Helene Johnson in Memoriam

As is, unfortunately, the case with many Black female poets of her time, Helene Johnson’s name, work, and legacy has been usurped by the trifling, entitled ramblings of countless Anglo-Saxon male poets who mourn the loss of the Classic, hierarchical West and long for a new-founded culture that appropriates female experiences so their literature can “stay in vogue.” Johnson’s work, as well as the work of her Black female contemporaries, does not deserve to be overlooked. Her work establishes her as an innovative artist who empowered her readers, embracing the passions, struggles, and realities of womanhood.

Helene Johnson was born on July 7th in Boston, Massachusetts. She was a poet from the outset, attending courses, participating in workshops, and entering competitions from a young age. Her first taste of publication came in 1926 when she received an honorable mention in the 1926 Opportunity literary competition for her poem “Fulfillment.” Like most of her work, it was unconventional– almost controversial– at its time because it addresses the lived experiences of Black Americans. It is artistically activistic. Johnson’s poetry has a clear perspective, one we now entitled as one of an “intersectional feminist.” She drew from her own experiences of exploring her racial identity, her feminine sensuality, and her yearning for liberation in a world that sought to silence her self-determination.

Many scholars have claimed that Johnson stopped writing after her marriage in 1933. While it is true she did not publish any new work after the mid-1930s, it is presumptuous to assume that she abandoned her craft entirely. Later research into her life revealed that she had in fact continued to write but that a lack of financial and professional security in the field, especially for a Black female poet, forced her to sacrifice her work for her family. There were very few publication opportunities for Black female poets during the early twentieth century, and the number dwindled down to even fewer during the Great Depression. Additionally, poetry by Black women was not studied, let alone acknowledged, in literary scholarship. This underrepresentation of Black female poets in scholarship has persisted. This lack of representation hasn’t occurred because there aren’t enough “good Black female poets,” but because academia has largely isolated the work by Black poets into a trend, one that surged during the Harlem Renaissance and has since died out. The Harlem Renaissance was a hugely important cultural and artistic movement, not a trend, and Black authors, poets, and artists have created and inspired before, during, and since Helene Johnson’s career. On the 25th anniversary of Helene Johnson’s death, we honor her legacy by supporting the artists that have emerged as a result of her greatest gift: her word.

Featured image via  Radcliffe institute