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Aphrodite's Daughters: Three Modernist Poets of the Harlem Renaissance

Aphrodite's Daughters: Three Modernist Poets of the Harlem Renaissance

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Aphrodite's Daughters: Three Modernist Poets of the Harlem Renaissance

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Aug 31, 2016


The Harlem Renaissance was a watershed moment for racial uplift, poetic innovation, sexual liberation, and female empowerment. Aphrodite’s Daughters introduces us to three amazing women who were at the forefront of all these developments, poetic iconoclasts who pioneered new and candidly erotic forms of female self-expression.  
Maureen Honey paints a vivid portrait of three African American women—Angelina Weld Grimké, Gwendolyn B. Bennett, and Mae V. Cowdery—who came from very different backgrounds but converged in late 1920s Harlem to leave a major mark on the literary landscape. She examines the varied ways these poets articulated female sexual desire, ranging from Grimké’s invocation of a Sapphic goddess figure to Cowdery’s frank depiction of bisexual erotics to Bennett’s risky exploration of the borders between sexual pleasure and pain. Yet Honey also considers how they were united in their commitment to the female body as a primary source of meaning, strength, and transcendence.
The product of extensive archival research, Aphrodite’s Daughters draws from Grimké, Bennett, and Cowdery’s published and unpublished poetry, along with rare periodicals and biographical materials, to immerse us in the lives of these remarkable women and the world in which they lived. It thus not only shows us how their artistic contributions and cultural interventions were vital to their own era, but also demonstrates how the poetic heart of their work keeps on beating.  
Aug 31, 2016

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Aphrodite's Daughters - Maureen Honey


FRONTISPIECE. Josephine Baker, 1929, Paris. Photo by George Hoyningen-Huene. © Horst-Photo, Courtesy Staley/Wise Gallery.


Three Modernist Poets of the Harlem Renaissance

Maureen Honey



Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Honey, Maureen, 1945- author.

Title: Aphrodite’s daughters : three modernist poets of the Harlem Renaissance / Maureen Honey.

Description: New Brunswick, New Jersey : Rutgers University Press, 2016. | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2015037353| ISBN 9780813570792 (hardback) | ISBN 9780813570785 (pbk.) | ISBN 9780813570808 (e-book (web pdf))

Subjects: LCSH: American poetry—African American authors—History and criticism. | American poetry—Women authors—History and criticism. | Harlem Renaissance. | African American poets—20th century. | Women poets, American—20th century. | African American women—New York (State)—New York—Intellectual life. | Modernism (Literature)—New York (State)—New York. | African-American arts—New York (State)—New York—20th century. | Grimkâe, Angelina Weld, 1880–1958—Criticism and interpretation. | Bennett, Gwendolyn, 1902–1981—Criticism and interpretation. | Cowdery, Mae V. (Mae Virginia), approximately 1909–1953—Criticism and interpretation. | BISAC: BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Women. | LITERARY CRITICISM / American / African American. | SOCIAL SCIENCE / Women’s Studies. | SOCIAL SCIENCE / Ethnic Studies / African American Studies. | LITERARY CRITICISM / Poetry. | LITERARY CRITICISM / Women Authors. | HISTORY / United States / 20th Century.

Classification: LCC PS310.N4 H66 2016 | DDC 811/.5209928708996073—dc23

LC record available at

A British Cataloging-in-Publication record for this book is available from the British Library.

Copyright © 2016 by Maureen Honey

All rights reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. Please contact Rutgers University Press, 106 Somerset Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. The only exception to this prohibition is fair use as defined by U.S. copyright law.

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Manufactured in the United States of America

For my late parents,

Betty and Keith Honey,

whose love made all possible

You are like a pale purple flower

In the blue spring dusk. . . . . .

You are like a yellow star

Budding and glowing

In an apricot sky. . . . . .

You are like the beauty

Of a voice. . . . . .

Remembered after death. . . . . .

You are like thin, white petals





Upon the white, stilled hushing

Of my soul.


I love you for your brownness,

And the rounded darkness of your breast;

I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice

And shadows where your wayward eyelids rest.


No more

The feel of your hand

On my breast . . .

Like the silver path

Of the moon

On dark heaving ocean.



List of Illustrations


1. The Lyric Poetry of Angelina Weld Grimké, Gwendolyn B. Bennett, and Mae V. Cowdery

2. Angelina Weld Grimké’s Sapphic Temple of Desire

3. Harlem’s Phoenix: Gwendolyn B. Bennett

4. Shattered Mirror: The Failed Promise of Mae V. Cowdery


Appendix A: List of Published Poetry

Appendix B: Selected List of Unpublished Poetry



Further Reading


About the Author


Frontispiece: Studio portrait of Josephine Baker, 1929

Figure 1: Studio portrait of Angelina Weld Grimké, ca. 1907

Figure 2: Class photo, Fairmount Grammar School, Hyde Park, Boston, ca. 1892

Figure 3: Angelina Weld Grimké in her Carleton Academy dorm room, 1895

Figure 4: Photo of Mary Mamie Burrill

Figure 5: Studio portrait of Angelina Weld Grimké, ca. 1895

Figure 6: Studio portrait of Thérèse Tessa Lee

Figure 7: Daguerreotype of Sarah Stanley Grimké and baby Angelina, 1880

Figure 8: Studio portrait of Archibald and Angelina Grimké, ca. 1902

Figure 9: Studio portrait of Gwendolyn B. Bennett in the 1920s

Figure 10: Gwendolyn Bennett with male friends in the 1920s

Figure 11: Gwendolyn Bennett as a child, ca. 1907

Figure 12: Studio portrait of Joshua and Gwendolyn Bennett, ca. 1909

Figure 13: Gwendolyn Bennett at the Savoy Ballroom, 1939

Figure 14: Gwendolyn Bennett and Richard Crosscup, 1973

Figure 15: Mae V. Cowdery as winner of the Krigwa Prize, 1928

Figure 16: Mae V. Cowdery and Louise Pelham, New York City, 1928

Figure 17: Mae V. Cowdery and Marion Turner, Atlantic City, 1933

Figure 18: Mae V. Cowdery with her daughter, mother, and grandmother, 1937

Figure 19: Mae V. Cowdery at a Philadelphia fund-raiser, 1937

Figure 20: Photo of Mae V. Cowdery with notice of her death, 1948


From the moment I first encountered the vast treasure trove of women’s poetry in New Negro journals and anthologies of the Harlem Renaissance over twenty years ago, three poems lodged in my mind with particular staying power. Angelina Weld Grimké’s El Beso took my breath away as the scene moved from twilight calm to a woman’s provocative laughter to her alluring mouth to a moment of mad surrender and finally to sobbing regret before returning to quiet twilight—all in the space of sixteen lines. Gwendolyn B. Bennett made me shiver with her one-stanza portrait of a strangely cool night in midsummer when far-off laughter dissolves into crystal tears in Nocturne. Mae V. Cowdery riveted my attention when she opened Want with a speaker’s startling desire to take down heaven’s stars and bury her face in them. The directness of their verse erased the many decades that separated it from me; their images were haunting. There was something so palpably real in their lyric poetry that I felt its modernity and relevance to my own era. This study grows out of that early connection and the desire it created to find out when, where, and how this lyricism was born.

Of immense help to me as I moved forward in this journey was my editor, Leslie Mitchner, who believed in the project from its very beginnings and whose enthusiasm lifted my flagging spirits as the writing proceeded. Her guidance throughout has made this a far better work. The perceptive comments of Cherene Sherrard-Johnson were also tremendously helpful as I honed the core of my analysis and forged links between my three writers. The book has been made far better by the meticulous copyediting of Kate Babbitt and the fine photograph production of Anne Hegeman. Carrie Hudak provided much-needed support throughout the publication process. Many thanks to the design team for this book’s gorgeous cover.

I am indebted to the groundbreaking scholarship on women of the Harlem Renaissance of Gloria Hull, Carolivia Herron, Sandra Y. Govan, Cheryl A. Wall, Lorraine Elena Roses, Thadious Davis, Deborah McDowell, Angela Y. Davis, George Hutchinson, Cary Nelson, Nina Miller, Melissa Girard, Cynthia Davis, Verner D. Mitchell, Hazel Carby, Claudia Tate, Yemisi Jimoh, Carla Kaplan, Mary Helen Washington, Robin Hackett, Joanne Braxton, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Hortense Spillers, among others. Without their trenchant investigations, I would have had very little notion of how to blend literary analysis with biographical history or connect Harlem Renaissance women poets to modernism. Arnold Rampersad, Amritjit Singh, David Levering Lewis, Adam McKible, James Smethurst, Seth Moglen, Mark Sanders, and Houston Baker Jr., among many others, have provided foundational insights into the Harlem Renaissance; without their work, this study would be much diminished. The contributions of Lillian Faderman, Laura Doan, Eric Garber, Karla Jay, A.B. Christa Schwartz and George Chauncey to LGBT history were essential to my understanding of Grimké’s and Cowdery’s erotic poetry, as was the foundational work on black women’s poetry by Barbara Smith, Ann Allen Shockley, June Jordan, Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Cheryl Clarke, Nikki Giovanni, Rita Dove, and Maya Angelou.

Several people encouraged me during my research and writing with their enthusiasm for my subject, particularly colleagues in the English Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Of particular help were my talks with Melissa Homestead about recovery work over many lunches and her suggestions of fruitful approaches to my biographical material. Gwendolyn Foster provided key advice and moral shoring-up, especially as I went through the copyediting. I am also immensely grateful for the support of Kwakiutl Dreher, Amelia Montes, Joy Castro, Grace Bauer, Julia and Dominique Cheenne, who all sustained me throughout the many years I worked on this project. Other colleagues in the English Department to whom I am indebted include Ken Price, Stephen Behrendt, Gregory Rutledge, Stephen Buhler, Wheeler Dixon, Kwame Dawes, Chigozie Obioma, Ted Kooser, Guy Reynolds, Jack Vespa, Pete Capuano, Julia Schleck, Laura White, Roland Végsö, Fran Kaye, Tom Lynch, Tom Gannon, Stacey Waite, Shari Stenberg, June Griffin, Steve Ramsay, Rhonda Garelick, and Adrian Wisnicki. All of them encouraged me with their own excellent work and interest in my project. I am most grateful to my chairs, Marco Abel and Susan Belasco, for providing the research assistance, personal support, and faculty leaves I needed to complete this book. Other treasured friends and colleagues who have provided crucial personal support for my work include Venetria Patton, who is my home away from home; Jeannette Jones; Anna Shavers; Helen Moore; George Wolf; Emily Levine, Joyce A. Joyce; Sharon Harris; Myriam Chancy; Alpana Sharma; Linda Pratt; Barbara DiBernard; Julia Ehrhardt; Greg Kuzma; and Hilda Raz. Marly Swick, Judy Slater, Suzy Beemer, Steven Aldrich, Maureen Sullivan, Joan Nelson, Olivia Petrides, Sharon Monod, and Devon Niebling are essential to my heart and soul. Many thanks to Martha Allen and Jonathan Zeitlin, whose hospitality enabled me to do research at Howard University and whose insightful comments about the Grimké brothers moved my project in dynamic new directions. I also want to thank Eric Mock and Louella Berliner for their hospitality in New York City when I was doing research at the Schomburg Center. They made my stay in the Big Apple wonderfully pleasant. My brilliant niece, Emily Hamilton-Honey, provided me with essential information about nineteenth-century boarding schools at a key moment in my work. A big thank you to my reading friends Ardy Cunningham, Cindy Cerny, and Peggy Olson.

This book would not have been possible without the genealogical sleuthing of Reginald Pitts, who combed through the black press and public documents to give me biographical information not available in archives, especially on Mae Cowdery. Our trip to Germantown in pursuit of Cowdery’s childhood home was particularly memorable and illuminating. Without Reg’s meticulous researching of hard-to-obtain news items on Cowdery, I would have had no biographical context for interpreting her work. Cowdery’s granddaughter, Melanie Coles Hamilton, provided me with family history to which I would not otherwise have had access, and her deep admiration for her grandmother’s poetry inspired me to bring it to the attention of other readers. Melanie has inherited the spirit of her grandmother and carries on her artistic legacy. Vincent Jubilee, Laura Harris, and Lorna Wheeler provided invaluable research on Cowdery, as did Douglas Oitzinger, who is researching her family tree.

I am most grateful for the financial support of the Research Council and the English Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which allowed me to conduct research at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, and the Philadelphia Public Library. I also thank the College of Arts and Sciences for a grant to help cover permissions costs for the illustrations in this volume and for two faculty development leaves. Staff members at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center gave me excellent help in using the Archibald H. Grimké Papers and the Angelina Weld Grimké Collection, particularly Kenvi Phillips, Ida E. Jones, and Richard Jenkins. I am indebted to Thomas Lisanti and Linden Anderson at the New York Public Library for their help in identifying photographs from the Gwendolyn Bennett Papers at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

People who gave me much-needed technical and bibliographic support in the English Department are Erin Chambers, our media specialist; Brad Cain, our computer technician; and research assistants Jeannette Schollaert, Mitchell Hobza, Tami Zwick, and Aubrey Streit-Krug. Their intelligent and enthusiastic help made it possible to bring this work to completion. Many thanks are due to the graduate students who took my seminars in Women of the Harlem Renaissance and whose incisive comments greatly enhanced my understanding of the period. Of particular value are those I worked with closely in and out of class and those whose dissertations I directed. I especially want to thank Amber Leichner, Shane Hunter, Jacyln Cruikshank Vogt, Megan Peabody, Tamy Burnett, Mevi Hova, DeMisty Bellinger, Julie Iromuanya, Carrie Walker, Pascha Stevenson, Kristi Carter, Aaron Hillyer, Elizabeth Lorang, and Steven Moore. They have all been an inspiration to me. I am deeply grateful for the insights into women writers of the modernist era by my seminar students as I was copyediting this book: Jessica Aerts, Stephanie Camerone, Stevie Seibert Desjarlais, Amber Hadenfeldt, Katie Schmid Henson, Natalie O’Neal, Emily Rau, Dillon Rockrohr, Cameron Steele, Jenny Schollaert, Brita Thielen, and Visnja Vujin.

I want to single out our department’s superb administrative assistant, LeAnn Messing, for her expertise in working through all the bureaucratic steps needed to process my grants. She has been a guiding light.

Last but by no means least, I want to extend my deep appreciation for the help of my family in getting to the end of this project. My brothers, Charles and Michael Honey, have been at my side every step of the way. Their interest in the political and artistic dimensions of my poets’ lives greatly encouraged me even as I wrestled with doubts. Moreover, just as I sat down to construct my chapter on Angelina Weld Grimké, our parents suddenly reached the endpoint of their lives, and we were thrust into the chaos of that experience. Without my brothers’ emotional support, and that of their partners, Pat Krueger and Andrea Myers, I would not have been able to resume writing, a task that took on unexpected meaning as I explored Grimké’s many meditations on loss and death. Most of all, I want to thank my partner, Tom Kiefer, who not only saw me through this personal trial but urged me to put the book first and gave me the room and time to complete it. He took precious time away from his own writing to take care of our pets, daily household tasks, and other pressing matters so that I could visit archives and meet writing deadlines. Without him, this book would not have materialized, and I owe him more than I can say. Such intelligent love is rare, and I am profoundly grateful for it.



The Lyric Poetry of Angelina Weld Grimké, Gwendolyn B. Bennett, and Mae V. Cowdery

In the spring of 1927, Angelina Grimké, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Mae Cowdery were beginning what would prove to be a banner year. Spring was a season they frequently celebrated, as did all poets of the Harlem Renaissance, for it symbolized the rebirth of African Americans in the modern age, the New Negro casting off plantation stereotypes. Toss your gay heads, brown girl trees; / Toss your gay lovely heads, Grimké joyfully shouts in At April; Night wears a garment / All velvet soft, all violet blue, Bennett seductively tells us at the start of Street Lamps in Early Spring; I stand on a high green hill / Caught in breathless wonder / By a sudden gold daffodil, marvels Cowdery in Spring Poem in Winter.¹ This particular spring was especially auspicious, however, for each of them would publish several poems in multiple venues that year, building upon (or attracting, in Cowdery’s case) the attention of powerful critics and anthologists, such as William Stanley Braithwaite, Charles S. Johnson, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, Alain Locke, and James Weldon Johnson. Grimké published twenty-one poems in 1927, Bennett twelve, and Cowdery eight, all of them across a wide range of highly regarded journals and anthologies.²

In the spring of 1927, at age forty-seven, Grimké had just retired from teaching English at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., where she lived with her activist father and distinguished uncle in a gorgeous row house on the city’s northwest side. She frequently spent Saturday nights at Georgia Douglas Johnson’s salon on S Street, but tending to her father’s failing health had become the center of her life by 1927. She would lose touch with her writing peers after his death in 1930, falling into silence and seclusion after a 40-year writing career. Bennett, a 24-year-old professor of fine art at Howard University that spring, also attended Johnson’s salons while remaining a fixture on the Harlem arts scene, but she had recently fallen in love with a Howard medical student and would marry him the following spring, moving to Florida at the height of her fame in 1928. When she returned to Harlem in 1930, the Depression had created such hardship that she barely recognized it. She became a community activist while completing her art education and continuing to write poetry, but without the time or venues she needed to publish it, her creative publications ended. Cowdery was a Philadelphia high school senior the spring of 1927, where she lived with her socially prominent parents in Germantown and hobnobbed with Langston Hughes’s bohemian circle while remaining popular with the daughters of lawyers, doctors, and community leaders in the city’s black professional class. She was about to enroll at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute as an art student in the fall, but her true calling was poetry. Her work was already being published in the newly formed Black Opals, whose inaugural issue in Philadelphia that spring contained three of her poems. By December, Cowdery had won the prestigious Krigwa Prize in a poetry contest run by The Crisis, but her journal and anthology appearances would come to an abrupt halt in 1930 despite having placed nineteen poems in prominent New Negro venues by the age of twenty-one; only 350 copies were printed of her self-published 1936 collection, We Lift Our Voices and Other Poems, and it was quickly forgotten despite favorable reviews.

In short, these three poets were at the center of the Harlem Renaissance in 1927 with shared sensibilities that resulted in deeply personal lyric verse and inspirational uplift poetry, despite their very different circumstances, personalities, and intimate circles. Just a few years later, however, their poetry would disappear for decades, forgotten or dismissed as minor contributions to the Harlem Renaissance. Even though they and other women poets were resurrected in the 1980s, there is still relatively little scholarship on their poetry. In part this is because Grimké never was able to publish a collection and only a few dozen of her poems made it into print; Bennett’s small body of published creative writing came to an end after she married; and Cowdery’s collection did not appear until 1936, when the Harlem Renaissance was all but dead. The result in each case was a limited body of published poetry that, while engaging, has not seemed as central to the arts movement as work by more prolific poets, such as Langston Hughes or Claude McKay. Even more damaging to their poetic legacies, perhaps, is that these three, like other black women poets from the period, have fallen between the cracks of two major critical models in the scholarship. They have been left in the shadows of modernist studies, which tends to focus on white writers, and scholarship on Harlem Renaissance modernism, which favors prose or male poets who transformed outmoded dialect verse into a blend of African American musical rhythms and the vernacular. Although Grimké’s poetry is generally viewed as her best work, it is her play Rachel and her anti-lynching fiction that have received the most critical attention, despite an excellent edition of collected work that includes quite a bit of her poetry.³ Bennett’s poetry, social columns, and two pieces of fiction are starting to receive critical investigation, but she has been highlighted mainly as a key organizer of Harlem artists.⁴ An edition of her creative work has yet to appear, seriously hampering such scholarship, particularly given the fact that so much of her work remained unpublished. Cowdery’s poetry is now included in several anthologies of the Harlem Renaissance, but the absence of an edition, archive, or even basic information about her life severely inhibits analysis of it.

Aphrodite’s Daughters: Three Modernist Poets of the Harlem Renaissance seeks to help fill that critical void by close reading of verse centered on the erotic by three poets whose modernist mark within the New Negro movement has yet to be fully recognized: Angelina Weld Grimké (1880–1958), Gwendolyn B. Bennett (1902–1981) and Mae V. Cowdery (1909–1948). I focus on their love poetry because that is what they emphasized and where they did their best work but also because it is in the lyric genre that they most clearly achieved a modernist voice of lasting value. To help bring into view this crucial aspect of their sensibility, I put the lyric verse into dialogue with each poet’s life through a bio-critical lens that treats the chronologically ordered poetry within a framework of the writer’s unfolding life events. Although I do not claim to be a biographer of their entire lives or an analyst of all their poetry, I here am following the lead of Gloria T. Hull, Cheryl A. Wall, Sandra Y. Govan, and others, whose groundbreaking work underlines the importance of incorporating women’s biographies into investigations of their Harlem Renaissance writing.⁵ Like them, I believe it is only by framing the literature with the life that we can find the true heart of these writers’ vision and courage. This approach is crucial, I believe, for interpreting lyric poetry, a highly personal genre based on the interiority of its speakers.

I also include unpublished poetry by Grimké and Bennett that is generally left out of the scholarship, of which there is over twice as much as the published work in Bennett’s case and at least a hundred more pieces in the case of Grimké. Because the subject matter often was intimate and publication outlets were narrow, the unpublished verse is a necessary component of my study. Supported by archival research at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library in Harlem, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, Aphrodite’s Daughters also brings to light previously unknown facts of these writers’ lives from public records and the black press, particularly for Cowdery, who left no archive and about whom little has been known. This information sheds light on the struggles they faced that are reflected in their lyric poetry while opening a window on what life was like for them as modern black women poets in the age of Jim Crow.

I have selected these particular poets in part to represent three pivotal moments in the Harlem Renaissance and key points of the geographic map on which it was anchored. Grimké, writing in Boston and Washington D.C., was part of the first generation of New Negro writers emerging in the century’s first decades who found success in the 1920s; Bennett, residing in D.C. and New York, was one of the young upstarts at the peak of the arts movement in the middle of the decade; and Cowdery, a Philadelphia native, belonged to a third wave of promising young writers inspired by Langston Hughes’s call for a new kind of modern poetry in the late 1920s. Grimké, Bennett, and Cowdery are not the only New Negro women poets who focused on the erotic in modern lyric verse while battling racism in protest poems: Georgia Douglas Johnson, Jessie Fauset, Helene Johnson, Anne Spencer, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and many others also celebrated a modern dark female sexuality while advocating for racial justice. Fine biographies, and editions of their work in some cases, are available that can advance explication of their lyric verse, and I intend this study to encourage more such critical readings.⁶ The three writers I have chosen are not intended to be viewed as exceptional in their thematic, in other words, but rather emblematic of the many New Negro women poets whose lives and work remain open to further investigation. Grimké, Bennett, and Cowdery represent three generations of Harlem Renaissance writers whose explorations of interior intimacy and erotic connection define them as New Negro modernists, but each of their individual stories helps construct the diverse palette of women artists’ lives in the early twentieth century. The more such stories get told, I believe, the better will be our understanding of the era in which they lived and the more we will be enriched by their art.

Although other writers’ poetry and lives can be put into similar fruitful dialogue with each other, I have focused on these three because they share so many common artistic elements, while also displaying consistent treatment of the female erotic as a source of strength and meaning. All three allude to an Aphrodite figure who rules a dark realm. This goddess functions as a muse for each of them, and her falling into silence, the fading away of her luminous image, foreshadows the end of their writing careers. This thematic link of Aphrodite as muse and their portrayal of the erotic as a source of power and a vital component of the New Negro woman unites them in this study. Furthermore, Grimké, Bennett, and Cowdery, like other New Negro poets, were race activists who saw no gap between the lyrical and the racial in their poetic landscapes, yet they drew upon unique personal material for their best poetry. Each had her own path to walk as she grappled with turbulent romantic attachments, high family expectations, devastating disappointments, and hardening lines of segregation in the early twentieth century. All experienced unbearable pain at times, and lyric poetry became a realm of transcendence and stability in the face of that pain. Their courage, resilience, and artistry are what make them such a compelling trio for me, their transformation of life’s highs and lows into art that speaks to us generations later.

Aphrodite as Poetic Muse

Any woman writer who highlighted erotic experience in the early twentieth century, as these poets did, took a considerable risk, but this risk was especially perilous for African Americans. Because black women were subjected to salacious stereotyping as prostitutes by the dominant culture, New Negro models of conventional femininity became firmly entrenched in black communities as a response. Grimké, Bennett, and Cowdery were well aware of these boundaries, reflected by the large body of unpublished verse by the former two, but they celebrated sexual desire as a transporting force anyway. I should like to creep / Through the long brown grasses / That are your lashes, Grimké’s speaker boldly confides in A Mona Lisa (1927): I should like to sink down / And down. . . . . . / And down. . . . ../ And deeply drown. Bennett features postcoital ecstasy in the unpublished Comrades: Friend, I’ll call you. . . . . . / When the minutes / Pulse more slowly, / And the rich, dark stream / Of your willful love / Has ebbed through / The ravaged quiet / Of my breasts and thighs. Lust animates Cowdery’s 1936 Insatiate: If her lips were rubies red, / Her eyes two sapphires blue, / Her fingers ten sticks of white jade, / Coral tipped . . . and her hair of purple hue / Hung down in a silken shawl. . . . / They would not be enough / To fill the coffers of my need.⁷ Their verse displayed the female body with a new frankness, setting them apart from their predecessors in the nineteenth century. Grimké focused on women’s lips, perfumed hair, enveloping arms, and alluring eyes. I let you kiss my mouth / Quite through my curtained eyes / I felt your eyes upon my eyes, my mouth / Compellingly and hungrily you fed, her speaker recalls in an unpublished verse: And then I slipped into your arms / Forgot all else but just your lips upon / My mouth. Bennett draws our attention to her subject’s sexual allure in To a Dark Girl (1927): I love you for your brownness, / And the rounded darkness of your breast; / I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice / And shadows where your wayward eyelids rest. // Something of old forgotten queens / Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk. Cowdery’s Longings (1927) includes her speaker’s desire to feel water against her naked body at dawn: To plunge— / My brown body / In a golden pool, / And lazily float on the swell / Watching the rising sun.

Contemporary scholarship on modernist elements of the Harlem Renaissance is beginning to describe this emphasis on the female body. Stephanie Batiste and Jayna Brown focus on women stage performers and representations of women in film, for example.⁹ Erin D. Chapman interrogates primitivist and consumerist exploitation of black women’s bodies in popular culture of the 1920s.¹⁰ Illuminating further the cultural context for this highlighting of the body, Nina Miller frames modernist American women’s poetry within the emphasis on female sexuality in the Jazz Age: The national, mass media-driven culture that had evolved in America by the 1920s ushered in a palpable national erotics: a charged and luminous representational field out of which individuals and groups derived new identities and identifications.¹¹ Aware of the whiteness of women’s sexual representations in the dominant culture in both classical and popular art, however, Grimké, Bennett, and Cowdery redefined female sexuality as a dark force of resilience and enlightened change. Worship of a darkened Aphrodite was personally compelling for each of them for different reasons, but this goddess of love also functioned as an inspirational symbol of a new world in which beauty triumphed over prejudice, love over hate, and female equality over patriarchal rule. Grimké heralds the arrival of this dark goddess in part III of the unpublished A Trilogy:

Behold! She comes, the queen of Night!

A queen indeed in shape and size

With haunting grace, and haunting eyes.

[. . .]

She charms to rest by slow degrees

The birds, the leaves, the trees, the breeze;

And then she sits upon her throne

A figure motionless, alone,

Her solemn, radiant, vigil keeping

Never sleeping, never sleeping—.¹²

Bennett summons a similar poetic muse in Fantasy (1927):

I sailed in my dreams to the land of Night

Where you were the dusk-eyed Queen,

[. . .]

Oh, the moon gave a bluish light

Through the trees in the land of dreams and night.

I stood behind a bush of yellow-green

And whistled a song to the dark-haired Queen. . . .¹³

Goddesses also animate Cowdery’s darkened landscapes. In three of her four stanzas from the 1936 Four Poems—After the Japanese, she presents images of powerful female spirits ruling the universe:

Night turned over

In her sleep

And a star fell

Into the sea.

Earth was a beautiful

Snow woman

Until the rain

Washed her face one day.

[. . .]

The moon

Is a Madonna

Cradling in the crescent curve

Of her breast

A newborn star.¹⁴

Grimké, Bennett and Cowdery here create a goddess who models a new kind of power in the modern age, an Aphrodite figure who compels respect and casts off the fetters of racist patriarchal civilization, symbolized by her dark body’s emergence after nightfall. Although Grimké’s dusk goddess was, unlike the mythic Aphrodite, either clothed in white or invisible in the night sky, she inhabited a realm that released her speakers from false inhibiting roles played out during daytime routines.

I built a shrine one day / Within my inmost heart, her speaker declares in

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Bewertung: 0 von 5 Sternen


  • (1/5)
    I dunno about the book, but the format is horrible. There is no spacing between words making this very difficult.