Commemorating Black History Month

Monday, February 21, 2011

Today, in recognition of Black History Month, my thoughts turn to the Harlem Renaissance and its literary figures. Much has been written about the life and achievements of Jessie Redmon Fauset, who is perhaps best known as the editor of The Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her first novel, There Is Confusion, was published in 1924.

Fauset, daughter of a minister, was raised in a large family in Philadelphia. She was an honors student at her high school. When she applied to Bryn Mawr College, the school skirted addressing a race policy for their all-white campus by helping her secure a scholarship to Cornell University, from which she graduated in 1905. She obtained jobs teaching French or Latin, studied further at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Pennsylvania, and began her career as a writer. In 1919, W. E. B. DuBois persuaded her to become the literary editor of The Crisis. During her tenure there she published and encouraged writers such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer. She was married at 47 to Herbert Harris, an insurance broker and WWI veteran, and died in 1961 at age 79.

Last week D. K. Fennell, in his blog Hidden Cause, Visible Effects, posted a more detailed biography of Fauset’s life and work, and its place in the context of evolving black literature during her lifetime. He writes:

She developed a graceful style that was also able to introduce hard truths inside of stories seemingly the most ordinary.


She was able to see a situation from all its sides and she felt no need to choose.

The website Biography states:

Fauset portrayed mostly middle-class black characters forced to deal with self-hate as well as racial prejudice. Some critics felt her portrayals were overly idealistic, while others noted their subtle use of underlying frustration.

Her work has never been collected, but can be found in various anthologies. The following poem is from The Book of American Negro Poetry, edited by James Weldon Johnson (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922).


If this is peace, this dead and leaden thing,

Then better far the hateful fret, the sting.

Better the wound forever seeking balm

Than this gray calm!


Is this pain’s surcease? Better far the ache,

The long-drawn dreary day, the night’s white wake,

Better the choking sigh, the sobbing breath

Than passion’s death!


This volume is freely available for download at Google books.