Sunday, February 17, 2013

Today In Black History - Angelina Weld Grimké

Angelina Weld Grimké (1880 - 1958) was a poet and educator from a prominent, multiracial family. Her published works include passionate protests against racism and eloquent portrayals of the issues faced by black Americans in the early 20th century.

Grimké was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 27, 1880. Her mother, Sarah E. Stanley, was white and worked as a scholar and a homemaker. Grimké’s father, Archibald Henry Grimké, was a highly regarded attorney, diplomat, and scholar. Her parents had a turbulent and difficult relationship, in part due to the pressures of being a mixed-race couple, and they separated in 1883. Grimké’s mother moved to San Diego, California, and made a career as a lecturer on occult subjects, but had very little contact with her daughter after leaving Boston. Raised by her father in an environment that ranked education and social grace above all else, Grimké excelled academically and in public, but was privately haunted by the intense pressure she felt to succeed in his eyes.

Grimké’s attendance at some of the best schools available to African Americans amplified her sense of duty toward her family name. By the time she enrolled at the Boston Normal School, an institution that was eventually absorbed into Wellesley College, her father had already served as the American Consul to the Dominican Republic, and her fellow students were quite aware of the acclaim her great aunt, Angelina Emily Grimké, had earned as an activist for suffrage and abolitionist causes. Grimké retreated into her writing, quietly honing a poet’s voice as she sought to balance her sense of herself against her family’s significant presence and renown. She had published her first poem at age 13, and continued to be an avid writer.

After earning her degree, she moved to Washington, DC, where her uncle and aunt, Francis and Charlotte Forten Grimké, her aunt a notable educator and diarist, lived. Following her interest in education and mindful of her father’s wish that she become a respectable woman in society, Grimké took a job teaching physical education at a vocational school. Meanwhile, she continued to write. Her earliest notable poems, published in Boston and in Washington, DC, were pointedly activist in the realm of racial politics. Some critics feared that unflinching assaults on prejudice were enough to cause violence in the streets and incite Blacks to rise up in the face of oppression. But for all the excitement caused by her pen, Grimké remained personally introverted and dedicated to the quiet life of a teacher. During her summers, she took courses at Harvard, and in 1907, she became an English teacher at Washington’s M Street High School. Shortly afterward, Grimké began to publish love poems. She still lashed out against racism, but developed a more expansive public persona in which families and great loves were often torn apart by race issues.

When she suffered significant back injuries in a 1911 train crash, Grimké was further pushed into a sense of isolation. Always sheltered, her new physical handicap led her to spend increasing amounts of time at her writing desk, rather than risk the strain of leaving the house or entering the classroom. Soon after the accident, she began work on a three act play called Rachel, A Play of Protest. It chronicled the sad tale of African American women who choose to forgo having children in the face of a society that didn’t value Blacks. At the time, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was dedicated to promoting black culture through such programs as its Drama Committee. When the NAACP produced Grimké’s play in 1916, she became the first black woman to have a play staged in a public theater.

Notwithstanding Grimké’s commitment to her poetry, Rachel was a tremendous success, and the work earned her considerable acclaim. After follow-up stagings, it was published in 1920 and became a popular piece of theater. Around the same period, she also delved into short stories, publishing several investigations into notions of motherhood and femininity within a black culture that was subverted by Whites. It became common for readers and critics to assume that the reclusive Grimké, who never married or even engaged in public liaisons of any kind, was churning out representations of her own highly personal sense of persecution.

Although she was still relatively young, she retired from teaching in 1926, but remained in Washington, DC, where her father had also retired. His health was failing and she cared for him constantly until 1930. Her only notable forays into public events during these years were to attend literary salons hosted by poet Georgia Douglas Johnson. Grimké’s talents were much admired by the lauded poets and writers of the Harlem Renaissance including Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, but she never fully engaged them or their efforts to have her become a more active member of the era’s black cultural community. Cullen did convince Grimké to be published in a 1927 anthology entitled Caroling Dusk, but even after her father died and she moved to New York in 1930, she kept to herself. In fact, she never again published and spent the remainder of her life in quiet isolation. Grimké died on June 10, 1958.

Compared to the spare amount of work that she allowed to be published during her life, Grimké left voluminous personal papers and unpublished works behind, including a play entitled Mara and a collection of poems called Dusk Dreams. The poems are such detailed works of love and passion that literary historians believe she was afraid to publish for fear of the scandal that might be cast on her family. Decades after her death and loss of public awareness, Grimké’s works returned to popularity. Despite her timid persona, she is now remembered as a lyrical and fearless chronicler of the personal and political dilemmas of her era.

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