Editors’ note: This introduction is adapted from Minor Notes, Volume 1, edited by Joshua Bennett and Jesse McCarthy, published this month by Penguin Classics.
Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880–1966) has fallen out of popular consciousness today, but in the early twentieth century she was the most widely read black female poet in the United States. She wrote twenty-eight plays and about as many songs, in addition to poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her home in Washington, D.C.—which she playfully dubbed “the Half-way House,” but which was more commonly referred to as the “S Street Salon”—was visited by writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer. In 1965, she received an honorary doctorate in literature from Atlanta University. The three poems presented here appeared in Johnson’s second book of poems, Bronze: A Book of Verse, published in 1922 with a foreword by W. E. B. Du Bois.
Not wholly this or that,
Of alien bloods am I,
A product of the interplay
Of traveled hearts.
Estranged, yet not estranged, I stand
From my estate
I view earth’s frail dilemma;
Scion of fused strength am I,
Nor this nor that
And who shall separate the dust
Which later we shall be:
Whose keen discerning eye will scan
And solve the mystery?
The high, the low, the rich, the poor,
The black, the white, the red,
And all the chromatique between,
Of whom shall it be said:
Here lies the dust of Africa;
Here are the sons of Rome;
Here lies one unlabelled,
The world at large his home!
Can one then separate the dust,
Will mankind lie apart,
When life has settled back again
The same as from the start?
Don’t knock at my door, little child,
I cannot let you in,
You know not what a world this is
Of cruelty and sin.
Wait in the still eternity
Until I come to you,
The world is cruel, cruel, child,
I cannot let you in!
Don’t knock at my heart, little one,
I cannot bear the pain
Of turning deaf-ear to your call
Time and time again!
You do not know the monster men
Inhabiting the earth,
Be still, be still, my precious child,
I must not give you birth!
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 8, on page 38
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