I pledge allegiance to the flag—
They dragged him naked
Through the muddy streets,
A feeble-minded black boy!
—“Flag Salute” by Esther Popel
This pretty futile seam,
It stifles me—God, must I sit and sew?
—“I Sit and Sew” by Alice Dunbar-Nelson
Oh, little brown girl, born for sorrow’s mate,
Keep all you have of queenliness,
Forgetting that you once were slave,
And let your full lips laugh at Fate!
—“To a Dark Girl” by Gwendolyn Bennett
Esther Popel, Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Gwendolyn Bennett were three major voices of the Harlem Renaissance—lost to time, in part, because those voices belonged to women.
All three poets had ties to Harrisburg. Now, 100 years later, Harrisburg artists, civic leaders and historians are educating a new generation of students who find inspiration in their stories.
In an age rededicated to equity, lessons about the artists of the Harlem Renaissance confirm the imperative of paths to opportunity and promise.
“With learning about yourself, about your culture, you are definitely able to propel your community and become your full self, knowing who you are and being comfortable in your skin, being an African American,” said Courtney Brown, president of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Epsilon Sigma Omega Chapter, Harrisburg, which is educating students about the Harlem Renaissance and the three poets. “This allows for that, to say you have forefathers who have been in poetry, art and dance, and you’re able to continue on that legacy and be glad in it.”
Alice, Esther, Gwendolyn
Harrisburg. Harlem Renaissance. Safe to say, the two are rarely linked. Until now.
The Harlem Renaissance was the flowering of African American culture in the 1920s and ‘30s. The likes of Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Marcus Garvey and Josephine Baker flourished amid a literary, musical, activist and intellectual environment devoted to creativity, free expression and Black empowerment.
In the years before the Harlem Renaissance, Harrisburg had its thriving 8th Ward, where African Americans joined a diverse mix of cultures and faiths to build homes, businesses and places of worship. By the 1920s, it was gone, demolished to make way for the expansion of the state Capitol grounds.
On the Capitol grounds, the Commonwealth Monument now commemorates the civic and economic vitality of the Old 8th. Among 100 names listed of the residents who gave the 8th Ward a place in history, three are poets whose voices battled injustice.
Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935): Author, poet, playwright, publisher, peace activist. Indefatigable suffragist whose 1915 speaking tour across Pennsylvania—including an audience of 1,000 at Harrisburg’s Wesley Union AME Zion Church—challenged men, in the words of one headline, “to Present Real Argument Why Women Should Not Vote.” Her poem, “I Sit and Sew,” seethes against an African American nurse’s only pathway to contributing to the World War I effort while men died “in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe.”
Harrisburg tie: The marriage to her first husband, poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, fell apart amid his abuse and alcoholism. After his death in 1906, she married prominent Harrisburg publisher Robert Nelson and split her time between Harrisburg and Wilmington, Del.
Esther Popel (1896-1958): Poet, writer, educator, editor of African American periodicals. The academically gifted Popel (also known as Esther Popel Shaw) was the first Black woman to graduate from Dickinson College, which named the Popel Shaw Center for Race & Ethnicity in her honor. Popel’s searing “Flag Salute” juxtaposes lines from the “Pledge of Allegiance” with an account of a highly publicized Maryland lynching (“With Liberty—and Justice—They cut the rope in bits/And passed them out/For souvenirs, among the men and boys!”).
Harrisburg tie: Born and raised, a graduate of Central High School.
Gwendolyn Bennett (1902-1981): Poet, artist, commentator, a founder of the Harlem Renaissance. Langton Hughes, Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston conversed in the salons that Bennett hosted.
Harrisburg tie: Born in Louisiana but kidnapped by her father after her parents divorced, she grew up in the 8th Ward and excelled at Harrisburg schools.
As the Commonwealth Monument project accelerated, local historians and artists spotted the ties between the three women.
“These are really significant women,” said Messiah University Professor Jean Corey. “It’s not like Gwendolyn Bennett was a little bit of Harlem Renaissance. She helped start the Harlem Renaissance.”
The creative lights of the Harlem Renaissance, including Harrisburg’s contributors, form the centerpiece of an arts-education initiative meant to fill gaps in African American cultural history caused by cuts to the arts in schools, said Brown.
The service sorority’s in-school programs planned for this fall could culminate in performances that provide “opportunities for students to showcase their talents and maybe develop their gifts in a way that they didn’t realize their ancestors before them have already done here in America.”
“It’s not something new,” Brown said. “It’s something that they can continue.”
“This Happened Here”
For students, shining a light on women from Harrisburg who built national followings through uncompromising words inspires the realization that others have blazed a path, said Brown.
“They can be engaged in the arts in this way, and it gives them some commonality to say, ‘I can lead from where I am because other people have done it,’” she said.
For girls, Brown added, the women offer “mentorship through history. They’re seeing themselves, and they’re also seeing that there’s opportunity, especially when times arise again that you’re looking at the difficulties of sexism in America. They’re able to see that they can propel through those difficulties and obstacles and stand on top of their fields, be it athletics, be it science, be it entertainment.”
Bennett and Popel definitively answer the question, “Can anything good come out of Harrisburg School District?” said Sharia Benn, founder, president and executive artistic director of Sankofa African American Theatre Company.
“This happened here,” she said. “Esther would not have been what she became if she had not been here. I continue to be amazed. In the face of exclusion and adversity, she still rose. These women are phoenixes.”
Give today’s students the same access and opportunity, Benn added, and they, too, can develop “creative legacies of honor and legacies that honor our present, our past and will reflect our future.”
Conduits for Education
Benn had a “wait a minute” epiphany while developing her play, “Voices of the Eighth.” It was approaching 2020, a year of elections and census. Culling sources from the 100 Voices/Commonwealth Monument Project, she spotted the three poets and the parallels to our times.
“These women spoke to the importance of being counted,” Benn said. “They addressed the importance, as a woman, of being seen as a valuable member and contributor to their society and to politics and to policymaking.”
Benn wrote Bennett and Popel into “Voices of the Eighth” (a.k.a. “VOTE”), presented for students and audiences throughout the area. As a pandemic-year follow-up, Benn created a virtual presentation, “Do You Know Me?” featuring Dunbar-Nelson and her most famous poem, “I Sit and Sew.” That presentation, with talkback and study guide, reached 2,500 students and teachers.
The women’s poetry—including Bennett’s powerful “To a Dark Girl”—enraptures students already accustomed to word slams and rap, said Benn.
“Being able to use those rhythms presented with words is engaging,” Benn said. “They’re hearing history that they’ve never heard before, never encountered before, didn’t even think was possible.”
Brown experienced the power of that connection with a group of St. Stephen’s School boys, seemingly too cool to engage in a workshop with renowned poet Nikki Grimes. Then they used the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance to inspire their own raps, and they were all in.
“This was a way to showcase their talents, to show that music is not only rhythmic, but it’s also a way to express yourself as a writer,” Brown said.
In the coming year, Benn hopes to explore the characters more fully in a “VOTE Part Two,” Because their calls for human rights and dignity continue.
“It’s sad but true,” she said. “They’re calling out for equality, for compassion, for justice and also to other African Americans, particularly women, to fight for freedom, to recognize the beauty that is in us as a people, to celebrate that. It’s also an appeal to humanity to live and fight for the marginalized, to recognize that an inclusive and respectful society is the most healthy and progressive and successful society.”
For more information on Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Epsilon Sigma Omega Chapter, visit www.akaepsilonsigmaomega.com.
For more information on Sankofa African American Theatre Company, visit www.sankofatheatrehbg.com.
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