Angelina Weld Grimké was a very unique and interesting writer whose literary output consisted mostly of poetry and a few short stories. She also wrote two full-length plays, one of which was performed and published.
Angelina Weld Grimké wrote from a very personal place, and that personal place was incredibly unique. As another blog described it:
“Her family, within the three preceding generations, included slaveholders and slaves, free black people and white abolitionists.”
Awkward family reunion jokes aside, that’s one interesting way to start life (we don’t really have any choice as to which family we’re born into – thanks Mom and Dad) and Angelina Weld Grimké continued to live her life in a singular way.
Her uncle was a celebrated pastor and civil rights leader. He co-founded the NAACP. Her father was a lawyer, journalist, diplomat and civil rights leader. On the other hand, her half-uncle was a vicious slave owner who owned and beat her father.
Her mother was a leading lecturer and author on the occult.
Her great-aunts were celebrated abolitionists and feminists.
Her life is more worthy of a book than a blog post.
I thought perhaps a timeline version of her life might suit our purposes. Still, one can see cause and effect…
1752-1819: Judge John Faucheraud Grimké lives in Charleston, South Carolina and owns hundreds of slaves. He’s of mixed Alsatian and Huguenot descent (the surname was Grimk until an ancestor changed it). He is our playwright hero’s great-grandfather.
1792 and 1805: His daughters, the “Grimké Sisters” are born (Sarah and Angelina). They are two of 14 children. They are our playwright’s great-aunts.
1820s: The Grimke sisters hate slavery. Both move north and become famous abolitionists and feminists. Angelina marries into the Boston Brahmin Weld family, also abolitionists.
They are still so famous that American high school students are forced to make videos pretending to be them:
I guess they lost their Charleston accents…
1840-1850s: Following the death of his wife, their brother Henry Grimké has three children with one of his slaves, Nancy Weston. Henry and Nancy are our playwright’s grandparents.
1852: Henry dies and wills his children to his son Montague, with the provision that they be treated as part of the family. For a few years Nancy lives on her own with the boys.
1857: Montague doesn’t respect his father’s wishes and takes the boys into his house as slaves. He and his wife beat them severely and often. In fact he even takes Archibald to the local police to have them whip him. Montague viewed Archie as a “surly, callow, ungracious, and insulting servant.” Never mind that they were half-brothers. Archie is our playwright’s father.
1861: US Civil War begins.
1862: At age 12, Archie runs away and hides out in Charleston, “emerging at night dressed as a girl.”
1865: US Civil War ends. The three boys go north and enroll in Lincoln University.
1868: Angelina Grimké reads an article about Archibald Grimké being such a great student. She visits him and learns about their family connection. She welcomes the boys into her home. The sisters help them as much as possible. Archibald will graduate from Harvard Law School and his brother Francis will graduate from Princeton Theological Seminary.
1879: Archibald Grimke marries Sarah Stanley, a white woman from a prominent abolitionist family. Her family opposes the marriage. Information about her isn’t as scarce as Wikipedia pretends.
1880: Their only child, our playwright hero Angelina Weld Grimké is born, named after her great-aunt.
Spring 1882: Sarah takes Angelina to Michigan for a visit to her family. This “visit” turns into her keeping Angelina from the child’s father. Archibald writes a bunch of letters begging her to return.
Fall 1882: She returns briefly after Archibald secures an apartment for her in Boston, but quickly leaves again. She probably suffered from mental illness.
1882-1887: Angelina is raised by Sarah and her white grandparents in Michigan. Archibald continues to beg her to return to Boston. Even as late as 1886, he is asking her to take their wedding vows seriously.
Sarah embarks on a career writing and lecturing about astrology, the occult and metaphysical solutions of illness. Often, while travelling, she brings Angelina with her, including to California.
Archibald was also a writer. He worked as a columnist for the Boston Herald and eventually founded his own newspaper, The Guardian.
1887: Sarah Grimké puts her seven year-old daughter Angelina on a train from California to Boston. All by herself.
She’ll sporadically write letters to her daughter, but will never see her again. The letters have a case of the weirds.
Fall 1887: Now living with her father, Angelina begins attending the mostly white Fairmount School in Hyde Park. She may have attended school in California at some point.
February 1891: Angelina writes her first known poem. It is about death.
May 1893: Angelina publishes a poem in the local newspaper, The Grave in the Corner, about a Union veteran’s grave.
Her published poetry tended to be about nature, elegies, love in general and later about racial themes and civil rights.
Her unpublished poetry seemed to dwell on death and lesbian love.
1894: Following her father’s move to Washington, DC she attends the all-black M Street School for a school year.
Early 1894: Archbald is appointed American Consul to the Dominican Republic. He leaves Angelina with his brother Francis and sister-in-law in DC. Angelina is rebellious and they fight often.
At this time, 14 year-old Angelina took several photos in costumes her father had sent her. She then mailed them to her father.
While at Carleton, she receives letters from former classmate and future playwright Mary Burrill from Washington, DC hinting at a relationship.
Also, she writes a love letter to a “Mamie” – probably a white classmate but also possibly Burrill back in DC. It includes these lines:
I know you are too young now to become my wife, but I hope, darling, that in a few years you will come to me and be my love, my wife! How my brain whirls how my pulse leaps with joy and madness when I think of these two words, ‘my wife’
Later, Mary Burrill and Angelina would be coworkers at the same school, ironically educating future playwrights!
1897: Attends Cushing Academy in Massachsuetts. Writes a love poem “Rosabel” about one of her teachers.
Leaves, that whisper, whisper ever,
Listen, listen, pray;
Birds, that twitter, twitter softly,
Do not say me nay;
Winds, that breathe about, upon her,
(Since I do not dare)
Whisper, twitter, breathe unto her
That I find her fair.
Rose whose soul unfolds white petaled
Touch her soul rose-white;
Rose whose thoughts unfold gold petaled
Blossom in her sight;
Rose whose heart unfolds red petaled
Quick her slow heart’s stir;
Tell her white, gold, red my love is;
And for her, — for her
Early 1898: Her father returns from the Dominican Republic.
Fall 1898: She graduates from Girls’ Latin School in Boston.
September 1898: After suffering from rheumatic heart disease most of her life, Angelina’s mother Sarah commits suicide in San Diego.
1902: Begins teaching Physical Education at all-black Armstrong Vocational Training School in Washington, DC. She does not get along with the principal and receives poor evaluations. Her father intervenes several times. She switches to teaching English.
Writes Give Me Your Eyes. It isn’t published in her lifetime.
Give me your eyes.
I do not ask to touch
The hands of you, the mouth of you,
Soft and sweet and fragrant though they be.
No, lift your eyes to mine;
Give me but one last look
Before I step forth forever;
Even though within that moment’s crashing space,
I shall know all of life and death heaven and hell
She also writes Naughty Nan, which may be about herself [Her nickname was Nana]
If you can
Tell me how your frowns and smiles,
Sudden tears, and naive wiles,
Linked into a glittering band
Follow swiftly hand in hand?
Tell me wayward April-born,
Child of smiles and tears forlorn,
Have you ever felt the smart
Of a lacerated heart?
Are you but a sprite of moods?
Heartless, that fore’er deludes
Tell me naughty Nan?
If you can
Tell me why you have such eyes
Gleaming when not drooped in sighs
Or when veiled by falling rain?
Haughty oft but never vain
Sometime wistful orbs of brown,
Sometimes blazing in fierce scorn
But eyes that are never free
From some glance of witchery.
Tell me why you have such lips
Tempting me to stolen sips
Tender, drooping, luring, sad,
Laughing, mocking, madly glad,
Tell me naughty Nan?
If you can
Tell me why you play with me,
Take my heart so prettily
In your dainty, slender, hands,
Bruise its tender, loving, bands?
Tell me why your eyes are brown
Mock and glitter when I frown?
Flitting, luring, little, sprite
In a garb of moods bedight,
Dancing here, and dancing there,
Changeling strange, but ever fair
You have caught me in your snare, —
1903: Angelina starts writing a diary in response to being rejected by [probably] a white man. In it, she talks of suicide. He was a professional American singer based in London. In her diary she mentions that when he sang “My Rosary” for her she made him stop because it caused too much pain.
*I know several scholars think this was a lesbian affair, but she uses masculine pronouns in the diaries, calls him a man and in a diary entry many years later mentions his name. And she discussed it with her father, who flipped his lid.
This also provides an impetus to her writing and her devotion to her father as the following diary entries indicate:
I am very tired of living. There is nothing to look forward to, only a year of school with a vacation at the end […] There is writing, but the great emptiness of many years before [me] with nothing to look forward to at the end. When people talk about what they are going to do in the future all I think to to myself is ‘What does it all amount to?’ At the end there is only the grave. There is no cure for this everlasting heartache. It never lets up […] I have given up my girlhood. I can never be a girl again. That is gone, and I am an old woman at heart.
Three days later she had this to say:
I have entirely two reasons for living, my dear father and my writing. they must fill my life absolutely. I can never expect to love again. This shall be the beginning, the real beginning of my effort to crush it out forever. […] It almost hurts me to see that my love for you [the man who disappointed her] is nearly as great as that for my father. It hurts me also to see that he has a rival for I do, I do love him so much.
This marked a focus on making her dad happy and writing.
1907: She transfers to the all-black M Street School and teaches English there. She does well there.
1909: Publishes El Beso in the Boston Transcript.
Snare of the shine of your teeth,
Your provocative laughter,
The gloom of your hair;
Lure of you, eye and lip;
And madness, madness,
Tremulous, breathless, flaming,
The space of a sigh;
Pain, regret—your sobbing;
And again, quiet—the stars,
1911: She suffers a broken back in a train wreck in Connecticut. 14 people died, including a lady in Grimké’s car. She must recuperate for months at a home with her father, uncle and his wife. She will suffer chronic health problems after this.
Still are there wonders of the dark and day;
The muted shrilling of shy things at night,
So small beneath the stars and moon;
The peace, dream-frail, but perfect while the light
Lies softly on the leaves at noon.
These are, and these will be
But she who loved them well has gone away.
Each dawn, while yet the east is veil’d grey,
The birds about her window wake and sing;
And far away, each day, some lark
I know is singing where the grasses swing;
Some robin calls and calls at dark.
These are, and these will be
But she who loved them well has gone away.
The wild flowers that she loved down green ways stray;
Her roses lift their wistful buds at dawn,
But not for eyes that loved them best;
Only her little pansies are all gone,
Some lying softly on her breast.
And flowers will bud and be
But she who loved them well has gone away.
Where has she gone? And who is there to say?
But this we know: her gentle spirit moves
And is where beauty never wanes,
Perchance by other streams, ‘mid other groves:
And to us here, ah! she remains A lovely memory
She came, she loved, and then she went away.
1916: Grimké begins teaching at Dunbar High School, where future playwright May Miller is her student and former [probably] girlfriend Mary Burrill.
Also 1916: She writes an anti-lynching play, Rachel, that is produced and published. We’ll talk about this soon.
1926: She retires from teaching to take care of her sick father.
1927: Publishes much poetry, including:
An Epitaph on a Living Woman
There were tiny flames in her eyes,
Her mouth was a flame,
And her flesh. . . . . . .
Now she is ashes.
1930: Her father dies. Angelina quickly leaves the DC house for New York City and never publishes any new writing again. Scholars have pointed out that the death of her father seemed to rob her of the will to write as well as to live.
1955: She was interviewed by Katherine DuPre Lumpkin about her famous family for a book.
1958: Angelina Weld Grimké passes away, having spent nearly 30 years as a recluse.
Like I said, a blog post won’t do her justice.
Now, on to Rachel.
The plot concerns the humble Loving family. They live up North and consist of Ma Loving, her teenaged daughter Rachel and teenaged son Tom. Through incidents in the plot we discover what happened to their father and brother ten years before.
In the course of the story the family adopts a neighbor boy. A young man
courts harasses comes on strong to Rachel.
There is much discussion about race and racism and American society. Rachel gets snubbed by a supposed friend who is white. The young boy they take in gets called the n-word and harassed and Rachel comes to a dread realization at the end.
The play was specifically written in response to the NAACP’s call for scripts in response to the overwhelming success of proto-Nazifest film Birth of a Nation (which was, itself, a successful play). The fact her father was national vice-president of the NAACP and local Washington, DC president may have played a part.
The absolute most impressive, yet painfully sad, aspect of the play is that despite being written in 1916, it may as well be set in 2019 America.
As the son Tom observes:
For those unaware of voter supression in the US, start here.
Or as Tom’s older buddy Strong remarks:
And as Rachel points out…
She’s talking about the prospect of lynching here, which still exists in America, albeit in an even more nefarious form.
One common criticism of Rachel is that the language is stilted or speechy,
“Her conversation with her mother […] feels stilted, the anecdotes they share rarely of much note.”
But these reviews seem to forget we’re dealing with the author of some badass and powerfully vivid poetry….true, the play may be “speechy” – but the good type of speechy.
Rachel begins the play loaded with optimism. She totally wants to be a mother and loves children.
Interesting thread from the Biblical story of Mary to 1916 Rachel (who, incidentally has a a Biblical name).
She particularly loves “black and brown babies”:
Compare this to how Rachel evolves:
Remember, Grimké herself made a similar vow albeit in different circumstances.
Going from Rachel’s point A to Point B constitutes much of the plot. We’ll explore this in a minute…but first, another reason to commend this play:
Rachel is such a willful, strong and yet conflicted character. It would be a great role for any actress.
She works well with children, plus the kids are awfully sweet:
She provides counseling to a mother whose child has become withdrawn due to racism at her school.
The mother enquires about the school Rachel attended and explains her daughter’s situation:
Rachel does indeed brag up the school – Grimké herself usually attended mostly white schools.
Those plot points I mentioned? Pretty much all of them have to do with Rachel seeing the effects of racism on her family in particular and African-Americans in general.
Rachel learns what happened to her father and brother:
Father and brother dying on the same day does sound a little..
Damn. And by Christians, too. But then the mom gives the reason:
The father had been a newspaper editor (just like Grimké’s own father) and had been threatened, simply because he printed the truth (about the first murder) and then he and his son were killed. Remember how I mentioned this may as well be 2019? There’s a reason Time magazine picked journalists as “People of the Year” (Hint: being good journalists can be lethal)
Remember that child Rachel adopted after his parents passed away? She got to have this conversation with them:
Rachel has also attracted the male gaze:
She handles it.
Other characterization is just as rich. Rachel’s brother Tom, the football hero of the show.
Quarterbacking comes with dangers beyond CTE, though.
Tom can dish it out. When he learns what really happened to his father and brother, well…
Much like his sister, Tom learns how
2019 1916 America really works.
Several critics have looked for autobiographical elements in the play – and they seem to be there. Rachel is “brown” (i.e. lighter complected), she and her family are highly educated. The father was a journalist who fought bigotry. She had a failed romance. The mother suffers from rheumatism, as did Grimké’s. And she foreswore any chance of having children.
Here’s a talented actress using some lines from Rachel as a monologue on Youtube.
Another aspect that appears obvious is mental illness. In fact Grimké herself refers to Rachel as a “highly-strung girl” in a piece defending the play.
Given Grimké’s unique family history – the unusually close relationship with her father, the remarks from others that she seemed unhappy often, her mother’s suicide and claims from others that she was paranoid – it makes sense that the hero of the tale is, well, highly strung.
Killing as a kindness.
Earlier, her mother had found her unconscious after having apparently violently attacked the flowers John Strong had given her.
Rachel goes on…
In all fairness, being called “little girl” when you’re 22 might be a trigger.
So Rachel breaks down cursing God, hearing her children in her sleep and laughing uncontrollably. Yeah.
NOW, on the other hand…she recently learned her father and brother were victims of nice white Christians – and now nice white Christians are harassing her adopted child. And others. WHO could hold it together???
Rachel shares an interesting story with young Jimmy. This would make for a great monologue.
Grimké takes her poet’s pen to even the description. Who here is sick of seeing submission requirements that look like this?
Nobody told Grimké about all this minimalism, or if they did, she ignored it to death – so we get some beautiful descriptions such as:
Pictured above: Grimké’s middle finger to 21st century theatrical minimalism.
If you haven’t noticed, their house has some famous paintings. Let’s take a look:
I like that the play uses real paintings. The second act presents us with different paintings.
Let’s talk about Watts’ Hope, or rather what Wikipedia has to say about it:
“As cheap reproductions of Hope, and from 1908 high-quality prints, began to circulate in large quantities, it became a widely popular image. President Theodore Roosevelt displayed a copy at his Sagamore Hill home in New York; reproductions circulated worldwide; and a 1922 film depicted Watts’s creation of the painting and an imagined story behind it.”
…Hope remained influential. Martin Luther King Jr. based a 1959 sermon, now known as Shattered Dreams, on the theme of the painting, as did Jeremiah Wright in Chicago in 1990. Among the congregation for the latter was the young Barack Obama, who was deeply moved. Obama took “The Audacity of Hope” as the theme of his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address, and as the title of his 2006 book; he based his successful 2008 presidential campaign around the theme of “Hope”.”
The play also features music of the era.
Here’s Mighty Lak a Rose in 1915.
For fun, here’s the Paul Robeson version:
And here is Slumber Boat.
And finally here is At Twilight (music only):
You probably noticed Ethelbert Nevin‘s name pop up a couple of times. It seems Grimké was a bit of a fangirl, as you may recall:
I’m guessing she meant The Rosary by Nevin. This singer was the guy Grimké had fallen in love with. And wow…he could do some damage with just a song. In fact, this song:
“taken a knife and run it all around and, in and out an old unhealed wound.”
Although it seems minor in biographies and such, it’s obvious that Grimké dug Nevin’s music or was at least fond enough of it to have some guy sing it to her and two put two songs in the play.
Another interesting aspect of the play is that it depicts the world of children well:
Finally, we should see how the play ends…
The play had a couple of performances in 1916…
The play was published in 1920 and that’s when it gained wider exposure.
Reviews were generally favorable, the main criticisms being that the character of Rachel is a bit extreme and also that the play appears to be promoting “race suicide” since Rachel seems to have given up on black and brown babies.
In fact, Grimké responded to her critics:
“Since it has been understood that ‘Rachel’ preaches race suicide, I would emphasize that that was not my intention. To the contrary, the appeal is not primarily to the colored people, but to the whites.”
She claimed her main purpose was to appeal to white women‘s sense of motherhood and that as mothers, these women would be sympathetic to the play.
Her subsidiary motive was to show white people the “best type of colored people.”
As for the story and characterization in the play, her argument is that Rachel learns or realizes the harsh truth facing African-Americans and has a breakdown “in mind and soul.”
He wrote the play was “a most moving one that has stirred me profoundly.”
Grimké wrote a second play, Mara, which only exists in manuscript form. It has been reviewed extensively by writers who’ve gone through the Grimké papers at Howard University. I haven’t, so I can’t rightly analyze it. It is set in the South, maintains the theme of lynching but also has a very close daughter-father relationship. Some readers have said it is better than Rachel.
Since Hull’s rediscovery of Grimké’s works about 40 years ago, there has been much scholarship as well as several productions of Rachel.
Grimké’s reputation and renown rest mostly on her incredible poetry, which I encourage you to seek out. It really is good. Here’s one of her more famous ones:
There is a tree, by day,
That, at night,
Has a shadow,
A hand huge and black,
With fingers long and black.
All through the dark,
Against the white man’s house,
In the little wind,
The black hand plucks and plucks
At the bricks.
The bricks are the color of blood and very small.
Is it a black hand,
Or is it a shadow?
We’ll see what we can cover in the link dump after this student video based on one of her poems:
(I used many of these in the research)
Her short stories
A good list of academic studies of Grimké’s work
Her family (use these as jumping off points for more study)
Even her slave-owning great-grandfather’s writing .
A distant relative’s WordPress site.
BONUS POEM! Congratulations, you made it to the end of the longest post on this blog!!! You get a happy poem from Angelina Weld Grimké!!!
May, thou lovely month of spring!
As a fairy thou com’st dancing,
Sweetness rests upon thy brow,
Smiles upon thy face are glancing,
Angel hands have thee caressed,
Chirrup birds to thee in bowers,
Heaven thy gentle head hath blest;
Underneath thy quiet breast
Softly sleep thy tender flowers.
Every day thou smilest brightly,
Till thou seest has come thy day,
Then, with longing eyes turned backward,
Sighing low, thou steal’st away.
For a list of all our other playwrights, click here.