Helene Johnson


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(1906–1995), poet of the late Harlem Renaissance.

When Helene Johnson and her cousin, novelist Dorothy West, moved from their native Boston to Harlem in 1926, Johnson demonstrated particular promise with competent lyrics extolling romance and nature, and with fresh themes of racial self-respect that prefigured the Black Arts movement writings of the 1960s and 1970s. But Helene Johnson never fulfilled early expectations, probably because her poetry replicates to a greater degree than most the aesthetic confusion that beset Harlem Renaissance literature generally.

Johnson's lifetime output amounts to a little over two dozen uncollected poems, appearing mostly in periodicals such as Opportunity, the Messenger, the Saturday Evening Quill, and Vanity Fair. Poems such as “Remember Not” and “Invocation” evoke romantic images of nature and death. For example, Johnson portrays the life cycle as returning to mother earth enclosed in a rain-drenched wooden casket, its polished wood and the cadaver becoming equals through the leveling process of death, as both gradually return to a more primordial state of nature in an unmowed plot overrun, “[r]iotous, rampart, wild and free.” Such sentimentalism at once reveals Johnson's mastery of outdated poetic forms and her alienation from the aesthetic spirit of those Harlem Renaissance artists who tried to focus concretely and candidly on African American experience.

Johnson tries to deal with distinctively African American material in “Poem,” which, while hailed at the time for its bold racial theme, reveals an ambiguous emotional connection to everyday African Americans. Contrary to the claim of Margaret Perry (Silence to the Drums: A Survey of the Literature of the Harlem Renaissance, 1976) that Johnson's work lacks artificial expression, Johnson here creates a contrived and idealized “jazz prince,” whose tilted head and “patent-leathered feet” show him to be completely at ease with his racial heritage. Nonetheless, his demeanor also evinces the stereotypical image of flashily dressed African Americans often held by white and black racists. She reinforces this hackneyed portrait by evoking African tom-toms. The primitivism and racial condescension expose the conflicted nature of Harlem Renaissance writers, whose middle-class upbringings and poetic visions apparently limited their abilities to capture the lives of the African American masses. Furthermore, Johnson's poetry all too often displays the self-rejection characteristic of many Harlem Renaissance writings. Thus, Johnson's proud African American prince does not wear his hair natural but so greased down that it “shines in the spotlight.” By the end of the poem, Johnson's professed joy in race has turned sarcastic with the speaker mocking the admired “boy.”

Raymond R. Patterson, “Helene Johnson,” in DLB, vol. 51, Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, ed. Trudier Harris, 1987, pp. 164–167.T. J. Bryan, “Helene Johnson,” in Notable Black American Women, ed. Jessie Carney Smith, 1992, pp. 587–591.

SallyAnn H. Ferguson

Subjects: Literature.

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