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Grimkč's Life and Career

The Introduction to The Selected Works of Angelina Weld Grimké
by Carolivia Herron

The Angelina Weld Grimké Collection at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University includes a note in Grimké's hand that lists the titles of a projected collection of poetry. The list begins with the poem "An Epitaph," which depicts the futility and despair of the narrator who longs first for joy, then for love, and is answered with. pain and death. The poem is presented in three stanzas, the last of which unites the themes of death, lost love, repudiation of life, and despair. The typescript of the poem has many changes of pronoun--from I to she and from me to her--suggesting that Grimké debated between the closeness of the perspective and the participation of the narrator with the subject of the poem. The last stanza reads:

And now I lie quite straight, and still and plain;
Above my heart the brazen poppies flare,
But I know naught of love, or joy, or pain;--
                Nor care, nor care.

Somewhat illegible, the list of poems moves through titles suggesting happiness and familial comfort ("Lullaby") and ends with "To Joseph Lee," an obituary poem that was published by the Boston Evening Transcript (11 Nov. 1908) and that commemorates an African-American caterer and civil rights advocate in Boston.

Grimké's projected volume thus moves from inner death to outer death, from the metaphorical death and repudiation of the love of one who loves too much to the literal death of a publicly mourned figure in a communal occasion of grief. The first poem not only records the failure of love for the narrator, but also masks the fact that the love Grimké preferred to receive, the love she missed, was probably that of a woman in a lesbian relationship. Critics such as Gloria Hull in Color, Sex, and Poetry, and Barbara Christian in Black Feminist Criticism, have discussed the hidden lesbian life of Angelina Weld Grimké as it affects her poetry. A large percentage of the Grimké poetic canon is indeed a record of her attempt to love and be loved by another woman. Many of these poems, such as "Another Heart Is Broken," "Naughty Nan," and "Caprichosa," are here published for the first time.

"To Joseph Lee," however, is an example of a small percentage of Grimké's poetry that was written for occasions of celebration or commemoration. Among these are "To My Father Upon His Fifty-Fifth Birthday," "Two Pilgrims Hand in Hand," and "To the Dunbar High School." In addition, Grimké wrote and published several poems, such as "Tenebris" and "Beware Lest He Awakes," that portray the African-American experience of racial pride, as well as reaction against and revenge for lynching and other racist acts within the United States.

Although it is an extremely powerful theme when presented in her poetry, the subject of lynching is minor in terms of the number of poetic references to it. We may say that the three major themes in Grimké's poetry are lost love, commemoration of famous people, and African-American racial concerns, but we must acknowledge that racial concerns constitute less than five percent of her total output of poetry.

Most of the poems speak of love, death, and grief through narrative personae that are not explicitly identified with the interests of African Americans and that are often quite frankly white and male. "My Shrine," for example, is narrated by a standard nineteenth-century (male) persona who expresses his idealized love for a woman on a pedestal.

In contrast, the entire corpus of Grimké's fiction, nonfiction, and drama focus almost exclusively on lynching and racial injustice. These works take on African-American cultural grief rather than personal grief as their thematic focus, and they express great outrage over the lynching of African Americans in the South, over the failure of Northern whites to band together and demand an end to the crimes, and over racial injustice in general. In one story, "Jettisoned," Grimké also investigates the repercussions of passing for white in the African-American community.

Lynching is a particularly affecting theme in Grimké's play Rachel (1920). The play depicts the effects of lynching on the desire to live and the attraction toward genocide for members of the African-American community, The theme of lynching extends to her fiction as well, appearing in such stories as "The Closing Door," "Goldie," and "Blackness."

Angelina Weld Grimké was named for her white great aunt, Angelina Grimké Weld, As a young woman, Weld, along with her sister, Sarah Grimké, left South Carolina in the early nineteenth century to avoid participating directly in the ownership of slaves. The two sisters settled in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, and became well-known abolitionists and advocates of women's rights. Angelina Grimké eventually married the abolitionist Theodore Weld. Several years after the Civil War, the two sisters discovered and acknowledged their mulatto nephews, Archibald and Francis, and accepted them into their home. The young men were two of the three sons born to Angelina and Sarah's brother, Henry Grimké, and his slave, Nancy Weston. Francis married Charlotte Forten. Archibald married a white woman, Sarah Stanley, and their only child was Angelina Weld Grimké.

Angelina was born on February 27, 1880, in Boston and lived most of her life with her father to whom she was extremely attached emotionally. Soon after Angelina's birth, her mother left the Grimké household. Information concerning Sarah Stanley Grimké is scant, but it appears that she was confined in some manner for mental aberration or physical incapacity. In a letter written to Angelina when she was seven years old, Sarah speaks of wanting to return to visit her daughter, of hearing her cry out "Mamma" in her dreams. "I dream about you very often. The other night--I thought--I saw you out in a large cornfield. . . . Do you ever dream of Mamma?--Some time I shall be able to come to you in my Shadow Body and really see you. How would you like that? And some time we will be together again."

In spite of (or because of) Angelina's great affection for her father, he seems to have been the source of some restriction and oppression in her own sexual self-consciousness as a lesbian. It is clear that she decided to forgo the expression of her lesbian desires in order to please her father, and in her poem written to commemorate his fifty-fifth birthday she describes what she would have been without him in terms of a great horror and scandal avoided. Love letters to named and unnamed women appear in Grimké's papers as early as her fourteenth year, and an exchange of letters with Mamie Burrill in 1896, when Grimké was sixteen years old, makes definite reference to a prior love affair. Burrill writes to Grimké, "Angie, do you love me as you used to?" Grimké's draft letter of response answers:

My own darling Mamie, If you will allow me to be so familiar to call you such. I hope my darling you will not be offended if your ardent lover calls you such familiar names. . . . Oh Mamie if you only knew how my heart beats when I think of you and it yearns and pants to gaze, if only for one second upon your lovely face. If there were any trouble in this wide and wicked world from which I might shield you how gladly would I do it if it were even so great a thing as to lay down my life for you. I know you are too young now to become my wife, but I hope, darling, that in a few years you will come to me and be my love, my wife! How my brain whirls how my pulse leaps with joy and madness when I think of these two words, "my wife."

Grimké was educated at Fairmont Grammar School in Hyde Park (1887-1894), Carleton Academy in Northfield, Minnesota (1895), Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, and Girls' Latin School in Boston, and in 1902 she took a degree in physical education at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics (now Wellesley College). That same year she began her teaching career as a gym teacher at Armstrong Manual Training School in Washington, D.C., but in 1907, after much tension with the principal of Armstrong, she transferred to the more academic M Street High School (later Dunbar High School) where she taught English. Grimké was always more academic than vocational in her interest, and there is some question as to why she took a degree in physical education in the first place. Perhaps as a closeted lesbian she found physical education attractive because it provided sublimated contact with women.

Grimké retired from teaching and moved to New York City in 1926 where she died on June 10, 1958. Most of her works were written between 1900 and 1920. The drama Rachel is her only published book prior to this volume, but she published some of her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction (reviews and biographical sketches) in many prominent journals, particularly Opportunity, and in newspapers and many anthologies.

The present volume includes approximately one-third of the poetry, one-half of the short stories, and a small sampling of the nonfiction found in Grimké's papers at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. A republication of Rachel is also included. Almost all of the nonfiction is still in holograph, as are perhaps another two hundred poems, the incomplete play Mara (which also centers on lynching), and many unfinished short stories.

When focusing on death, women as objects of desire, lost love, motherhood, and children, the emotive import of Grimké's poems is overwhelmingly that of despair. In the poem "The Garden Seat," for example, the narrator recalls a love tryst with a woman who has died:

And then I stole up all noiseless and unseen,
And kissed those eyes so dreamy and so sad--I
Ah God! if I might once again see all
Thy soul leap in their depths as then
So hungry with long waiting and so true,
I clasp thee close within my yearning arms
I kiss thine eyes, thy lips, thy silky hair,
I felt thy soft arms twining round my neck,
Thy bashful, maiden, kisses on my cheek
My whole heart leaping 'neath such wondrous joy--
And then the vision faded and was gone
And I was in my lonely, darkened, room,
The old-time longing surging in my breast,
The old-time agony within my soul
As fresh, as new, as when I kissed thy lips
So cold, with frenzy begging thee to speak,
Believing not that thou wert lying dead.

Grimké's poem "Death" examines death abstractly as a philosophy of an afterlife and is more hopeful than her poems that describe the death of loved ones.

When the lights blur out for thee and me,
    And the black comes in with a sweep,
I wonder--will it mean life again,
    Or sleep?

Such philosophical investigations of death removed from expressions of lost love are rare, however. In "Where Phillis Sleeps" Grimké writes, "Dear one, I lie upon thy grave, my tears like rain are falling," and in "One Little Year," she writes, "Quite hopeless, now, my lips refuse to pray--/ For thou art dead." The poem "Thou Art So Far, So Far" is one of many that depict lost love due not to death but to the unapproachable nature of the beloved:

Thou art to me a lone, white, star,
That I may gaze on from afar;
But I may never, never, press
My lips on thine in mute caress, . . .

The poem "My Shrine" is Grimké's prime example of poems that depict women as ideal objects of desire:

The idol that I placed
Within this modest shrine
Was but a maiden small,
But yet divinely pure,
And there I humbly knelt
Before those calm, grey, eyes, . . .

In this poem Grimké takes the persona of a male,"Behold the one he loves!," presumably to divert attention from the lesbian implications of the poem. "Caprichosa" emphasizes a sexual rather than an ideal interest in a woman, and the narrator does not take on a male persona:

Little lady coyly shy
With deep shadows in each eye
Cast by lashes soft and long,
Tender lips just bowed for song,
And I oft have dreamed the bliss
Of the nectar in one kiss. . . .

Grimké's most significant statement about motherhood is unconsciously embedded within her poem "To My Father Upon His Fifty-Fifth Birthday." While the poem purports to praise her father's help and strength, it actually focuses on diminutive images of him as an infant incapable of sustaining himself:

. . . This day on which a new-made mother watched
You lying in her arms, your little head against
Her breast; and as you lay there, tiny wriggling mass, . . .

The description of her father as a "tiny wriggling mass" surely is not calculated to glorify his strength and has uncomfortable phallic implications as well. She goes on to describe her grandmother's new experience of motherhood in nursing her father. And the exclamation point is given not to a celebration of the child (her father), but to a glorification of the mother (her grandmother): "Ah, gift of Motherhood!" The poem then elaborates on the virtues of women and mothering. It is here that Grimké refers to what her life would have been like without her father (and presumably without having to restrict her lesbian inclinations):

. . . What were I, father dear, without thy help?
I turn my eyes away before the figure and
Rejoice; and yet your loving hands have moulded me; . . .

Through her father's assistance, Grimké repudiates her own self-molding and takes her dependent imprint from him. Finally, after depicting the care he has given her through her life, Grimké gives her father her highest compliment, "You have been a gentle mother to your child." That is, the best she can say about her father is that he is almost a mother.

This poem gives the impression that Grimké and her father had no major disagreements in their lives, but that is belied by the opening passage in Grimké's first diary, started in July 1903 to record a lost love involvement with an unnamed person. "My father and I have been having a hard time tonight over you, dear. I guess he is right and I shall try to give you up." Earlier in this entry, she writes, "I suppose I was a fool and oh how I wish that I had a mother!" Grimké's inability to portray her father as an adult male in her poem celebrating his fatherhood reveals her ambivalent feelings toward this man whose approval she could not live without but whose moralistic dicta appear to have greatly restricted her own sexual expression.

The theme of children is almost as significant as the theme of mothers in Grimké's poetry and is usually linked, as in "The Black Child," with portrayals of the ways in which African Americans suffer oppression at the hands of whites. "The Black Child" uses the image of a black baby playing in sunlight and then in shadow as an affecting extended metaphor of black life and external oppression. The poem opens:

I saw a little black child
Sitting in a gold circle of sunlight;
And in his little black hand,
He had a little black stick,
And he was beating, beating,
With his little black stick,
The sunlight all about him,
    And laughing, laughing.

By elaborating on this scene through the passage of the day, and by refusing to explain or interpret it, Grimké increases the poignancy for the reader who alternately sees the poem as a metaphor of black life or as a realistic image of a black child playing. The image is so well formed, and the impulse to delight in it so strong, that the reader almost hopes the poem is simple realistic truth to enjoy and appreciate without confronting the psychic and sociological shadow that alters and subverts the lives of black children.

And he sat in the gold circle of sunlight
    Kicking with his little feet,
    And wriggling his little toes,
    And beating, beating
    The sunlight all about him, . . . .

The shadow eases upon the black child slowly until at the end of the poem he is beating not the light but the shadows. In another poem about a black child, "Lullaby [(2)]," Grimké includes her only attempt to write black diction in verse. She is not, in this instance, adept in the use of black diction, but the content of the poem reveals her attitude toward the limited possibilities available to black adults in the United States:

Ain't you quit dis laffin' yet?
Don' you know de sun's done set?
Wan' me kiss dis li'l han'?
Well, well, laf de w'ile you can,
You won' laf w'en you'se a man,
    Dere! Dere! Sleep! Sleep!

Grimké's fiction is more stark in portraying the horror, the accents, and the future of black children. An infant is smothered in "The Closing Door," and in "Goldie" and "Blackness,'" an unborn child is cut from the womb of a lynched woman, revealing the full horror of African-American life in the United States.

Grimké wrote a few poems presenting her overall world view and background philosophy. Among these are "Life [(1)]" and "The Puppet-Player." In "Life [(1)]," for example, human beings are out of control of the destiny of their lives and overwhelmed by the "Ocean, boundless, infinite" of life:

Thou ne'er hast known nor dead nor living
One single braggart man as master, . . .

And some are lost on rocks relentless;
And some are drowned mid storms tremendous, . . .
The waters close again impenetrably:--
Each one must make his way alone—
                            And this is Life!

"The Puppet-Player" is even more pessimistic and ascribes conscious and evil intention to the power that controls the world:

Sometimes it seems as though some puppet-player
    A clenchéd claw cupping a craggy chin,
Sits just beyond the border of our seeing,
    Twitching the strings with slow, sardonic grin.

Other poems directly examine the value of life for the narrator. "Epitaph on a Living Woman" describes the annihilation of emotion and joy for the speaker: "There were tiny flames in her eyes,/ Her mouth was a flame,/ And her flesh............................. / Now she is ashes." "Life [(2)]" is Grimké’s only acknowledgment in verse that the narrator's life, in spite of its grim sadness, has at least been more dynamic than other people's:

What though I die mid racking pain,
And heart seared through and through by grief,
I still rejoice for I, at least, have lived.

By contrast, a rare poetic encounter with hope and joy is found in "A Mood":

Up mocking, teasing, little, hill;
Past dancing, glancing, little, rills,
And up or down to left or right
The same compelling, wild, delight!

"The Visitor" is Grimke's only poem in which the narrator repudiates rather than longs for death:

I beg you come not near!
See! Though I am so proud
I'll fall upon my knees,
And beg, and pray, of you
To spare this little soul!

Some of Grimké's poems use such forms as the sonnet, the triolet, and the roundel. Sonnets are particularly solemn forms for Grimké, who uses them to commemorate the life of the philanthropist Mary Porter Tileston Hemenway in "Two Sonnets to Mrs. Hemenway," and to represent stern authoritarian sentiments about God in "As We Have Sowed":


As we have sowed so shall we also reap;
And it were sweet indeed if blossoms fair
Grow from the seeds to scent the sunlit air,
But oh! How sad if weeds that hide and creep
Grow in their stead to prick and sting our feet.
Too soon we'll meet the Master on our path,
And in His deep sad eyes we'll feel the wrath
Of justice or the thrill of praises sweet.
I do but pray within this humble breast,
That little flowers may blossom on my way,
But yet so pure they change the night to day,
I beg that one more fair than all the rest
So please the Master that with glad surprise
He proudly plucks it, smiling in my eyes.


As we have sowed so shall we also reap:--
How sweet if by our path the blossoms fair
Grow from the seeds to scent the sunlit air;
But Oh! How sad if weeds that hide and creep
Grow in their stead to prick and sting our feet.
We know not when the Master passing by
May pause, nor when from out his deep sad eye
May leap the flame of wrath or praises sweet
The sweetest flowers are those not proudly drest,
But little ones that brighten all the way,
They are so pure and white. For me I pray
That one white flower more pure than all the rest
May burst in blossom 'neath the Master's eyes,
That only He may know the sacrifice.

In the first of these sonnets, the Master plucks the narrator's most beautiful flower, and in the second the narrator's one white flower bursts into bloom as an expression of her sacrifice. The stern taskmaster in the poem is surely an extension of Grimké's own father, who often chastised her verbally for her inadequacies and demanded that she fulfill all the restraining public roles that were expected of an educated middle-class African-American woman of her time.

"A Triolet," on the other hand, with its repeated line "Molly raised shy eyes to me," is an expression of joy in lesbian affection:

Molly raised shy eyes to me,
    On an April day;
Close we stood beneath a tree,
Molly raised shy eyes to me,
Shining sweet and wistfully,
Wet and yet quite gay;
Molly raised shy eyes to me,
    On an April day.

The rounded "Vigil" inhabits the intersection between hope and despair. The narrator repeatedly insists that her departed loved one will return—"You will come back"—but these words are surrounded by such a strong hint of impending hopelessness—"But if it will be bright or black"—that the act of hope appears to be merely the subterfuge of holding back despair:

You will comeback, sometime, somehow;
But if it will be bright or black
I cannot tell; I only know
                    You will come back.

Does not the spring with fragrant pack
Return unto the orchard bough?
Do not the birds retrace their track?

All things return. Some day the glow
Of quick’ning dreams will pierce your lack;
And when you know I wait as now
                    You will come back.

For the most part, Grimké uses the poetic rhythms and styles characteristics of Anglo-American poetry as a whole. The African-American distinctiveness of her work is most visible in content and plot rather than in style. In those works dealing directly with the problem of being black in the United States, she attempts to tear down the master’s house by using the master’s tools. That is, she calls on the moral conscience of white Americans to correct and improve their relationship with their black fellow citizens. This mode of expression is particularly evident in her play Rachel. In fact, in an essay about the play, Grimké declared that Rachel had been written to educate whites and to correct their attitudes about lynching and its effects on African Americans.

Variously called The Pervert, The Daughter, and Blessed Are the Barren before receiving the title Rachel, the play is about a young African-American woman who prefers to forego both marriage and motherhood so as not to provide whites with more black people to destroy through lynching and other racial atrocities. Indeed, the play may be said to encourage a for of self-genocide of African-American people. Although Grimké attempts to justify this attitude in terms of the cruelties that African Americans are forced to endure in the United States, it is probable that in this plot she is using a psychic energy that repudiates heterosexuality on a personal level to accentuate her passion for annihilating that marital and familial expectations in African-American culture. Her denial of the possibility and hopefulness of heterosexual union appears more explicitly in "The Laughing Hand," a short story that does not have African-American characters. In this story, a young woman is forced to break her engagement to her fiancé because he has contracted cancer and has suffered a disfiguring and silencing operation in which his tongue is cut out. This castration of language is more that an expression of the impossibility of heterosexual union; it may also comment on Grimké’s closeted sexuality. Unendurable marriage is also the subject of the short story "The Drudge," whose white characters are of a lower economic class than those in "The Laughing Hand." Here a beaten, oppressed wife manages to get some control over her husband by refusing to accommodate herself to his adultery.

Grimké is essentially appalled at her incapacity to have a lover in this world. And she is appalled at the restricted world that the United States allows for its African-American citizens. Her inner astonishment at her failure to find sexual and romantic companionship, and her outer astonishment at finding herself in a world that denigrates her value because she is a black woman, combine to give terrifying but effective power to stories like "The Closing Door," "Goldie," "Blackness," and "Black Is, As Black Does," all of which, like Rachel, take lynching as their theme. Two of the stories, "The Closing Door," and "Goldie," were published in the Birth Control Review to encourage black women not to have children.

Although Grimké's consciousness of African-American culture is restricted primarily to plot, one large exception to this rule appears in "Jettisoned," a story written almost entirely in African-American English. It is probably not accidental that this short story, which adopts African-American style more overtly than do her other works, is the only one with an optimistic ending, though to get to that point her characters go through hell with problems of poverty, threatened suicide, and the pain of having relatives who pass for white.

Grimké's most radical works on African-American culture, including the short stories on lynching and the poems "Trees," "Surrender," "The Black Finger," "Tenebris," and "Beware Lest He Awakes," all lean toward a refusal to accept the given conditions of being black in the United States. But probably because of publication restrictions, these works often stop just short of demanding unapologetic revenge for acts against African-American people.

The poem "Beware Lest He Awakes," for example, has three versions, and Grimké's changes, when compared with the published text, reveal that she may have been coerced into making revisions in order for the poem to be published. The original statement of the poem, that African Americans would eventually wake up and take revenge for the actions against them, was changed from the definite statement, "Beware when he awakes" to the more suppositional, "Beware lest he awakes." Thus the final version leads us to believe that the African-American people may or may not wake up and take revenge. Further, the line "Beware lest he awakes," which in the earlier versions ("Beware when he awakes") ends the two stanzas and thereby gains greater importance than any other portion of the poem, is--in the published version--buried in the middle of the first verse. Though it still ends the poem, the line's message has nevertheless been diffused.

Similarly, the short story "Goldie," which is a revised version of "Blackness," ends with the statement that the African-American man who takes revenge for lynching is himself lynched as well: "And Victor Forrest died, as the other two had died, upon another tree." "Blackness," however, implies that the vindicator escapes safely: "I have reason, to believe, he escaped. But I have never heard from him or seen him since." Although this unnamed vindicator must leave his position in the North to escape the retribution of Southerners who come after him, we are given to understand that, with the money he has saved and with support from friends, he is able to live a life in another country or community and is not hunted to the death. Evidently, the revised story, "Goldie," was more palatable to, and therefore deemed more publishable by, the Birth Control Review whose subscribers were more likely to accept fiction that encouraged African Americans not to have children in order to avoid having them lynched. The same subscribers, who were primarily white, would probably not have been willing to read about African Americans successfully taking revenge for lynching. In addition, Grimké leaves the successful revenge taker unnamed, perhaps to imply that he is still at large, still among us, and therefore his name must be protected.

Finally, Angelina Weld Grimké places herself within the tradition of African-American writers who are interested in identifying what is distinctive about African-American literary works. In her "Remarks on Literature," she describes the coming black literary genius in these words:

In preparation of the coming of this black genius I believe there must be among us a stronger and a growing feeling of race consciousness, race solidarity, race pride. It means a training of the youth of to-day and of to-morrow in the recognition of the sanctity of all these things. Then perhaps, some day, somewhere black youth, will come forth, see us clearly, intelligently, sympathetically, and will write about us and then come into his own.

Grimké herself is a participant in this coming genius, which is the forerunner of contemporary and emerging African-American artistic excellence. The oppressive stance of having to assume a white male narrative persona in her poetry in order to accommodate the "freedom" to describe sexual interest and encounters with other women gave Grimké profound information about the strategies of being closeted through concerns of race, gender, and sexual preference. The two major themes of her writings, the desire for romantic and sexual companionship and the desire for social and political equity for African Americans, give her work the import, if not the discrete form, of the blues--that musical and poetic cultural form which is the repository for African-American heroic anguish over love, lost love, and political disenfranchisement. The blues, whether in form or content or both, may indeed be characterized as the African-American epic song, and Grimké sings that song as an artist creating through the triple cultural blows of being black, female, and lesbian.

Much of her work has been rigorously ignored. Most of the poems were too lesbian and too sentimental for audiences during and after the Harlem Renaissance. Her fiction, on the other hand, was too stark in its unflinching descriptions of the violence of lynching. Indeed, the directness of her scenes of violence were unknown in African-American fictional literature prior to the work of Richard Wright. Further, her short stories with their promulgation of racial self-genocide have been too politically and emotionally threatening for African Americans and others to receive and accept. As Toni Morrison writes in the conclusion to Beloved, a more recent tale of infanticide, "This is not a story to pass on." Thus it is a painful gift to participate in the self-investigation this work has required of me; it is an honor finally to assist in passing on this story that was not to be passed on.

From Selected Works of Angelina Weld Grimké. Ed. Carolivia Herron. Copyright © 1991 by Oxford University Press.

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