Angelina Weld Grimke was born in 1880
, the daughter of black lawyer
and activist Archibald Grimké
and his white
wife Sarah Stanley. She was named for her father's aunt Angelina Grimké
Weld, abolitionist and woman suffrage activist. Her parents divorce
d when she was three; her mother raised her for a few years afterwards, but in 1887
sent her to her father in Boston
, who Angelina lived with after that. Her mother toured, for some years, lecturing on alchemy
, and their relationship to physical health, but committed suicide
without ever having seen her daughter again.
When Angelina was thirteen, her father was appointed consul to Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic). Rather than take his daughter out of the U.S., he left her in Washington, D.C. with his brother Francis Grimké and his wife Charlotte Forten. Angelina and her uncle and aunt did not get along; eventually Charlotte wrote to Archibald that they could not keep Angelina any longer. She was enrolled in a boarding school in Minnesota, the Northfield Academy, in 1896. After that, she attended Wellesley College (then called "the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics"), and then started teaching public school in Washington, D.C. -- first gym, then English.
In 1903, she announced to her father that she was in love. This nearly shattered the relationship between father and daughter; Archibald gave Angelina the choice between her lover and her father. Angelina chose her father, who had been her confidant and friend her entire life. Unfortunately, he never accepted his daughter's sex life; her letters from as ages early as fourteen show that she was either a lesbian or bisexual (the gender of the 1903 lover is not even known). But they remained extremely close until his death in 1930; she was his unofficial editor as well as writing her own works, and a great support for him during the controversies of his work for civil rights, and he helped her get her play Rachel, published and performed in Washington D.C. and then New York. Angelina also did work with Margaret Sanger in her published journal on contraception, and supported women's suffrage efforts.
Angelina's work is now looked upon as a precursor to the Harlem Renaissance (which is an interesting comment on how the U.S. looks at race, since three of her grandparents were white). The piece best known at the time was Rachel, which focuses on a black woman who, after lynchings take place around her, refuses to get married and have children, so that she will not be providing the white world with more black people to mistreat. It was used by the NAACP as a counterpoint to the film Birth of a Nation's pro-white views.
Her poetry has attracted more attention now; some of it is commemmorative ("To My Father Upon His Fifty-Fifth Birthday" or "Joseph Lee") or dealing with African-American concerns, but more is about lost or unrequited love. Much of this work was not published until after her death, even though rhetorical devices such as speaking about women from a male narrator were used in some of them. Her prose (short stories, essays, and drama) generally dealt with the black person's experience. Rachel was the only work published as a book during her life, but her shorter pieces appeared in many magazines and anthologies.
After her retirement from teaching in 1926, Angelina moved to New York, where she lived quietly until her death in 1958, without publishing anything else. Even her father's death did not seem to free her from the closeted state; she seems to have spent the last years of her life in near-complete isolation.
One of her more famous poems:
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?
Perry, Mark. Lift Up Thy Voice: The Grimke Family's Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders. New York: Viking Penguin, 2001.