Angelina Weld Grimke began writing at a very young age and her first published poetry came before the Harlem Renaissance—by 30 years. Grimke’s best known and most mature work was published throughout the 1920s when she lived in Washington, D.C.
She wrote 173 poems in her lifetime, 31 of which were published. There were love poems, elegies, poems that addressed racial injustice and Black pride, nature poems and poems with the universal theme of life and death.
Between 1925 and 1928, she submitted several short stories, poems and essays to various Black journals and was published in The Crisis, Opportunity, Alain Locke’s The New Negro, Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk and Robert Kerlin’s Negro Poets and Their Poems.
Her family, within the three preceding generations, included slaveholders and slaves, free Black people and white abolitionists. Her mother was from a middle class white family who was against her marriage on racial grounds. Ultimately, Grimke was abandoned by her mother and raised by her father, a Harvard Law School graduate who eventually became a prominent lawyer, diplomat, author, editor, publisher and vice president of the NAACP.
Not only did Grimke write poetry, she also wrote short stories, essays and plays. She was best known for Rachel, a three-act drama that was staged in Washington, D.C., at the Myrtilla Miner Normal School. The play was produced and used as a vehicle for the NAACP to rally allies against the effects of the infamous motion picture Birth of a Nation.
Alain Locke, in Plays of Negro Life, said of Rachel, “Apparently the first successful drama written by a Negro and interpreted by Negro actors.” The NAACP production program said of the play, “This is the first attempt to use the stage for race propaganda in order to enlighten the American People relating to the lamentable condition of ten million of Colored citizens in this free republic.
If one is to consider the sizable body of work produced by Grimke, it is necessary to note that very little of her work was ever published. Not only was it difficult for her to get published because she was a Black woman, she was also a lesbian during a time when such sexuality was not spoken of or in any way acceptable.
In 1930, her father died and Grimke moved to New York and never published again. She lived in seclusion until she died on June 10, 1958.
Of all the Harlem Renaissance poets, Grimke was never considered to be among the first echelon. She was published prior to the start of the Renaissance and was looked upon as a forerunner of the creative awakening.