Happy Birthday, poet/playwright Angelina Weld Grimké

Angelina Weld Grimké’s was born into a powerful familial legacy, which she absorbed, and then continued on her own. It was the air she breathed. Her paternal grandparents were a white slave owner and a mixed-race slave, who lived together and had three sons. Her father was the second African-American to graduate from Harvard. Her parents split up soon after she was born, and at first Angelina lived with her mother (who was white). When Angelina was sent back to live with the father, the mother basically broke contact with her young daughter. The mother then committed suicide.

More power in the family tree: her grandfather’s sisters – Sarah and Angelina – were famous abolitionists, even more famous because they came from a slaveholding family in the South, and broke ranks with the family, with their culture, with everything. These women were Angelina Weld Grimké’s great-aunts. One of her aunts was Charlotte Forten Grimké, a Black anti-slavery activist as well as a poet (see Angelina’s poem about her aunt below).


Charlotte Forten Grimké

Angelina’s father became the US consul to the Dominican Republic, and during that time, when he was gone a lot, Grimké stayed with an aunt and uncle in Washington D.C. attending school. This was in the 1890s. Angelina was a devoted student. She eventually got a degree in physical education from the Boston School of Gymnastics, and then started to work as an English teacher at a couple of different schools. She took summer classes at Harvard. She eventually did live in New York. However, she became associated with the Harlem Renaissance while she was still living in D.C, when her poems and essays started getting published in Crisis, the magazine for the NAACP.

In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was released. It became a blockbuster hit, the first. It was screened at the White House. To this day, it is praised for its artistic innovations (fair enough), while also being criticized for how FUCKING RACIST it is (also fair). I mean …

There is a myth – perpetuated by people who don’t know anything about history – that everybody “back then” was just a-okay FINE with Birth of a Nation. The OPPOSITE is true. The film was protested ferociously at the time. The film caused an uproar. People protested the theatres. Writers wrote about it. The NAACP organized protests. Don’t ERASE these courageous pissed-off people just because you can’t be bothered to actually read a book.

In order to consolidate the protests against Birth of a Nation, Crisis called for works by black writers to counter-act Birth of a Nation‘s racist narrative. Angelina Weld Grimké heeded that call and wrote Rachel, a play about a black family in the North, during the Great Migration. Rachel is about lynching and racial discrimination, and it’s also about motherhood (the play’s original title was Blessed are the Barren, which gives you some sense of Grimké’s ambivalence on the topic). How can you be a mother and protect your children in a world where there is such a thing as lynching? This is the central theme of the play.

Rachel was first produced in D.C. and then it moved to New York. It is the first play by an Black woman to be produced in this country in professional venues. It got very good responses initially, and it rode the waves of publicity from Birth of a Nation. After that, it lapsed into obscurity, although it has recently been re-discovered, as a fairly important early work addressing the realities of African-American life in the early years of the 20th century. There have also been a number of recent productions of it.

Angelina Weld Grimké’s moment in the sun was brief. Her poetry was anthologized, though, which speaks to her influence and visibility.

Here are a couple of her poems:

El Beso

Twilight—-and you
Quiet—-the stars;
Snare of the shine of your teeth,
Your provocative laughter,
The gloom of your hair;
Lure of you, eye and lip;
Yearning, yearning,
Languor, surrender;
Your mouth,
And madness, madness,
Tremulous, breathless, flaming,
The space of a sigh;
Then awakening—remembrance,
Pain, regret—-your sobbing;
And again, quiet—-the stars,
Twilight—-and you.

To Keep the Memory of Charlotte Forten Grimké

Still are there wonders of the dark and day:
The muted shrilling of shy things at night,
So small beneath the stars and moon;
The peace, dream-frail, but perfect while the light
Lies softly on the leaves at noon.
These are, and these will be
Until eternity;
But she who loved them well has gone away.

Each dawn, while yet the east is veiléd grey,
The birds about her window wake and sing;
And far away, each day, some lark
I know is singing where the grasses swing;
Some robin calls and calls at dark.
These are, and these will be
Until eternity;
But she who loved them well has gone away.

The wild flowers that she loved down green ways stray;
Her roses lift their wistful buds at dawn,
But not for eyes that loved them best;
Only her little pansies are all gone,
Some lying softly on her breast.
And flowers will bud and be
Until eternity;
But she who loved them well has gone away.

Where has she gone? And who is there to say?
But this we know: her gentle spirit moves
And is where beauty never wanes,
Perchance by other streams, mid other groves;
And to us there, ah! she remains
A lovely memory
Until eternity;
She came, she loved, and then she went away.

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