Jessie Fauset: Midwife to the Harlem Renaissance

The New Crisis, July/August 2000 | Go to article overview

Jessie Fauset: Midwife to the Harlem Renaissance


Jessie Fauset joined The Crisis magazine and became at once its "astute guiding spirit," according to Darlene Clark Hines in Black Women in America. During her seven-year stint at the magazine (1919-1926), Dr. Fauset "took over much of Du Bois' work connected with Crisis," says Dr. Jessie Smith in Notable Black American Women. Poet Langston Hughes remembered her as one of the midwives who helped give birth to the artistic development of the Harlem Renaissance during this period.

When Du Bois asked her to join him at Crisis, Fauset seized the opportunity. She had known Du Bois since her days at college when she corresponded with him shortly after her father's death. Of course, she had read Crisis since its inception and had even written poetry, essays and book reviews for the magazine. So, when Du Bois asked her to become the magazine's literary editor, she felt comfortable in accepting.

An intelligent, independent and well-travelled woman, she strode into the office and immediately put her stamp on the magazine. First, she "persuaded Du Bois that the arts, and creative writing in particular, could be a force in racial uplift." Life for African Americans was rife with drama and exciting stories to be told. In Souls ofBlack Folk Du Bois called it "the strange rending of nature" we have seen. Faucet wanted to publish these stories in Crisis. A modest, sensitive and sophisticated woman, she did not want stories of exotic black Americans, but those of black families getting along much like other families do. In the foreword of her novel The Chinaberry Tree she wrote that the "Colored American who is not being pressed too hard by the Furies of Prejudice, Ignorance and Economic Injustice is not so very different from any other American, just distinctive." Her own life was an example.

Raised in Philadelphia, Faucet graduated from the city's prestigious High School for Girls in 1900, the only black student in the school. Although she finished with high honors, the college of her choice, Bryn Mawr, an all-women's school nearby, declined her application but, having a liberal bent, arranged for her to receive a scholarship at Cornell University. At Cornell, Faucet concentrated in languagesLatin, Greek, French, German-and English and received a key from the prestigious honor society Phi Beta Kappa the first black woman in America to do so.Years later, with her facility for foreign languagesespecially her ability to speak French, she acted as Dr. Du Bois' interpreter at Pan-African Congress meetings.

Unfortunately, neither her Cornell degree nor her Phi Beta Kappa key shielded her from the "Furies of Prejudice." Although Dr. Du Bois had helped her obtain summer teaching jobs when she was in college, out of college no such jobs were available to her in Philadelphia's public schools. …

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