Jessie Fauset tells how to face despair: “’Courage!’ He said”
Poetry was perhaps the least important of the literary contributions of Jessie Redmon Fauset.
In Alain Locke’s Harlem Renaissance manifesto The New Negro: An Interpretation (NY: A & G Boni: 1925), Fauset is included, but only as a cultural critic—her contribution was an essay on the black comic actor, “The Gift of Laughter.” She traced the role of blacks in the theater from the minstrel to the then current reviews of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. “The remarkable thing about this gift of ours,” she said, “is that it has its rise, I am convinced, in the very woes which beset us. Just as a person driven by great sorrow may finally go into an orgy of laughter, just so an oppressed and too hard driven people breaks over into compensating laughter and merriment. It is our emotional salvation.” It was also the box that confined them, she concluded.
The year before Locke had heaped praises on Fauset’s debut as a novelist. In “The Younger Literary Movement,” an article he co-authored with W.E.B. Du Bois for the February 1924 issue of the NAACP’s The Crisis (a monthly magazine of opinion, current events and social notices, which called itself “A Record of the Darker Races”), two books were singled out as providing evidence that a new generation of African-Americans was ready to fill the void left by the passing of Paul Laurence Dunbar and the silence of others. Those books were Jean Toomer’s volume of poetry and stories, Cane, and Fauset’s first novel, There is Confusion (NY: Boni & Liveright: c1924). Du Bois enthused over Toomer’s emancipation of African-American women from the straight-laced and conventional thought prevailing in the “colored world” concerning sex. Locke on the other hand hailed Fauset’s book as the novel that the “Negro intelligentzia have been clamoring for … What they have been wanting … is not merely a race story told from the inside, but a cross section of the race life higher up the social pyramid and further from the base-line of the peasant and the soil than is usually taken.” Fauset’s novel dealt with the upper class Philadelphia black life, without scandal, but with dreams and passions. “[H]ere in refreshing contrast with the bulk of fiction about the Negro, we have a novel of the educated and aspiring classes.” It wasn’t just a book of the manners of the elite, Locke also saw it as dealing honestly with racial issues. “[I]t throbs with some of the latest reactions of the race situation in this country upon the psychology and relations of colored and white Americans of the more intelligent classes.” Fauset’s empathy for all parties gave the novel a wisdom concerning mutual understanding and cooperation “through the discipline of experience.” “It is as though two antithetic sides of life, male and female, white and black, had each to work out its own chastening and enlargement through sorrow and disillusionment to find itself, late but not always too tragically late, able to rise from the level of confusion to the level of coöperation and understanding.” Fauset was able to depict the upper stratum of black society, because she lived it her whole life.
Contrary to what the modern encyclopedists say, Fauset was not “poor”* nor did she live in “grinding poverty”† as a child or even experience deprivation, despite being one of 13 children in the family. (Jessie’s mother and father had seven children, of which Jessie was the youngest. After her mother died, her father married a woman with three children, and they had three more together.) The mistake, repeated by one compiler from another, was in assuming that large black families in late nineteenth century Philadelphia represented a kind of dysfunctional family of ghetto poor. But that was not how African-Americans lived then and there, as none other than W.E.B. Du Bois himself demonstrated (before he even knew Fauset) in his groundbreaking work of the American sociological method: The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (Publications of the University of Pennsylvania: Series in Political Economy and Public Law No. 14: 1899). Du Bois showed that without exception large families like the Fauset’s only occurred among the highest social class. Even the urban black’s equivalent of middle class did not have families that large (see chart on p 170). Moreover, Jessie’s father was a minister — African Methodist Episcopal, in class only below the one black Episcopalian church in Philadelphia. The church was the central organization in black life at the time. As Du Bois points it, it was the institution that provided blacks with a connection to Africa, because it was the only organization that slaves were allowed to participate in (p 197); in fact, since slaves had no expectation of family, the church pre-dates the black family in America (p 201).
“Its tribal functions are shown in its religious activity, its social authority and general guiding and co-ordinating work; its family functions are shown by the fact that the church is a centre of social life and intercourse; acts as newspaper and intelligence bureau, is the centre of amusements—indeed, is the world in which the Negro moves and acts. So far-reaching are these functions of the church that its organization is almost political.” (p 201.)
“To be a popular church with large membership means ample revenues, large social influence and a leadership among the colored people unequaled in power and effectiveness.” (p 203.)
Ministers thus were essentially chief executives of large organizations with large revenue, and the ministers themselves had high incomes as a result. In fact, ministers were among the professionals (together with lawyers and doctors) that made up the highest stratum of black urban society. If anything the Fausets, far from struggling, were insular. Du Bois describes the black upper class:
“It is a class small in numbers and not sharply differentiated from other classes, although sufficiently so to be easily recognized. Its members are not to be met with in the ordinary assemblages of the Negroes, nor in their usual promenading places. They are largely Philadelphia born, and being descended from the house-servant class, contain many mulattoes. In their assemblies there are evidences of good breeding and taste, so that a foreigner would hardly think of ex-slaves. They are not to be sure people of wide culture and their mental horizon is as limited as that of the first families in a country town. … On the whole they strike one as sensible, good folks. Their conversation turns on the gossip of similar circles among the Negroes of Washington, Boston and New York; on questions of the day, and, less willingly, on the situation of the Negro. Strangers secure entrance to this circle with difficulty and only by introduction.” (p 318.)
Locke makes the same point, but in a less judgmental way about that class. He uses the point to show why Fauset’s novel was unique in black literature. “We scarcely realize how by reaction to social prejudice we have closed our better circles physically and psychologically: it is not always the fault of the novelist that he can depict only the peasant type and his urban analogue, the Negro of the slums. But here in refreshing contrast with the bulk of fiction about the Negro, we have a novel of the educated and aspiring classes.”
Any notion of the “grinding poverty” of the Fausets will be dispelled by reading her recollection of long ago “Sunday Afternoon” (Crisis, February 1922), where she describes how proper respect for the Sabbath required her to forego activities like buying candy or reading fairy tales. Instead she paints a picture of herself laying in bed, “heels up, chin propped in my hand,” reading the books permitted (Dante’s Inferno with engravings by Doré or a family bible “a fat leather-bound volume printed on stained brown paper with the old-fashioned s and with an Apocrypha.”)
It was only because Jessie Fauset belonged to the highest (and insular) class that she could have conceived of applying to Bryn Mawr for college. She had been an honors student at the High School for Girls in Philadelphia. But Bryn Mawr did not have the same high opinion of blacks of her class as they themselves did (Bryn Mawr didn’t have a high opinion of any blacks), so the college redirected her ambitions toward Cornell and even assisted in landing her a scholarship, thereby preserving its all white campus without having to sully itself with rules about racial purity.
She studied classical languages and literature as well as French and German at Cornell, where she was graduated in 1905. She is reputed to have been the first African-American woman elected to the Phi Beta Kappa. Nevertheless, the only work she could find was in the public schools of Baltimore. (The Philadelphia school system rejected her.) She soon moved to Washington, D.C., where she taught French and Latin at the M Street High School (which was later renamed in honor of Paul Laurence Dunbar). She studied at the Sorbonne for a period at this time, even being caught in France during August 1914. She obtained a masters in French from University of Pennsylvania, during the time she was teaching in Washington. She also tentatively began a literary career, sending poems and creative work to The Crisis.
The first poem, “Rondeau,” published in the April 1912 issue, was a slender thing, more about rhyming technique and classical allusion than real verse. She followed it up with a short story, “Emmy,” published that December. She seemed to grow more confident in her short fiction over the decade, but she also continued submitting poetry. Both were published. The poems, however, seemed chosen mainly to fill a typeset page. They were all conventionally “poetic,” dealing as they did with seasons, meadows, flowers, God and loss.
The stories’ tone of racial uplift and inspiration as well as the middle-brow quality of her verse evidently appealed to W.E.B. Du Bois, editor of The Crisis. (The masthead said it was “conducted by” W.E.B. Du Bois.) Her education, background and possibly her connection with the University of Pennsylvania also appealed to him. So in 1919 he offered Fauset the title of “Literary Editor” of The Crisis. In reality, she would become his personal assistant and almost a partner in editing the journal. Gradually she took on more responsibility.
In 1920-21 she managed and wrote for The Brownies’ Book — a magazine designed for African-American children from 6 to 16. The express purpose was “to make colored children realize that being ‘colored’ is a normal, beautiful thing” and “to make them familiar with the history and achievements of the Negro race” (Crisis, October 1919).
She began supplying The Crisis with literary essays. She developed a graceful style that was also able to introduce hard truths inside of stories seemingly the most ordinary. In “Nostalgia” in the August 1921 issue she talks with her local fruit stand owner who tells her how homesick he is for Greece and how he loves America but hopes some day to return home. She then tells of her conversation with a bootblack who explains how he is saving up (unrealistic as it seems to her) to return to Italy. She meets 12-year-old Rachel who explains how her parents yearn to return to Israel (even though they had never been there). She then encounters the son of a friend, back from the war. She suggests that he must be happy to be home.
“‘Home?’ he echoes, ‘where is it? Do you know, I never knew what home was until I went to France? There in the midst of all those strange people, and the awful food and the foreign jabber I felt myself less homesick than I have ever felt in my life—yes, than I feel this minute.
‘Home,’ he rushes on, his words tumbling over each other in his eagerness, ‘I don’t know how to define it. Is it where one is surrounded by the sights and sounds to which he’s been used all his life? Or is it where mentally and spiritually he is recognized and taken for what he is? What is home?”
She was able to see a situation from all its sides and she felt no need to choose. In her “Yarrow Revisited” (Crisis, January 1925) she returns to France and finds it unlike her memory. The dreariness comes partly from the cheap lodgings she finds herself in. “In the pension a line from a melancholy hymn of my Presbyterian childhood comes back to me: ‘Change and decay in all around I see.'” But there was more:
“Yet there is something about Paris. In the beginning I said that life in Paris is the same as life the civilized world over but that there was one excepton [sic]. In Paris I find myself more American than I ever feel in America. I am more conscious of national characteristics than I have ever been in New York. When I say: ‘We do that differently in America,’ I do not mean that we do that differently in Harlem, or on “You” Street in Washington, or on Christina Street in Philadelphia. I mean that Americans white and black do not act that way. And I recall now as I write that practically all the public buildings here bear on them the legend: Liberté, Egalité, Franternité’. …. I shall go out presently and have tea and I shall have it at the first tea room which takes my fancy. This is also something to be considered in reviewing French ‘life as she is’.”
Fauset also regularly reviewed books. She was among the first to acclaim Du Bois’s Darkwater (especially its chapter “The Souls of White Folk”):
“The psychology of the hunted, the hurt, the broken, the oppressed, is a hard thing to get at. It is obscured sometimes by fear, sometimes by pride. Dr. DuBois with a fearlessness and a pride too real to fear pity or misinterpretation gives the world an account of what millions of people suffer, not because they are black, but because of the construction which a dominant white world has put on that color. And as he writes dark people become free; they put away false shame, they are glad that they have instincts which permit them to feel, to pity, to sicken before ruthlessness and cruelty.” “New Literature on the Negro,” Crisis, June 1920, p 82.
She supplied biographical sketches of black historical figures. She attended the Second Pan-African Congress in Europe (she was sponsored by her sorority Delta Sigma Theta) and published two reports.
Her short fiction was now quite impressive. The story “Mary Elizabeth” (Crisis, December 1919) combines a gentle class critique with a poignant story of the continuing ravages caused by slavery. Its style is as highbrow and as assured as the better stories in the Saturday Evening Post, the magazine her upper class black housewife narrator says “is more than rubies to me.” She would continue submitting short stories.
As her influence grew, she had more say in the selection of stories and poems. It was here that she is best remembered, for she had a decisive impact on Black letters in the early 1920s and her encouragement and editing of Langston Hughes, George Schuyler, Jean Toomer, Arna Bontemps, Claude McKay and Countee Cullen was a substantial contribution to the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance. In his autobiography The Big Sea, Hughes says: “Jessie Fauset at the Crisis, Charles Johnson at Opportunity, and Alain Locke in Washington were the people who midwifed the so-called New Negro Literature into being. Kind and critical — but not too critical for the young — they nursed us along until our books were born.” Despite her different class background she was able to mentor the new literary radicals without condescension or censure. Claude McKay said in A Long Way Home From Home, that “all the radicals liked her, although in her social viewpoint she was away over on the other side of the fence.”
Perhaps it was the influence of the younger poets, but her poetry in the 1920s became less mannered, dealt with more substantial matters and eventually demonstrated a unique voice. Early in her Crisis career, she wrote “Oriflamme,” a lament on the destruction that slavery reeked on the black family. “Rencontre” is a small evocative poem of memory and loss. In “Stars in Alabama” she finally dealt in poetry with experiences outside the sensibilities of her class. Finally, in “‘Courage!’ He Said,” this week’s poem, she achieved an authentic voice. Subtle and authoritative. She also makes use of classical images, without displaying needless erudition. She wrote many other poems during the period, but “Courage” is the last poem she ever wrote.
It was probably her decision to pursue the career of a novelist that caused her to end all her other literary pursuits. It was therefore the success of There is Confusion, or at least the acclaim given it by Locke and DuBois, that ushered her out of literature. The New York Times and the Times Literary Supplement also recommended the book, although in both cases the approvals seems to have been largely owing to the novelty of an educated black woman writer. After publication, Fauset took a trip to Europe and North Africa. She wrote several essays for The Crisis about the trip. She had long thought that if she had a year or two to devote to fiction she might be able to produce enough to support herself. So in 1926 she gave notice to DuBois. Dubois allowed her to retain a title, contributing editor, possibly for the resume value. It is clear that she worried about her support. She wrote wealthy white NAACP Treasurer (and former President) Joel Springarn for help securing a position. The letter (January 26, 1926) ‡, reveals the dim prospects a black woman as educated and accomplished as Fauset in the 1920s had. Her wish was to be a proof-reader for a publishing house, “a social secretary in a private family, preferably for a woman,” or a position at a Foundation. She assured him that she did not intend to be difficult: “In the case of publisher’s reader, if the question of color should come up I could of course work at home.” She wanted him to know that she was making efforts to help herself: “I’ve already taken the examination in French for the Junior High School but even if I shall have passed there would be a lapse of time before an appointment And I prefer not to teach.” By 1927 she was teaching French at the DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City. She would work there for the next 17 years, when she would retire at 62. When she was 47 she married an insurance broker in 1929. They lived in Harlem with Jessie’s sister until her death. They moved to Montclair, New Jersey where they lived until her husband’s death in 1958. She then moved to Philadelphia to live with a step-brother where she died in 1961 at 79.
She never did get free time to write, and the high school job must have been less conducive than the editorial job for Dubois, judging from her output. Nevertheless, she did write three more novels. The first one, Plum Bun (NY: Frederick A. Stokes Co: 1929), was perhaps her best, but no major house was willing to publish it. As for her third novel, even the Stokes Company, which published Plum Bun, initially refused to publish The Chinaberry Tree, until Zona Gale agreed to write an introduction. Fauset wrote Gale that Stokes’ readers “declare plainly that there ain’t no such colored people as these, who speak decent English, are self-supporting and have a few ideals” (20 October 1931). The Stokes Company would also publish her last novel, Comedy, American Style in 1933. In the early 1930s, she said, she studied stories in the Saturday Evening Post to see how successful story-writers did it. But she never made much money from writing. She would receive even less renown from it.
Although Locke and Dubois hailed her first novel as the wave of the future in black literature, a new form of letters, one they could not conceive, rose up. One that celebrated the urban negro, with all his faults. It would be self-assertive, celebrate the flamboyant and sometimes bizarre, and make no attempt to show white folk how much like them the civilized blacks were. It was a kind of literature that DuBois would never understand; it violated his view of how blacks would advance. It frankly shocked him. (When Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven appeared in 1926, DuBois was stunned. He said it was a slap in the face . “I cannot for the life of me see in this work either sincerity or art, deep thought, or truthful industry, It seems to me that Mr. Van Vechten tried to do something bizarre and he certainly succeeded.” Crisis, December 1926.) When Fauset left, Dubois was unable to deal with the new men and women of letters, and as a result poetry and other forms of literature soon disappeared from The Crisis. Jessie Fauset was able to understand and encourage this new form of black literature, but she was unable to be part of it. In turn, the black avant-garde turned its back on Fauset and demeaned her writing as derivative, abject and out of date. Locke himself would eventually conclude that she was too “mid-Victorian for moving power today.” When McKay referred to Fauset being on the other side of the fence, he meant “that closed decorous circle of Negro society, which consists of persons who live proudly like the better class of conventional whites.” The critics fell in line, each using more dismissive language until Robert Bone in The Negro Novel in America (New Haven: Yale University Press: 1958) called Fauset a “novelist of the Rear Guard” whose “literary aspirations were circumscribed by her desire to convey a flattering image of respectable Negro society.” That pretty much shut the door on Fauset’s reputation, but he twisted the knife by claiming she was “uniformly sophomoric, trivial, and dull.” It was the same kind of put down that used to be made against Jane Austen. (In fact, William Stanley Braithwaite once called Fauset, expecting more writing, “the potential Jane Austen of Negro Literature” (Opportunity, January 1934). Fauset had finished writing by then; her potential became nothing more than the actual.
Jessie Fauset is buried in Eden Cemetary in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, next to her husband. No one has collected her poems or short stories or essays.
“Courage!” He said
from The Crisis (November 1929)
by Jessie Fauset
ULYSSES, debarking in the Lotos Land,
Struck the one note that the hapless Ithacans
Travel-sick, mazed, bemused, could understand,
And understanding, follow.
“Courage,” he said, “remember, is not Hope!”
He left the worn, safe ship, spume-stained and hollow.
“To be courageous is to face despair.”
And through the groves and ’thwart the ambient air
Resounded reedy echoes:
But this they understood.
And plunging on prepared for best, and most prepared
For worst, found only in their stride
A deep umbrageous wood,
And grassy plains where they disported; eased
And bathed lame feet within a purling stream
And murmured: “Here, Odysseus, would we fain abide!”
But neither the stream’s sweet ease
Nor the shade of the vast beech-trees,
Nor the blessed sense
Of the sweet, sweet soil
Beneath feet salt-cracked and worn
Brought to them even then,
(Still fainting and frayed and forlorn),
Such complete recompense
As the knowledge that once again
Facing the new and untried,
They had kept the courage of men!
* * *
Given that Fauset’s poetry is not easily accessible, I set forth below some other poems (mentioned in the text above) for a better feel for her poetic aesthetic.
from The Crisis (April 1912)
by Jessie Fauset
When April’s here and meadows wide
Once more with spring’s sweet growths are pied
I close each book, drop each pursuit,
And past the brook, no longer mute,
I joyous roam the countryside.
Look, here the violets shy abide
And there the mating robins hide–-
How keen my sense, how acute,
When April’s here!
And list! down where the shimmering tide
Hard by that farthest hill doth glide,
Rise faint strains from shepherd’s flute,
Pan’s pipes and Berecyntian lute.
Each sight, each sound fresh joys provide
When April’s here.
from The Crisis (January 1920)
by Jessie Fauset
“I can remember when I was a little, young girl, how my old mammy would sit out of doors in the evenings and look up at the stars and groan, and I would say, ‘Mammy what makes you groan so?’ And she would say, ‘I am groaning to think of my poor children; they do not know where I be and I don’t know where they be. I look up at the stars and they look up at the stars!'” — Sojourner Truth.
I THINK I see her sitting bowed and black,
Stricken and seared with slavery’s mortal scars,
Reft of her children, lonely anguished, yet
Still looking at the stars.
Symbolic mother, we thy myriad sons,
Pounding our stubborn hearts on Freedom’s bars,
Clutching our birthright, fight with faces set,
Still visioning the stars!
from The Crisis (January 1924)
by Jessie Fauset
MY heart, which beat so passionless,
Leaped high last night when I saw you.
Within me surged the grief of years
And whelmed me with its endless rue.
My heart which slept so still, so spent,
Awoke last night—to break anew.”
from The Crisis (August 1924)
by Jessie Fauset
SLANTING, driving, Summer rain
How you wash my heart of pain!
How you make me think of trees,
Ships and gulls and flashing seas!
In your furious, tearing wind,
Swells a chant that heals my mind;
And your passion high and proud,
Makes me shout and laugh aloud!
Autumn rains that start at dawn,
‘Dropping veils of thinnest lawn’;
Soaking sod between dank grasses,
Sweeping golden leaves in masses,—
Blotting, blurring out the Past,
In a dream you hold me fast;
Calling, coaxing to forget
Thing that are, for things not yet.
Winter tempest, winter rain,
Hurtling down with might and main,
You but make me hug my heart,
Laughing, sheltered from your wrath.
Now I woo my dancing fire,
Piling, piling drift-wood higher.
Books and friends and pictures old,
Hearten while you pound and scold!
Pattering wistful showers of Spring
Set me to remembering
Far-off times and lovers too,
Gentle joys and heart-break rue,—
Memories I’d as lief forget,
Were not oblivion sadder yet.
Ah! you twist my mind with pain,
Wistful whispering April rain!
Summer, Autumn, Winter rain,
How you ease my heart of pain!
Whispering, wistful showers of Spring,
How I love the hurt you bring!
Stars in Alabama
from The Crisis (January 1928)
by Jessie Fauset
Stars hang down so low,
So low they purge the soul
With their infinity.
Beneath their holy glance
Rises to mingle with them
In that skiey sea.
Within the sandy cotton-field
Beyond the clay, red road
Bordered with green.
A Negro lad and lass
Cling hand in hand,
And Passion, hot-eyed, hot-lipped,
But in the evening
When the skies lean down,
He’s but a wistful boy.
A saintly maiden she.
For Alabama stars
Hang down so lo
So low they purge the soul
With their infinity.
* Carolyn Wedin Sylvander, “Jessie Redmon Fauset” in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Vol 51, Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, edited by Trudier Harris (Detroit: Gale Research Inc: 1987), p 77. [Return to text.]