WRITER ANGELINA WELD GRIMKE was part of the Harlem Renaissance, the great 1920s flourishing of African-American culture that included Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. The only child of the marriage between Boston residents Sarah Stanley, a white woman, and Archibald Grimke, who was biracial, she was named after her great-aunt Angelina Grimke Weld. Weld and her sister Sarah Grimke were famous white abolitionists and feminist advocates of voluntary motherhood. They accepted their brother’s children by a slave woman as family. They took their nephews, including Archibald Grimke, into their own home and paid for their educations.
Angelina Weld Grimke was raised by her father because soon after her birth her mother left the household, possibly to be hospitalized for a mental illness. After graduating from college, Grimke taught high school in Washington, D.C., and published poetry, drama, fiction and nonfiction.
Grimke, a lesbian, never had children of her own, but felt that mothering in all its forms was central to female and indeed human experience. As one poem declares: “Ah, gift of Motherhood!/ Ah, precious boon to woman, reaping priceless joy/ Through weary pain!” In her work she expressed a particularly African-American sense of communal responsibility for children.
According to Grimke scholar Carolivia Herron, Grimke’s work has “the import, if not the discrete form, of the blues—that musical and poetic cultural form which is the repository for African-American anguish over love, lost love, and political disenfran-chisement.” Grimke especially gave voice to the widely unheard and unheeded maternal blues of African-American women.
For more than a century after Emancipation, white supremacists waged a campaign of domestic terrorism against African-Americans and murdered with impunity thousands who dared to resist. Grimke was passionately concerned with the effects of lynching upon black women’s desire and ability to mother. In her 1919 stories, “Blackness” and “Goldie,” a pregnant woman’s torture and murder culminate in an abortion. Grimke told disbelieving white editors that her story was based on an actual incident in which a mob tied a woman to a tree and set her on fire:
“The mob was determined to teach her a lesson…. While the woman shrieked and writhed in agony, a man, who had brought with him a knife used in the butchering of animals, ripped her abdomen wide open. Her unborn child fell to the ground at her feet. It emitted one or two little cries but was soon silenced by brutal boots that crushed the head. Death came at last to the poor woman. The lesson ended.”
In “The Closing Door” (short story, 1919) a kind-hearted woman suf-fers an emotional collapse during and after her long-awaited first preg-nancy. After her brother’s lynching, she hits her breasts and sobs that she is just another “instrument” to produce children for the blood-sport of white mobs. She cries: “There is a time coming—and soon—when no colored man—no colored woman—no colored child, born or unborn—will be safe—in this country.” She takes care of herself and the baby as best she can before the delivery: “She did not die, nor did her child.” But she turns into “a gray, pathetic shadow of herself” who cannot bond with the baby after his birth. Although a female friend tenderly cares for the baby, the new moth-er suffocates him, and soon afterward dies in prison.
Grimke insisted that she was simply trying to awaken the empathy of white women. “If anything can make all women sisters beneath their skin, it is motherhood. If, then the white women of this country could, see, feel, understand just what effect their prejudice and the prejudice of their fathers, brothers, husbands, sons were having on the souls of the colored mothers everywhere, and upon the mothers that are to be, a great power to effect public opinion would be set free and the battle would be half won.”
African-American women today suffer from a disproportionately high abortion rate. For all black women’s children who do make it here, the world still holds many indignities and dangers. Recent hate crimes—the dragging death of James Bird, the shooting of Ricky Byrdsong—show that lynching is not a thing of the past. Grimke’s depictions of thwarted motherhood as the ultimate product of racism ring true today. People of all races should listen deeply, and act upon what we hear.
Mary Krane Derr, a poet and writer, is co-editor of the anthology Pro-Life Feminism: Yesterday and Today.