Academic journal article MELUS

Acts of Terrorism, or, Violence on A Sunday Morning in the South

Academic journal article MELUS

Acts of Terrorism, or, Violence on A Sunday Morning in the South

Article excerpt

Georgia Douglas Johnson (1877-1966) was part of the group of black female writers who participated in the American theater's protest against the lynching that afflicted African Americans throughout the early twentieth century. (1) In concert with Ruth Gaines Shelton, Maude Cuney Hare, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Myrtle Livingston, Angelina Weld Grimke, Thelma Duncan, Mary Powell Burrill, Marita O. Bonner, Eulalie Spence, and May Miller, she produced literature which protested the practice of hanging, burning, shooting, or drowning accused blacks without due process of law. Her work substantiated the fact that black women were active and prolific writers during the male-dominated beginning of the twentieth century. Johnson and her black female colleagues published twenty-one plays among themselves, ten of which dramatized conflicts involving race and gender. Their protest plays indicate that African Americans did not react passively to the terrorism inflicted upon them, and their dramas reflect female African American responses to the brutality and inhumanity of lynching. With the exception of Angelina Grimke, (author of the three-act play Rachel [1916]), this aggregation of writers wrote one-act dramas. Georgia Douglas Johnson contributed A Sunday Morning in the South (1925) and Safe (1929) to the corpus of protest plays these writers produced between 1916 and 1929, the years encompassing the New Negro Renaissance, the black women's club movement, and the anti-lynching campaign.

The present study is devoted to an examination of A Sunday Morning in the South, a work that has not been extensively analyzed. In particular, this study focuses on Johnson's use of the play as a vehicle to express the unique complications attending early twentieth-century black maternity. In addressing this issue, the play highlights the black mother's powerlessness to protect her children from racial violence in the absence of just laws and anti-lynching legislation. That the period's rampant acts of terrorism contributed to the precariousness of the black mother's hold on her children--particularly on her sons who were the preferred targets of lynch mobs--and that the violence militated against both her well-being and that of her community becomes alarmingly clear in a consideration of the play.

A Sunday Morning in the South commands attention because it illustrates one way in which violence impinged upon early black maternity and because it sheds important light upon the justification for barbarities that many modern perpetrators of racial violence employ. Writing within the contexts of the anti-lynching campaign and the black women's club movement, Johnson, like other educated women of the black middle class (e.g. Ida Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell), was propelled by the twin demands for justice for the black race and for the African American woman. In her protest drama, Johnson bore testimony to the upsurge of violence committed against blacks and represented it in its most extreme form: lynching. The threat of lynching held the African American community hostage from Reconstruction through the first half of the twentieth century. As Ida Wells-Barnett argued in her 1892 speech "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases," white America used lynching to strip Afro-America of its autonomy, its power, and its humanity (Campbell 148). Johnson and the black women activists, especially Wells-Barnett and Church-Terrell, were at the forefront of the anti-lynching movement, demanding immediate change in the socio-political status of African Americans. To this purpose, Johnson delineated in A Sunday Morning in the South the horrors of a southern lynching and called for the instant cessation of racial violence. Johnson's drama and the lectures, petitions, and rallies of the women activists reflected a radical posture that was absent on the part of black male leaders such as Booker T. Washington, who evidenced a conciliatory, go-slow attitude in attaining civil rights. …

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