Reference Entry

Bush-Banks, Olivia Ward

Nathan L. Grant

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Bush-Banks, Olivia Ward

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writer, was born in Sag Harbor, New York, the daughter of Abraham Ward, probably a fisherman, and Eliza Draper. Both were members of the Montauk Indian tribe of Long Island and both were also of African descent. When Olivia was just nine months old her mother's death forced the family to move to Providence, Rhode Island. Shortly after her father's remarriage, Olivia came under the guardianship of her maternal aunt Maria Draper, whom she credited with having given her an education and preparing her for life. Her aunt's determination and endurance, Olivia believed, resulted from her Native American upbringing. Olivia graduated from Providence High School, where she was trained as a nurse and developed strong interests in drama and literature.In 1889 Olivia married Frank Bush in Providence and soon gave birth to two daughters, but the couple divorced by 1895. From the end of the century to about 1915, Olivia Bush shuttled between Boston and Providence, taking any available job to support her family. She also wrote poetry and in 1899 published her first volume of verse, Original Poems, which yielded some small financial rewards. The collection consisted of ten poems, including elegies extolling African American courage and virtue (“Crispus Attucks,” “The Hero of San Juan Hill”), imaginative odes to faith and perseverance (“My Dream of the New Year”), and verses celebrating the ecstasies of religion (“Treasured Moments,” “The Walk to Emmaus”). Several works from Original Poems were reprinted in the Voice of the Negro, one of the premier African American periodicals of the first decade of the twentieth century. Bush shared publication in the Voice with other notable African American poets such as James David Corrothers, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Daniel Webster Davis.Caring for her children and for her Aunt Maria made writing as a full-time career difficult. In about 1900 Bush became assistant drama director of the Robert Gould Shaw Community House in Boston. From 1900 to 1904 she also contributed to the Colored American Magazine, and thus she had poems published in the two journals that had the largest circulation among African Americans in the decade before 1910.Bush's second collection, Driftwood (1914), expanded the themes set forth in Original Poems. Driftwood included poems, short prose pieces, and several elegies addressed to Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, who praised the volume in his preface. Bush soon departed from the pious sensibility shown in both volumes of poetry; her only published play, Memories of Calvary: An Easter Sketch (c. 1917), was also her last effort at purely religious pastoralism.After about 1916 Olivia Bush married Anthony Banks, a Pullman porter. They lived in Chicago, where she founded the Bush-Banks School of Expression and became a drama instructor in the public schools. While at the Shaw Community House, she had decided that drama was indeed her creative strength. It was perhaps during this period (around 1920) that Bush-Banks's unpublished play, “Indian Trails; or, Trail of the Montauk,” was written. This play, whose characters closely depict the society of the Algonquian, demonstrates Bush-Banks's knowledge of and facility with the nuances of the Algonquian language and material culture. Only small fragments of the play survive, but it was probably written in response to a 1918 New York State Supreme Court case, Wyandank Pharaoh v. Jane Ann Benson et al., which declared that the Montauk tribe had become extinct because of intermarriage, mostly with blacks but also with whites. The play is a romantic idyll with political and cultural undertones; while it mourns a dissolving Montauk unity, it also reaffirms that unity when O-ne-ne (Wild Pigeon) brings word that whites have agreed to return land to the tribe.The fragmentation of the Montauks as a result of the Benson case caused Bush-Banks to redirect her creative energies and pursue the African American experience as a principal form of expression. During the early years of the Depression she furthered her artistic interests and also began her journalistic efforts in African American culture. She championed the artists, musicians, and writers of the Harlem Renaissance and was associated with Langston Hughes, Countée Cullen, A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, W. E. B. Du Bois, and many other leading lights of the period. She also participated in the Federal Theater Project of the Works Progress Administration in 1936, coaching drama for three years in Harlem at the Abyssinian Community Center run by the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr. The 1930s seemed also to bring about a change in the tone of Bush-Banks's works. Perhaps the class consciousness that typified the Harlem Renaissance clashed with Bush-Banks's earlier coming to terms with her African Indian heritage. Several unpublished short sketches, including “Greenwich Village Highlights” (c. 1929), “New Year Musings” (1932), and “Black Communism” (1933), as well as an unpublished one-act play, “A Shantytown Scandal” (c. 1935), indicate Bush-Banks's growing disaffection with the Harlem Renaissance, which seemed to suffer a sharp decline in spirit at the onset of the Depression.Perhaps Bush-Banks's lasting contribution to the literature of the Harlem Renaissance is her “Aunt Viney's Sketches,” a cycle of stories that themselves are folk pronouncements on the Depression and on the Harlem scene. (In 1937 Bush-Banks sent six Aunt Viney stories to the Library of Congress, but the copyright application was left unfinished.) She may have intended the title character as a contrast to the young slave woman created by Dunbar in his short story “Viney's Free Papers”; Dunbar's Viney uses her newly found freedom as a weapon against her community. Bush-Banks's Aunt Viney is a mature, lively, sagacious African American woman whose hard-won folk wisdom, conveyed through the richness and power of vernacular speech, renders both racial pride and deft cultural criticism. In this Bush-Banks strongly echoes the efforts of her predecessors, notably Dunbar and Charles Chesnutt, and she precedes Langston Hughes's famous “Simple” tales, which first appeared in 1943.Although only two volumes of poetry, a play, two poems (“A Picture,” 1900, and “On the Long Island Indian,” 1916), and three essays in magazines (“Undercurrents of Social Life,” 1900, and “Echoes from the Cabin Song” and “Essay on John Greene,” both 1932) represent Bush-Banks's published works, her total output reveals a creative life that touched other lives. Not only did she provide documentation and social criticism of the Harlem Renaissance but her literary contributions to that period and the one immediately preceding it are also considerable. Bush-Banks died in New York City.

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Subjects: History

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