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Angelina Weld Grimke Essay, Research Paper

The Introduction to The

Selected Works of Angelina Weld Grimk?

by Carolivia Herron

The Angelina Weld Grimk? Collection at the Moorland-Spingarn

Research Center of Howard University includes a note in Grimk?’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 Grimk? 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.

Grimk?’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 Grimk? 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 Grimk? as it affects her poetry. A large percentage of the Grimk?

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 Grimk?’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, Grimk? 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 Grimk?’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 Grimk?’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," Grimk? also investigates the repercussions

of passing for white in the African-American community.

Lynching is a particularly affecting theme in Grimk?’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 Grimk? was named for her white great aunt, Angelina Grimk? Weld, As a

young woman, Weld, along with her sister, Sarah Grimk?, 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 Grimk? 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 Grimk?, and his

slave, Nancy Weston. Francis married Charlotte Forten. Archibald married a white woman,

Sarah Stanley, and their only child was Angelina Weld Grimk?.

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 Grimk? household. Information concerning Sarah Stanley Grimk? 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 Grimk?’s papers as

early as her fourteenth year, and an exchange of letters with Mamie Burrill in 1896, when

Grimk? was sixteen years old, makes definite reference to a prior love affair. Burrill

writes to Grimk?, "Angie, do you love me as you used to?" Grimk?’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."

Grimk? 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.

Grimk? 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.

Grimk? 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 Grimk?’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 Grimk?’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.

Grimk?’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" Grimk? 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 Grimk?’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 Grimk? 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. . . .

Grimk?’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 Grimk? 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, Grimk? repudiates her own self-molding and takes her



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