For a black female, the world in 1922 was prejudiced, naïve, and full of despair. No woman could tell of the trials and tribulations women went through better than Georgia Douglas Johnson in her book Bronze: A Book of Verse (1922). In just one hundred and one pages, Johnson simulates these experiences with unique narration, shows a different way to view suffering, and provides an environment of hope for escaping the tumultuous prejudice of the time. Her wordings and tones, while marvelously thought out and articulated, may seem drawn-out and tedious on a first reading or skim. Nonetheless, whomever the audience is, anyone can relate to or sympathize with Johnson's timeless ideas.
American Feminist Georgia Douglas Johnson was a Harlem Renaissance/New Negro Movement leader. Born in 1886 in Atlanta, Georgia, Johnson was best known for her plays and poetry, which she did not have published until she was thirty years old. She was also known for hosting Saturday meetings with famous writers and artists such as Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset. One of her best works was said to be An Autumn Love Cycle, her third collection of published poems. However, at the rise of the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson wrote Bronze to inspire and awaken a wide audience, especially the next generation of black women.
The circumstances in 1922 were incredibly dismal for African-American women, because they faced two forms of prejudice--not only were they discriminated against because of their race, but also because of their gender. Johnson captures the heart wrenching feelings and hardships these injustices brought to her people in the poem "Let Me Not Hate. " Without using concrete examples, but rather by employing metaphors, Johnson clearly expresses how difficult it was to ignore the attempts of others to bring women like Johnson down and kill their souls' dreams:
Let me not hate though girt by vipers,
green and hissing through the dark
I fain must love. (Johnson 22)
This excerpt was taken from a poem included in the section appropriately titled "Supplication. " What Johnson wants the audience to take out of this poem is an understanding of the cruelty of the world, as described by the green, hissing vipers, and alternately, how strong the women must be to not join the angry world but be the change. Change in this case means clinging to God, and pleading for the strength to only allow love to enter the soul.
A similar theme becomes even more resonant in "Shall I Say, 'My Son, You're Branded'?" In this poem, Johnson poses a hypothetical conversation between a mother and her child in which the mother contemplates which side of the story of inequality she should teach her son. At first, she thinks it is only fair to tell him right away that he will never gain the same privileges as white children, then rethinks the situation:
Or shall I, with love prophetic,
bid you dauntlessly arise
Spurn the handicap that clogs you,
taking what the world denies
Bid you storm the sullen fortress
wrought by prejudice and wrong
With faith that shall not falter,
in your heart and on your tongue!
This poem conveys the determination to change what would seem like a damaging shortfall into a way of fighting back. This determination is what allows African-American women to survive and thrive, and instills inside of them a sense of hope. This theme is repeated in multiple other poems, most notably "Laocoön":
My every fibre fierce rebels
Against this servile role
And all my being broods to break
This death-grip on my soul!
"Laocoön" is extraordinarily significant because it highlights the incredible strength one must develop to conquer the barring of dreams and aspirations that seem unattainable. In Johnson's poem, the strong will to fight the "spirit-choking atmosphere" demonstrates a change in mentality and a growth of power within women. No one can control how a woman feels but herself; no one can tear her down no matter how ugly the threats, or how vicious the gazes.
Johnson takes the previous theme to the next level as she shows how a strong will can act as an inner sanctuary or an escape from the prejudgment surrounding the sufferers. Releasing frustrations from such suffering by writing poetry incites a sense of pride, satisfaction, and revenge. In "Hegira," (literally translated as an escape to flee danger) Johnson considers the northward migration of African-Americans. Because Johnson is from the south and migrated to the north, she knows perhaps better than other Harlem Renaissance poets the different extremes of how African-Americans were treated in the divided nation at the time:
I would not remember, yet could not forget, how the hearts beating true to your own
You've tortured, and wounded, and filtered their blood 'till a budding Hegira has blown
[. . . ]
And so I'm away, where the sky-line of day sets the arch of its rainbow afar
To the land of the north where the symbol of worth sets the broad gates of combat ajar. (Johnson 34)
Transitioning from a strong voice of rebuke toward an evil culture of segregation, Johnson weaves a theme of promise to the next generation throughout Bronze, "That the races of men front the sun in their turn…. " This hope is patient, and will soon be realized, according to Johnson's predictions in the section "Prescience. " "Hope" epitomizes what will come, giving the African-American children of the future a sense of optimism:
Frail children of sorrow, dethroned by a hue
The shadows are flecked by the rose sifting through
The world has its motion, all things pass away
No night is omnipotent, there must be day
[. . . ]
The cycle of seasons, the tidals of man
Revolve in the orb of an infinite plan
We move to the rhythm of ages long done
And each has his hour-to dwell in the sun!
Thus, despite the evil judgments and naivetés of the surrounding world, Johnson's book Bronze urges a different mentality and a sustained sense of hope within black females. Through a progression from grim realities to hopeful awakenings to optimistic inspirations, Johnson voices her own hopes and prayers for the future. Her collection also shows what it takes to survive as a black woman--which means having the solidity and strength of a bronze figure to resist the desire to bend to other people's opinions. Once embraced, that survival mechanism gives black women the will to control their own emotions and separates them from the evil world around them. And one day their efforts will pay off and they will be given their time in the sun.