whispers? I think it’s both. We’re already moving down the dual and parallel lines of a circuit. And the sound! Whisper itself is an onomatopoeic word, the long O sounds of globes and posts sound a misty near-rhyme, and the next line’s march of short E sounds sways away.

Then Toomer adds another strain to the music and duality, the touch of the breath of the close whisperer. We’ve fallen in closer.

The “telephone the power-house” stanza seems to me to be like unto a blues interjection that I love in classic pre-war blues recordings, were the singer tells the audience, breaking aside from his melodic form, something that he wants his audience to know that he’s wise to, before returning to the melody.

And then we return to the ghosts of electricity,* softly howling or humming, in the bones of her face, and the circuit is completed, closed, and we’re there in mouth’s embrace.

What a love poem! I suppose one can step back from that and note that the lover is objectified, that there is a loss of power in that. But the poem’s very conceit seems to answer that objection, with its jolt of that closed and illuminated circuit. In Toomer’s poem, like in Paul Eluard’s great Surrealist love poem, in the end we may be seeking the state where we may speak without having a thing to say.

What a poem for the 300th audio piece here, for Black History Month, and for the month of Valentine’s Day! And so, to hear my performance and musical combination of Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire,”  use the player below. If you can’t see the player gadget, this highlighted hyperlink is an alternative way to hear it.

*Bob Dylan couldn’t anachronistically have influenced Jean Toomer any more than he could have done so for T. S. Eliot. But it is possible that Dylan might have known Toomer’s poem when he wrote “Visions of Johanna.”   Michael North believes it possible that Toomer may have got his metaphor from early Imagist Richard Aldington, since Toomer had noted Aldington’s statement that a successful poem elicits “a sudden shock of illumination.”

Residents of crackling-dry winter Minnesota may wonder if Toomer could have had a more direct inspiration. As my wife and I say to each other when our lips touch and a static charge jumps the gap with a cupid-tiny bow-string snap: “Still got that spark.”