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Amelia E. Johnson

(1858—1922)


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Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872—1906)

 

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(1858–1922), novelist, short fiction writer, poet, and editor,

who wrote under the name of “Mrs. A. E. Johnson.” Born in Toronto, Canada, of parents who were natives of Maryland, Amelia Etta Hall Johnson was educated in Montreal. In 1874 she moved to Boston, where in 1877 she married Reverend Harvey Johnson of the Union Baptist Church. They had a daughter and two sons.

Interested in young people and in encouraging African American women's writing, in 1887 Johnson started an eight-page monthly, Joy. She contributed poems, short stories, and articles to various periodicals, but her reputation as a writer rests mainly on her three novels. With the publication of Clarence and Corinne, or God's Way (1890), she became the first African American and the first woman to write Sunday school fiction for the American Baptist Publication Society of Philadelphia, one of the largest publishing houses of the time.

Like other turn-of-the-century African American writers, including Emma Dunham Kelley and Paul Laurence Dunbar, Johnson does not explicitly mention the racial background of the characters in her novels. Nevertheless, contemporary African American reviewers praised her for writing “from affection for the race, and loyalty to it.” In her racially indeterminate fiction, poverty, alcoholism, and family violence are discussed as societal, rather than racially specific, problems.

Clarence and Corinne opens on a scene of urban poverty. After their mother's death and their father's abandonment, Corinne is exploited as a domestic servant by her guardian, while Clarence is falsely accused of theft. Eventually all turns out well, as the siblings acquire educations, become financially secure, and marry two childhood friends. Christian teachings dominate the novel: love for one's neighbor and faith in Divine Providence, in “God's way”, are proposed as remedies for contemporary social problems.

In The Hazeley Family (1894), Johnson emphasizes the Christian value and social usefulness of women's “home-work.” She narrates how the self-reliant, spirited performance of her household duties enables Flora Hazeley, the protagonist, to overcome despondency, reunify her family, and become an agent of moral uplift in her community. Also Johnson's last novel, Martina Meriden, or What Is My Motive? (1901), focuses on the importance of having a Christian outlook on life, but it is more repetitive and less readable than her previous ones.

After being out of print for almost a century, Johnson has now begun to attract serious critical attention. While all of her novels end happily, they reveal complex underlying tensions between religious orthodoxy, domestic idealism, and a concern for the limited societal opportunities available to African American women. Flora Hazeley's successful evangelical mission, for instance, ultimately leaves her in the volunteer ranks of Sunday school teachers, while her brother's religious call receives societal sanctioning in his profession as a minister. Johnson's often veiled feminist themes offer interesting insight into the literary strategies of indirect argumentation that are characteristic of much of nineteenth-century African American women's literature.

Barbara Christian, introduction to The Hazeley Family, 1988.Ann Allen Shockley, Afro-American Women Writers, 1746–1933, 1988.Hortense J. Spillers, introduction to Clarence and Corinne, or God's Way, 1988.Claudia Tate, Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text at the Turn of the Century, 1992.M. Giulia Fabi, “Taming the Amazon? The Price of Survival in Turn-of-the-Century African American Women's Fiction,” in The Insular Dream: Obsession and Resistance, ed. Kristiaan Versluys, 1995, pp. 228–241.Wendy Wagner, “Black Separatism in the Periodical Writings of Mrs. A. E. (Amelia) Johnson” in The Black Press: New Literary and Historical Essays, ed., Todd Vogel (2001), pp. 93–103.

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Subjects: Literature.


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