Maureen Honey

Maureen Honey: On "Tenebris"

Angelina Weld Grimké's piece, "Tenebris," echoes this subtle assertion of self against white control: . . . .

By likening the branches of a tree to a hand "huge and black," whose shadow rests against "the white man's house," Grimké invites us to find in her image a statement about the relationship of Blacks to white society. One reading of the poem is that it sees Black struggle as a subterranean, persistent chipping away at white structures. The black hand "plucks and plucks" at the bricks, which are "the color of blood and very small," at night, when the occupant is sleeping, falsely secure that the image on his house is the shadow of a harmless tree. Yet the last line asks: "Is it a black hand, or is it a shadow?" and we are left sensing that the white man's house is in danger. The portrait of a house built with blood-colored bricks evokes memories of the big house on a plantation maintained by the blood and sweat of slave labor. It is also haunted by the ghosts of people whose anguish and anger are growing shadows on the white man's power, gathering force while he basks in his privilege.

Maureen Honey: On "The Black Finger"

The use of trees in these poems is common, for trees are stationary, as women are immobilized by confining roles. Symbolic of paralysis, they can nevertheless be viewed positively. In Grimké's "The Black Finger," a tree's silhouette is highlighted by sunset: "I have just seen a most beautiful thing: / Slim and still, / Against a gold, gold sky A straight, black cypress / Sensitive / Exquisite / A black finger / Pointing upwards." Leading the eye toward a vast, open space where the soul can soar, the tree in this poem can, in some sense, stand for the miraculous survival of Black aspiration as the poet ends by asking: "Why, beautiful still finger, are you black? / And why are you pointing upwards?" Helene Johnson employs the same metaphor in "'Trees at Night" where she draws an image of vibrant wonder crystallized by the interplay of light and shadow on a moonlit night: "Slim sentinels / Stretching lacy arms / About a slumbrous moon; / Black quivering / Silhouettes, / Tremulous, / . . . And printed 'gainst the sky-- / The trembling beauty / Of an urgent pine." It is the silhouette of the tree that attracts the poet's eye, the intricate pattern of branches against a sky, the stillness of a solid trunk anchored by sure roots and pushing against the force of gravity. The trunk's rich brownness is starkly highlighted in silhouette, devoid of obscuring foliage and beautiful in its hardy survival of harsh conditions. The poetic tree transcends its condition of immobility to stand for quiet endurance, pride, dignity, and aspiration. Like women, it has a delicate beauty under the toughness that enables it to survive.

Maureen Honey: On "Lady, Lady"

"Lady, Lady," brings to the surface the three major themes of women's poetry (equation of Blackness and femaleness with strength, resistance to white male oppression, survival of the core self) and illustrates how they are intertwined with nature metaphors. Typical of much Renaissance poetry, it studies a member of the working class, a launderer, made invisible by racism and classism. The washerwoman bears the stamp of her oppressor. Her face has been chiseled by pain from carrying "the yoke of men"; her hands are twisted "like crumpled roots" by the labor she does for white people, symbolizing the stunting of her growth and crippling of her true posture. They are also "bleached poor white," a sign of her consignment to a draining, exploited existence controlled by whites. Despite the harsh life she has led, however, there remains a sacred inviolable place within her where a spirit burns brightly, "altared there in its darksome place," host to a transcendent guiding force.

Women's search for roots and identity led inward, moved backward to an imaginary Eden where sensitivity could survive and even flourish. For writers who largely could not travel to Europe or Africa, the concept of a hidden self, rich with wisdom, offered an attractive substitute for an unknown, removed history. Moreover, it was accessible and consistent with the Romantic notion that truth lies within, uncorrupted by one's external circumstances.

Maureen Honey: On "White Things"

The connection between male domination, white supremacy, and the destruction of nature is evident in Anne Spencer's "White Things." She begins with a statement that most things on this earth are "colorful" but that the single race without color is the one that dominates: "Most things are colorful things--the sky, earth, and sea. / Black men are most men; but the white are free!" In a sophisticated analysis of power lust, Spencer likens the colonization process to a draining of nature's vitality when she says that white men "blanched with their wand of power" all with which they came in contact. . . .

Abruptly, Spencer shifts her focus to terrorism against Blacks in the second stanza, ending with a chilllng image of one member of a lynch mob laughingly swinging a skull "in the face of God," enjoining his deity to turn the world white. . . .

While the poem mentions neither Native Americans nor women, it concerns both. Spencer wrote these lines after reading about a woman, pregnant at the time, tortured by a lynch mob in 1918. She had been trying to protect her husband, who had killed his employer, a farmer known for his vicious treatment of Black laborers. The reference to colonization of Native Americans can be found in the first stanza where the arrival of Europeans is described in line four: "They stole from out a silvered world--somewhere," The poet then metaphorically places the original inhabitants of these "earth-plains" in the landscape by referring to "hills all red" which the colonizer paradoxically turned white

with his bloody attack. The metaphor is extended in lines ten and eleven where, we are told, whites "turned the blood in a ruby rose / To a poor white poppy-flower." Spencer identified strongly with Native Americans (her father was half Seminole and she frequently wore her long, straight hair in braids). Here, she makes a connection between their defeat and terrorism against Afro-Americans, linking both to the mad desire of a minority race to destroy everything unlike itself.

Maureen Honey: On Casely-Hayford's Poetry

The eroticism found in verse of the 1920s not only made visible the hunger of Black women for unrestricted, self-defining experience, but also brought to the surface feelings for women that had been couched previously in platonic language. After World War I, women's verse began to explore the forbidden territory of explicit sexual attraction. Only two female writers from this era have been identified as feeling passionate attraction to other women: Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Angelina Weld Crimké.

From Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Maureen Honey. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Rutgers University Press.

Maureen Honey: On "Street Lamps in Early Spring"

"What do I care for morning," asks Helene Johnson, "For the glare of the rising sun . . . ? / . . . Give me the beauty of evening, / The cool consummation of night." The preference for nighttime over day expressed in Johnson's poem is marked in women's poetry and served a variety of functions. One of these was to assert the primacy of Blackness in a world that favored white things. Quieter, calmer, less dramatic than the day, night was, nevertheless, an essential force in life, the contemplation of which brought serenity to a restless, discontented spirit. Gwendolyn Bennett's Imagist portrait, "Street Lamps in Early Spring," is typical in its elegiac tone: . . .

Overlooked by the insensitive, the beauty of Blackness and femaleness is here brought from the background to center stage and admired for its steady, subtle force.

Bennett's poem captures another aspect of night's usefulness as an image for Black women. Night is said to draw over her face a veil "shimmering fine as floating dew." Cast as a goddess whose features are hidden, night stands for the masked self, obscured by the fears and projected fantasies of gazers with the power to define. Although night is veiled in mystery, she escapes the distorted, negative images of those who fail to see her clearly. Self-assured, she parades through poetry of the twenties with regal grace. The donning of a mask for self-protection, then, does not forever submerge the vital, beautiful person underneath, who possesses powers unrecognized by the world.

Not only a vibrant woman of great spirit who rules her domain wisely, night offers respite from the daily struggle to survive, for in a dark world, Blackness cannot be used as a marker of difference. Since there is no need to dissemble, the poet can come alive in her presence.

From Shadowed Dreams. Ed. Maureen Honey, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Rutgers University Press.