Monday, February 9, 2009

Georgia Douglas Johnson

When I first launched this blog, I wrote an entry that explained the background of the WSNS. Georgia Douglas Johnson and her Saturday salons were very much component parts in the process of bringing this whole concept to life.

Johnson was a native Georgian who eventually moved to Washington, DC, in the early 20th century. She was born in Atlanta in 1880, and educated at Atlanta University and the Oberlin Conservatory. Though I know that she was part of a tiny minority of black folks at that time, I am always amazed by the opportunities that people like Johnson, and those of her class, were able to take advantage of during the period known as the nadir for race relations in this nation (Johnson's sons were graduates of Bowdoin and Dartmouth).

It seems that Johnson began writing poetry and fiction after she moved to Washington, and she became one of the first noted black women poets of the 20th century. Though she was accomplished, it was not Johnson's writing skills that served as a force in either the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Movement (which was the pre-cursor to, and the Washington focused effort before, the Renaissance). It was those Saturday night salons in her home at 1461 S Street, NW (that remains a private residence), that proved important to both movements, and captured my imagination.

Those gatherings brought together future luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, including Jean Toomer, Jessie Fauset, a very young Richard Bruce Nugent, Langston Hughes and W. E. B. DuBois. In his monumental biography of DuBois, David Levering Lewis describes the salons in this way: "On late, liquescent, and often memorable animated Saturday nights, Jazz Age muses gathered around Georgia Johnson's concert piano and paired off in lively huddles, their talk flowing back and forth between tangy gossip and serious debate as indiscretions were revealed and old and new poetry, drama, fiction and art were critiqued." (p. 184 in W.E.B. DuBois: The Fight for Equality and the American Democracy, 1919-1963)

When I read that passage, I want to be right there in the midst of it all. The participants in Johnson's salons knew that they were destroying the assumption that black folks lacked culture, and they did it with each poem written and every canvas painted upon. It worked. Though the New Negro Movement has been eclipsed by the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson played an important role in both, simply by opening her home and having people talk and share. I am humbled to know that all of that happened just a few blocks away from where I sit right now more than 100 years ago.

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