Maureen Honey

Maureen Honey: On Casely-Hayford's Poetry

The eroticism found in verse of the 1920s not only made visible the hunger of Black women for unrestricted, self-defining experience, but also brought to the surface feelings for women that had been couched previously in platonic language. After World War I, women's verse began to explore the forbidden territory of explicit sexual attraction. Only two female writers from this era have been identified as feeling passionate attraction to other women: Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Angelina Weld Crimké.

From Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Maureen Honey. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Rutgers University Press.

Maureen Honey: On "Street Lamps in Early Spring"

"What do I care for morning," asks Helene Johnson, "For the glare of the rising sun . . . ? / . . . Give me the beauty of evening, / The cool consummation of night." The preference for nighttime over day expressed in Johnson's poem is marked in women's poetry and served a variety of functions. One of these was to assert the primacy of Blackness in a world that favored white things. Quieter, calmer, less dramatic than the day, night was, nevertheless, an essential force in life, the contemplation of which brought serenity to a restless, discontented spirit. Gwendolyn Bennett's Imagist portrait, "Street Lamps in Early Spring," is typical in its elegiac tone: . . .

Overlooked by the insensitive, the beauty of Blackness and femaleness is here brought from the background to center stage and admired for its steady, subtle force.

Bennett's poem captures another aspect of night's usefulness as an image for Black women. Night is said to draw over her face a veil "shimmering fine as floating dew." Cast as a goddess whose features are hidden, night stands for the masked self, obscured by the fears and projected fantasies of gazers with the power to define. Although night is veiled in mystery, she escapes the distorted, negative images of those who fail to see her clearly. Self-assured, she parades through poetry of the twenties with regal grace. The donning of a mask for self-protection, then, does not forever submerge the vital, beautiful person underneath, who possesses powers unrecognized by the world.

Not only a vibrant woman of great spirit who rules her domain wisely, night offers respite from the daily struggle to survive, for in a dark world, Blackness cannot be used as a marker of difference. Since there is no need to dissemble, the poet can come alive in her presence.

From Shadowed Dreams. Ed. Maureen Honey, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Rutgers University Press.