Helene Johnson: A Voice in Harlem

By: Sherry Liao

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Biography
Helen Johnson was born in Massachusetts on July 7, 1906. She was known more as Helene, a nickname given to her by one of her two aunts, Minnie and Rachel. Her father left shortly after she was born and was raised by her mother and her grandfather, Benjamin Benson. She grew up surrounded by strong women, which is shown throughout her work. During her time in Brooklyn she won a contest sponsored by the Boston Chronicle. She published her poems in magazines in journals such as the NAACP’s Crisis and the Urban League’s Opportunity where she won an honorable mention in a literary contest. She did study at the Boston University but, never earned a degree.
She moved to New York in 1927 with her cousin, Dorothy West. She began studying at the Columbia University. She married William Hubbel and became more focused on her family rather than poetry. She published her last poem in 1935. She died in 1995. She was famous in the world not just to blacks but, also to whites. She was African-American and a woman who opened up opportunities for black writers.

Sonnet To A Negro In Harlem

Helene Johnson
You are disdainful and magnificent--
Your perfect body and your pompous gait,
Your dark eyes flashing solemnly with hate;
Small wonder that you are incompetent
To imitate those whom you so dispise--
Your shoulders towering high above the throng,
Your head thrown back in rich, barbaric song,
Palm trees and manoes stretched before your eyes.
Let others toil and sweat for labor's sake
And wring from grasping hands their meed of gold.
Why urge ahead your supercilious feet?
Scorn will efface each footprint that you make.
I love your laughter, arrogant and bold.
You are too splendid for this city street!

Analysis
This poem is very powerful and emphasizes the issues of being an African American during the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson shows that during that time period how an African-American behaved in Harlem. Johnson shows the many characteristics of an African-American during this time period in this poem. She is able to describe a majority of the African-Americans in Harlem through the poem with imagery, denotation, enjambment, symbols and repeating words. Imagery is shown when it says, “Your shoulders towering high above the throng/Your head thrown back in rich, barbaric song/Palm trees and mangoes stretched before your eyes”(6-8). By using imagery she was able to describe how proud African-Americans were to be in Harlem. Johnson repeats “Your” many times in the beginning of a sentence to show the characteristics of African-Americans. A symbol is shown when it says, “Let others toil and sweat for labor's sake/ And wring from grasping hands their meed of gold” (9-10). The symbol for “others” could mean African-Americans that are still working hard in fields for money.
One of the characteristics is that the blacks try to mimic the white culture. She says, “Small wonder that you are incompetent /to imitate those whom you so despise” (4-5). This shows that even though Blacks despise whites they still want to be like them. The poem says, “Let others toil and sweat for labor's sake”(9). This shows that once in Harlem other people still working in labor are forgotten as they themselves try to become the people they despise so much. Also, another message in the poem is that African-Americans are proud and arrogant even though whites think that they are below them in the social hierarchy. In the poem it says, “I love your laughter, arrogant and bold. You are too splendid for this city street!”(13-14). this quote shows that in Harlem they don’t try to hide their feelings and instead express it freely. Even though they try to be like white people, Johnson still applauds that they still keep moving on despite conflicts that try to hold them back.

Works Cited
Douglas, Aaron. "Jazz Poetry." Redirecting. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://faculty.pittstate.edu/~knichols/jzpoem.html>.
"Helena Johnson : Voices From the Gaps : University of Minnesota." Voices From the Gaps : University of Minnesota. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://voices.cla.umn.edu/artistpages/johnsonHelene.php>.
Helene Johnson. Photograph. Http:img2.wantitall.co.za. Web. 13 Apr. 2011. <http://img2.wantitall.co.za/images/ShowImage.aspx?ImageId=This-Waiting-for-Love-Helene-Johnson-Poet-of-the-Harlem-Renaissance|41MFZP%2BrZmL.jpg>
PACE, ERIC. "Helene Johnson, Poet of Harlem, 89, Dies - New York Times." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/11/obituaries/helene-johnson-poet-of-harlem-89-dies.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm>.
"Person Detail: Helene Johnson - New York State Literary Tree." Home - New York State Literary Tree. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://www.nyslittree.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/DB.PersonDetail/PersonPK/1554.cfm>.