Harlem Renaissance at 100: Angelina Weld Grimké, Lesbian Poet Laureate

A descendant of abolitionists, this poet and playwright expressed her secret sexual desires through her work.

The Harlem Renaissance, which flourished during the 1920s, was a cultural, artistic, and political movement—many of whose participants were brilliant queer people of color. Everyday this week we’re honoring their contributions in honor of this vital movement’s centennial anniversary. Previously: Richard Bruce Nugent, Gay Rebel With a Clause and Josephine Baker’s Rainbow Connections.

Two years ago, Professor Lianne Jones, the professor of my African American Literature class, said, “No matter what kind of writing a writer does, they must always showcase the essence of their truth.” That’s exactly what Angelina Weld Grimké did, and that’s why she is such a force within the Harlem Renaissance.

Grimké had a secret that she scribbled into beautiful queer-coded poems, love letters, and plays.

But before we get into her queerness and impact on the Harlem Renaissance, let’s get some background information about her history as a writer and educator. Grimké was born in 1880 into a biracial family of popular civil-rights activists and abolitionists in Boston, Massachusetts. Her great-aunts Angelina Grimké Weld and Sarah Moore Grimké were known as the mothers of the women’s suffrage movement.

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Illustrated portrait of Angelina Grimke, circa 1820s. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).

Angelina Grimké Weld, abolitionist and suffragette, c. 1820s

Grimké’s father, Archibald Grimké, was the son of a white man and a black slave woman. He attended and graduated from Harvard Law School, became a distinguished lawyer, author, and vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

As an only child, Grimké lived in her father’s shadow and wanted to meet his idea of “morality.” Since her father was a prominent author and publisher, Grimké found pleasure in writing. She graduated from the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics (now known as Wellesley College) in 1902 and became an English teacher in Washington, D.C.

In the early 1900s, Grimké began writing essays and poems to voice her concerns about racism and the reprehensible treatment of African-American men, women, and children. Her most controversial play, Rachel, concerns a black woman who is so horrified by the atrocities of racism that she decides never to have children. It is one of the first plays written and produced by a black author about the plight of African Americans.

And to quote Professor Jones loosely, Grimké showcased an “essence” of her own truth in the play. Grimké, herself, never married or had children. During the 1900s, women aspired to marriage in their early 20s. Not Grimké; she was a rebel in more ways than one.

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Portrait of American political activist and abolitonist Angelina Grimke (1805 - 1879), early twentieth century. The image appears in Robert Thomas Kerlin's book 'Negro Poets and Their Poems' (1923). (Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images)

Angelina Weld Grimké, 1923

Many of her poems and diary entries revealed that Grimké was a lesbian or bisexual; in a love letter she wrote to Mary Burrill, another Harlem Renaissance playwright, 16-year-old Grimké stated:

My own darling Mamie, 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. ... 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!

And underneath the closing “Your passionate lover,” she inscribed their two names: Mamie and Angelina.

According to 2007's A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies, “[Grimké] followed the external resolutions that she made in her diary to forego marriage and children and occupy her life with writing and her father—and probably continued to desire women in silence and frustration. Unlike [fellow prominent queer Harlem Renaissance writer Alice] Dunbar-Nelson, Grimké does not appear to have acted on her bisexual feelings with continuous and mature assurance."

In addition to that, Who's Who: In Gay and Lesbian History From Antiquity to World War II, a collection of essays on queer individuals published in 2000, describes Grimké’s diary entries and journals as wavering “between using male and female pronouns to conceal her lover’s gender. These letters, which have never been released to the public, also detail her father’s disapproval of her attraction toward women.”

Many of Grimké’s love poems are simply dripping in queerness! One of her most popular homoromantic poems is “Rosabel,” which reads:

Leaves, that whisper, whisper ever,

Listen, listen, pray;

Birds, that twitter, twitter softly,

Do not say me nay;

Winds, that breathe about, upon her,

(Since I do not dare)

Whisper, twitter, breathe unto her

That I find her fair.

Rose whose soul unfolds white petaled

Touch her soul rose-white;

Rose whose thoughts unfold gold petaled

Blossom in her sight;

Rose whose heart unfolds red petaled

Quick her slow heart's stir;

Tell her white, gold, red my love is;

And for her--for her.

“Many of Grimké’s love poems have been seen to be lesbian in content. Homosexual love is portrayed as idealized, often purely specular love which is not able to be spoken or consummated by touch,” American film director Robert Aldrich writes. “However, this masking of lesbianism has led to the evaluation of her work as a failure of expressivity by literary critics such as Barbara Christian. Gloria Hull similarly writes that she ‘lived a buried life’ and that when she did write, ‘she did so in shackles…chained between real experience and convention that would not give her voice.'”

But her writing did give her a voice. As reclusive and secretive as Angelina Grimké may have been, poetry and creative writing was an outlet for her. Her incessant need to suppress her queerness led to her writing poems and plays that will live on forever through the Harlem Renaissance.

Public Domain

Angelina Weld Grimké, date unknown

Coming out during the early 1900s could not have been easy—cis-heterosexual people blamed LGBTQ people, in part, for the stock market crash of 1929 and launched crusades of violence against queer people, particularly queer people of color. It was already uncommon for black women to thrive in America; a secret like this could have made her particularly vulnerable. This may be why she kept her journals, so that when she died, the part of herself she kept hidden—her queerness—would be known to the world without the dangers of this revelation during her time.

Angelina Weld Grimké had a choice: possible abandonment from her father or a life of queerness. She chose her father, but lived vicariously through her queer-coded words. When her father died, Grimké stopped writing and lived out the rest of her life in solitude, finally passing away in 1958 in New York City. Perhaps she died alone or perhaps she died with a secret lover.

But one thing we can confirm is that she died being queer, and her queerness lives on through her writing.