Harlem On My Mind: Jessie Redmon Fauset
Trymaine Lee: On March 21st, 1924, a Friday night at New York City's elite Civic Club in Greenwich Village, more than 100 people came together for one of the greatest gatherings of literary minds ever assembled.
This wasn't just any party, this was the party of the Harlem Renaissance, a rare integrated shindig that even made headlines. On the guest list were scores of Black writers, the new generation, shaking things up and snatching the reins from the older set.
But this legendary party stands out as much for who was remembered among the fine china and fine people as who has been forgotten. And that forgetting was, in some ways, no accident. This was supposed to be a celebration in honor of a single writer, a woman named Jessie Redmon Fauset, and her debut novel titled There Is Confusion.
But as you're about to hear, things changed that night. And one of the most important figures of the Harlem Renaissance was just another boldface name among many. Now, you may have never heard Miss Fauset's name, but trust and believe, she was a giant of the time.
One of her closest friends and colleagues was W.E.B. Du Bois, the great thinker and co-founder of the NAACP. As literary editor of the popular NAACP magazine The Crisis, Jessie Fauset helped lift the careers of some of the most well known Black writers, poets, and essayists of the early 20th century. In fact, for some of you, she may have been your favorite writer's favorite editor.
But you wouldn't know it, because she didn't get much credit. In our reporting for this series, Harlem On My Mind, our digging has uncovered yet another clue to how the four major figures we're focusing on this month are all connected. You may remember, in last week's episode, we mentioned that we found a letter from Jessie Fauset to Arturo Schomburg, the master collector and curator who reclaimed and re-centered our rich Black past.
We know from that letter that these two, Schomburg and Fauset, actually crossed paths at that swanky 1924 party. And it appears that she hemmed him up to ask for some help. Here, let me read you Fauset's letter. "You were kind enough to say the other night that you would be able to place 25 copies of my novel. The book is now ready for distribution. Do you still feel you could take a little time to see about this?" She ends by saying, "I shall of course autograph your copy whenever you wish it."
Morgan Jerkins: She speaks to Black women, especially those who feel like their artist-slash-professional ambitions are adversarial at times to their love life, or their family life, or their duty and obligation as women. She speaks to that.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. Today, we continue our series Harlem On My Mind with the lost legacy of Jessie Redmon Fauset, a legacy that is being reflected in the work of some very big-name Black women writers today. So who was this woman, this writer, Jessie Redmon Fauset, who wrote to Mr. Schomburg to remind him, "You said you'd buy some of my books. So, what's up?"
Dr. Julia S. Charles: I kinda fell in love with her, and I tell people all the time I have a literary crush on Jessie Redmon Fauset.
Lee: That's Professor Julia Charles.
Charles: There are so many people who don't know her name, but they do know the names of the people she published.
Lee: Cut to 2010, about 85 years after that literary party at the Civic Club. Julia is doing research for a PhD at the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of African American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. And she stumbles on something in the Du Bois archives: another bold, confident letter from Fauset. This one, written to Dr. Du Bois in 1903 when Fauset was a college student at Cornell.
Charles: Saying to him, "I need a job and this is what I'm looking for in teaching."
Lee: In other words, "I need a teaching job, Dr. Du Bois. You got me?" That wasn't all.
Charles: She also says in that same little note, she say, "And I wanna thank you for writing The Souls of Black Folk."
Lee: The Souls of Black Folk, a landmark book in Black literature in 1903.
Charles: And she said, "It must have been hard on you to have written it." And she calls it sort of, "the blind maze of thought along which the modern, educated colored man or woman struggles."
Lee: When Julia, who now teaches at Auburn University, saw that letter, she said, "I gotta know more."
Charles: And then it took me down this rabbit hole that led me to this beautiful and gigantic, if not really remembered, woman.
Lee: Today, Julia wants more people to know that name: Jessie Redmon Fauset, a giant of the Harlem Renaissance whom history seemed to have forgotten.
Charles: And so she's all over everywhere, has her hands in everything, from folk like James Weldon Johnson to Claude McKay to Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Nella Larsen, all the people we know. But we don't know the woman behind the people.
Lee: Julia's writing an entire book about her.
Charles: And this is, I think, the beautiful part about writing a biography about her is that I get to be nosy. This is where I'm trying to find all of the bits and pieces that aren't in the archives. While there is not a lot known, there is enough known that we can kind of put together pieces of her life. We do know that her father was a minister. Her mother dies fairly early on in her life. And so her father remarries.
Lee: Fauset grew up in Lawnside, New Jersey. Her family wasn't well off, but they were well respected. Now, I'm from south Jersey, and I know Lawnside very well. Free Black folks first settled there in the 1840s. It's part of a chain of historically Black towns that stretch from Camden, which is just across the bridge from Philly, to Atlantic City.
For a long time, it was a hub of Black social and cultural life in the area. So growing up, Jessie would have been surrounded by Black folks who were working and middle class. She goes to the prominent Philadelphia High School for Girls, also known as Girls High. She graduates first in her class. But immediately, she feels the sting of racism.
Charles: It was known that the valedictorian of said high school would be offered a scholarship to Bryn Mawr.
Lee: Bryn Mawr College, one of the prestigious Seven Sisters. Jessie gets the scholarship.
Charles: But upon her arrival, they realize she's Black.
Lee: This was lily white Bryn Mawr.
Charles: The president at the time refused her admission, and so instead raised money for her to attend school elsewhere. And she ends up at Cornell and earns a Phi Beta Kappa key and, arguably, one of the first, if not the first, African American woman to earn a Phi Beta Kappa key. And it's a professor at Cornell who suggests that she writes to Du Bois.
Lee: That's the letter Julia found in the archives, the one asking Du Bois to help her find a teaching job.
Charles: That was her introduction into that Du Boisian circle. And I think she really wanted that. Being from south Jersey and seeing that rejection at Bryn Mawr, she wanted something bigger. And she was determined to have it.
Lee: After leaving Cornell, Jessie teaches high school in Washington, DC. She keeps up her correspondence with Du Bois, and that's when she starts submitting short stories and poems for The Crisis, the NAACP's magazine that Du Bois had founded. Du Bois is impressed with the work.
Charles: I've seen in the archives where Du Bois writes to her in 1914, and he says something to the effect of, "I'm surprised someone as talented as you is teaching."
Lee: Du Bois, at this point, had been politicizing the concept of the, quote, "talented tenth."
Charles: He believed that she was among that 10% that should be cultivating, curating Black life at that moment in America. So he believed that she had something that should extend beyond the classroom space. And I would say, if (LAUGH) Dr. Du Bois is telling you, in 1914, "You have something special to offer the world," you might wanna run with it. And that's exactly what she did.
Lee: By 1918, Du Bois asked Jessie to become the literary editor of The Crisis. So she packs up and moves to Harlem, into an apartment on Seventh Avenue with her sister. She's in her late 30s by this point, and has a keen eye for talent. She starts working with all the great literary minds of the moment, poet Countee Cullen, novelist Nella Larsen, writer Claude McKay.
Jessie meets Langston Hughes when he was a student at Columbia. He later says, "She was charming with a fine smile and gentle eyes." In 1921, she is the first person to publish Hughes. The Crisis runs his poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, where he writes, "I've known rivers ancient as the world, and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers."
Charles: It becomes his introduction to literary fame. And he says as much in his biography. So many other authors have that same encounter with her. She's all over the Renaissance, hosting parties at her house and editing The Crisis.
Lee: So Jessie Redmon Fauset quickly becomes that cultural curator that Du Bois imagined she could be. Hughes, in his autobiography, called her, "one of the midwives of the Harlem Renaissance."
Charles: But her hands, while they're on everything, and she's corresponding with everyone, she still has a passion for writing in her own right. She wants to write the great Black American novel.
Lee: What about the dynamics of that moment kinda boxed her in? Like, why wouldn't she just write then? What happened?
Charles: There are several things that sort of box her in. One is that, as Du Bois is doing a lot of his traveling in different parts of the continent of Africa and in different parts of Europe, what she ends up doing is having to do a lot of the everyday work of The Crisis, which at this point is one of the major magazines for Black Americans. For example, she's paying Du Bois' insurance for him when he's outta town. And so she gets really bogged down in the work of the magazine, and not as much in her own writing.
Lee: But somehow, she perseveres. And in 1924, when she was 41, she publishes that first novel: There Is Confusion. It's about a young, ambitious Black woman named Joanna Marshall, pursuing her dreams of becoming a dancer in New York City, falling in love, and navigating the racism that permeates society.
Charles: There Is Confusion is really a upward mobility novel that's really about colorism and class status and all of the things that she had hoped to discuss that were sort of paralleling her life at the moment.
Lee: The book gets mixed reactions. Many Black readers say it's spot on. Others consider it too Victorian, too precious, portraying Black life in a way that, today, some might call a little too bougee. Nowadays, you know, many of us toss around the word "bougee" pretty easily. You go to brunch and you bougee. You're bougee for all kinda reasons--
Charles: Right. Right. (LAUGH)
Lee: --you know. You're bougee. But this sounds like they were actually the true epitome of the bourgeoisie trying to separate themselves in some ways from the people, the mass.
Charles: Oh, they were absolutely the bourgeoisie. There are images in the archives of everybody who's anybody at, like, brunch on a rooftop somewhere. And-- Madam C.J. Walker's daughter would throw these extravagant parties, not just for the Black literati, but people could not get in, hundreds of people. And-- dignitaries could not get into these parties.
These were all very educated, well-known people. And so I don't think that they set out to exclude people, I think they set out to carve out a space for this type of Black. She wants to write about people who look like her, talk like her, come from where she has come from, has had the same experiences that she has had. And that was a rarity in 1920s Harlem.
Lee: Jessie Redmon Fauset is at the height of her influence, which is why some Harlem Renaissance bigwigs decide to throw a party in honor of Jessie and her book, that same party we talked about earlier, at the Civic Club. But Alain Locke, an intellectual sometimes called the dean of the Harlem renaissance, was asked to host the program. And Locke had a condition. The night had to honor all the up-and-coming writers in Harlem, not just Jessie.
Charles: That was Alain Locke's very much diva moment. Alain Locke didn't wanna share the Renaissance, right? He's the voice of the Renaissance, to his mind. He knew she had this sphere of influence, but I don't think he was ready for quite how much pull she had too.
Lee: So instead of being her big night, the party ends up underscoring the difficulty she faced as a woman in this world, and how she'd be remembered. Jessie never forgave Alain Locke for treating her like an afterthought at her own party. Two years later, in 1926, Jessie decides to leave The Crisis. We don't really know why. Here's Dr. Julia Charles again.
Charles: The Crisis was undergoing some major changes at that point. And Du Bois being Du Bois was also continually traveling and all of those kinds of things.
Lee: Maybe she got tired of doing all this work. There's also speculation Du Bois wanted The Crisis to move away from the arts. And here's some century-old gossip for you: Julia and other scholars believe Jessie and Du Bois may have had an affair.
Charles: I don't know if it would have been scandalous or not. Frowned upon, sure. But it was Black Harlem at the moment, right? Like, when Harlem is in vogue and everyone knows that Du Bois had had multiple affairs.
Lee: So maybe that played a part. Some say Jessie tried to find work in publishing after leaving The Crisis. What we know for sure is that she goes back to teaching high school, becoming a French teacher at DeWitt Clinton, a public school for boys in the city.
She gets married. She writes three more books. When her last novel comes out in 1933, her old rival, Alain Locke, gives it a scathing review. She claps back to Locke in a letter and it's just fire. I've gotta read you the end of it. "No, dear Alain, your malice, your lack of true discrimination, and above all, your tendency to play safe with the grand white folks renders you anything but a reliable critic.
"Better stick to your own field and let us writers alone. At least I can tell a story convincingly." Phew, man. (LAUGH) She also stays in touch with Du Bois. She even invited him to her wedding, and their relationship clearly remained close.
Charles: There's even a note in the archives that I ran across a couple of days ago where Du Bois is coming back from I think Africa. And he says to her, "I stopped by your place. But it was a little dark out there, and so I imagined the look on your face when, if I were to show up and wrestle you away from your sleep or some other important thing. And so I didn't knock on the door." And he says, "But maybe I'll stop by again another time."
Lee: Slowly, this woman who was at the center of the Harlem Renaissance moves further and further towards the sidelines.
Jerkins: It's kind of humbling to have been at the peak of the Renaissance and then find yourself back in a high school classroom.
Lee: She and her husband move to New Jersey. He dies and she moves to Philadelphia. Then she dies there in 1961. She was 79 years old. The New York Times writes a short obituary. Her name pops up on lists of notable figures from the Harlem Renaissance. But mostly, Jessie Redmon Fauset fades away. How does this celebrated editor and author of four influential novels become practically invisible? Even more so, how is her legacy being revived today? Stay with us.
Jerkins: Some Notes on Color by Jessie Fauset. "A distinguished novelist said to me not long ago, 'I think you colored people make a great mistake in dragging the race problem into your books and novels.' It isn't art.' 'But, good heavens,' I told him, 'It's life. It's colored life. Being colored is being a problem.'"
Lee: That's just a taste from Jessie Redmon Fauset's essay, Some Notes on Color, published in March 1922. The woman reading it is Morgan Jerkins. She herself is an author. Last year, she wrote the introduction to a reissue of Fauset's book, There Is Confusion. Morgan loves Jessie's work, but it's more than that. She feels connected to her.
Jerkins: When I looked at her name, I looked at her background, I was like, "Wait a minute." Her background parallels mine. Both from south Jersey, both Ivy League graduates, multilingual, came to Harlem, editor, teacher, writer, novelist, nonfictionist, multi-hyphenate. And when I read her life story, I was like I'd never heard of her before.
Lee: So you're from south Jersey, but now where do you live?
Jerkins: I live in Harlem. I knew that, if I wanted to be a writer, I had to be in New York. And I definitely was checking out places in Brooklyn. But when I saw those brownstones, man, and I was reminded of the histories of Josephine Baker and Langston Hughes, I was like, "I gotta be here."
Lee: Can you feel the presence?
Jerkins: Yes. All the time. It's extremely palpable. You're in an area where everybody came here to be, everybody came here to create some 100 years ago. And that's left an impression on me. I grappled with a lot of anti-Blackness when I was younger, trying to assimilate. And to be in a place now where I can just be, and there are all different Diasporic conversations happening, traditions merging together, it's very wonderful.
If I just step outside, the small of Senegalese food or fried chicken, or just hearing the cadences of people, or goin' by the Schomburg and knowing all the volumes and volumes of subject matter they have there. The only way you can not be inspired by this place is if you just have your head down.
Lee: And so, in some ways, it sounds like Jessie Redmon Fauset is kind of like a literary godmother to you. What about her writing and her passages moved you?
Jerkins: I love that she wrote about women's ambition, Black women's ambition at the turn of the century. We have to keep in mind, she was writing about a generation of Black people that were probably one generation removed from slavery. So think about the dreams that they carried, the abundance of possibilities that they saw for themselves and the families they'd like to have.
So I think what really inspired me about Fauset's work was that she wrote about the push and pull of that. How far can a woman, a Black woman, go in that particular society? And she speaks to Black women, especially those who feel like their artistic-slash-professional ambitions are adversarial at times to their love life, or their family life, or their duty and obligation as women. She speaks to that.
Lee: So there's still that nagging question. For all she did in Harlem, and in her work, why has Jessie Redmon Fauset been overlooked? For Morgan, the answer is pretty simple: She's a woman.
Jerkins: There was talk about, you know, had she had been a man, who knows how far she could have gone?
Lee: In 2017, Morgan wrote an article for The New Yorker called The Forgotten Work of Jessie Redmon Fauset. She asked some contemporary Black women writers like Brit Bennett if they had ever read Jessie's work or even heard of her. They hadn't. And I wonder what we've lost by forgetting a woman like she was, a writer, an artist like she was. What did we actually lose?
Jerkins: Well, you know, in African American tradition, you know, we have somethin' called a call and response, right? We have the responses now; we're missin' the call. When we think about muscle and we think about the different music, the melodies and all that, she provided the rhythm. We're missin' that.
And I think that's why it's so important to go back in time and think about where who were talkin' about all these different issues so that we have a fuller understandin' of who we are as Black people, and how our art has, you know, influenced and also resisted the mainstream public. But I think also it's just to give flowers to people.
Lee: Julia Charles, the Auburn professor who's writing the Jessie Fauset biography, says we lost so much of Jessie's story because she's only visible through the lens of famous men. W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes. But there's still, to this day, no Jessie Redmon Fauset collection, no papers, no archive.
Charles: She is not remembered in the same way because she's wrapped up in the lives of the people around her. The fact that she is obscured and buried in their papers is also, I think, an indictment on the archives and the politics of memory, who gets to be remembered.
Lee: The politics of memory. That's a big theme of this Black History Month. Who gets remembered, and how they get remembered. It's what drove Jacob Lawrence to paint history through the eyes of Black folks. It's what drove Arturo Schomburg to start his collection of vindicating evidences to prove that Black people do have a history and a story to tell. It's what's driving Julia to write Jessie Fauset's biography.
Charles: We don't remember her because we've chosen not to.
Lee: Today, though, Morgan Jerkins can see Fauset's legacy in other Black women writers who, like Fauset, write across genres.
Jerkins: There are other women that I think that also embody this legacy. Roxanne Gay, for example, who's a multihyphenate. I would say other movers and shakers in the literary world like Lisa Lucas, Dana Kennedy, Tracy Sherrod, Jennifer Baker. These are the women that I believe also are a part of Jessie Fauset's legacy.
If I were gonna add another person, I would probably say Jesmyn Ward because Jesmyn Ward does nonfiction and fiction and she has done editorial work. And she's also an educator, and she's also written essays for places like Time magazine, and The Guardian, and of course Vanity Fair.
Lee: As a writer in today's Harlem who feels a personal connection to Jessie Redmon Fauset, Morgan is on something of a mission.
Jerkins: And unfortunately for a lotta Black women, they don't get flowers while they're alive. And I think it's our responsibility to make sure that the future generations don't ask this question of who she was. So as long as I have a career in the world of arts and letters, I'm going to keep speaking about the women who may not have been as big, but they were still crucial to how we critique the art of Black women, and how Black women create their own knowledge productions on their art, and the history of Black life.
I don't wanna be forgotten in the same way. I look at her like I could be a multihyphenate Black woman in the world of arts and letters, but in my mind, I'm like, "Please don't let me be forgotten.
Lee: So while the name Jessie Redmon Fauset isn't on the same pedestal as Jacob Lawrence or Arturo Schomburg, people like Morgan Jerkins and Dr. Julia Charles are trying to change that, trying to change the politics of memory for Fauset, for themselves, and for countless other Black women whose names we all should know.
Next week, our series Harlem On My Mind comes to a close. We started with a Jacob Lawrence print of The Schomburg Library that was dedicated to a man named Abram Hill. Abram Hill was a playwright in Harlem and founded the legendary American Negro Theater in 1940.
Archival Recording: So we evolved the philosophy that this was a theatre that was to represent the people. This was a theatre of social significance. This was a theatre of honesty and integrity. This is a theatre that is going to fulfill the needs of the Black participants in this movement, and it was going to satisfy the needs of the local community.
Lee: The American Negro Theater came after Jessie Fauset's time on the Harlem creative scene. She had left long before to teach at DeWitt Clinton High School. But guess who graduated from DeWitt three years after Jessie arrived, walking those same hallways? That's right, Abram Hill. More on that small world next week.
To see photos of Jessie Redmon Fauset, go to our website, MSNBC.com/IntoAmerica. And if you have anything you wanna tell us about the series, or something else, you can reach me on Twitter at TrymaineLee, all one word. I love seeing all your own Jacob Lawrence prints on the walls in your houses, absolutely love it. Or drop us a line at IntoAmerica@nbcuni.com.
And if you missed any of the other episodes in our series Harlem On My Mind, now's the time to go back and listen. Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan.
Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Special thanks to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll back next Thursday with the final installment of Harlem On My Mind.