At the height of the Black Renaissance, Lewis Grandison Alexander was an active poet, actor, director of plays, and costume designer. In light of his many creative accomplishments, writing poetry consumed a major portion of his creative energy and it is that medium for which he is best known. Very little biographical information appears in the literature regarding Lewis G. Alexander. However, as early as 1927, he wrote a short autobiographical sketch for Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk. Lewis Alexander was born in Washington, D.C. on July 4, 1900. He was educated in the public schools of Washington and at Howard University. During his matriculation at Howard University, Alexander was a member of the Howard Players under the direction of Mrs. Marie Moore Forrest. Alexander also studied at the University of Pennsylvania. Alexander died at an early age in 1945. An exhaustive search of the literature did not uncover the month and day that he died.
Alexander began writing poetry at the age of 17, specializing in Japanese forms. In Nellie R. Bright’s review of Caroling Dusk, she states “There are not enough English forms to satisfy Lewis Alexander, for having tried them he turns to two very interesting Japanese forms, the hokku and the tanka.” (The Carolina Magazine, May 1928, p. 43) Charles S. Johnson states in an essay that “Alexander, interesting enough, has been most successful with his Japanese Hokku poems.” (The Carolina Magazine, May 1927, p. 47) In the September 1925 issue of the National Urban League’s Opportunity Magazine, Alexander is referred to as “one of the younger Negro poets, a member of the Playwriters Circle of Washington, D. C.; has directed pageants and was director of the Randall Community Center Players and The Ira Aldridge Players of the Grover Cleveland Centre. He has studied with the Ethiopian Art Theatre….” Both of these small theater groups, the Randall Community Center Players and the Ira Aldridge Players, were based in Washington, D.C. As a member of the Ethiopian Art Theatre, during the 1922-23 season, he appeared in Salome and The Comedy of Errors on Broadway.
Lewis Alexander’s works were published in a number of magazines of the day, including the Messenger, Opportunity, as well as a special number of Palms, a poetry journal from Guadalajara, Mexico. This special issue of Palms (October 1926), edited by Countee Cullen, demonstrates not only the breadth of the Black Renaissance, but also the active involvement of Alexander in that cultural awakening. Alexander’s contribution to the Palms’ issue included “A Group of Japanese Hokku”, and “Dream Song”. After leaving Washington, Alexander became actively involved with the young black literary circle in each city that he lived. In Philadelphia, his poetry was accepted along with other young writers who were being published in the “Black Opals” literary magazine, and in Boston his work appeared in the Quill Club of Boston’s “Saturday Evening Quill.”
Students and faculty at the University of North Carolina exhibited a strong interest in black literature by devoting three special issues of the student literary journal, Carolina Magazine, to black writers. This literary magazine, founded in 1844, was the official literary publication of the students of the University of North Carolina. In May 1927, the students published a “Negro Number” of The Carolina Magazine, in which Alexander served as an honorary editor. The editors expressed in their acknowledgements that Alexander was indispensable in assembling the material. In addition to Alexander’s “The Dark Brother”, the poetry section of this special issue included Langston Hughes, Waring Cuney, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Angelina W. Grimké, and Carrie W. Clifford. For the following two years, The Carolina Magazine published a “Negro Poetry Number” in May 1928 and a “Negro Play Number” in April 1929. The “Negro Poetry Number” was dedicated to Lewis Alexander. D. S. Gardner, editor of the “Negro Poetry Number”, states “this issue is dedicated to the man who made it possible. It was he who, over a period of months, gave of his time unstintingly in the assembling of the material in it. ... In appreciation of his friendship and service, we dedicate this issue to that talented poet and maker of fair lyrics – Lewis Alexander.” (The Carolina Magazine, 1928, p. 4) Alexander was involved with the process of each of these issues. Although, the editors changed each year, they received material for each special issue from Alexander. In culling together work for the special issues, Alexander relied on the prizewinning literature from the Crisis and Opportunity literary contests.
Lewis Alexander was an active participant among the new young writers. He was one of the poets featured in the single issue of Fire!!, a quarterly devoted to the younger Negro artists. The mission of the magazine was to burn up a lot of the old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past. One of the two poems contributed by Alexander to that single issue of Fire!! is “Little Cinderella,” ironically about a prostitute.
Look me over, kid!
I know I’m neat, -
Little Cinderella from head to feet.
Drinks all night at Club Alabam, -
What comes next I don’t give a damn!
You sho looks keen!
I likes men that are long and lean.
Broad Street ain’t got no brighter lights
Than your eyes at pitch midnight.
The second poem was a short verse titled “Streets.”
Avenues of dreams
Boulevards of pain
Moving black streams
Shimmering like rain.
As early as 1924, Alexander’s works appeared in Opportunity. The May issue of the magazine featured a trilogy of poems on Africa that included Claude McKay’s “Africa,” Langston Hughes’ “Our Land,” and Lewis Alexander’s “Africa.” The words from Alexander’s poem follow:
Thou art not dead, although the spoiler’s hand
Lies heavy as death upon thee; though the wrath
Of its accursed might is in thy path
And has usurped they children of their land;
Though yet the scourges of a monstrous band
Roam on your ruined fields, your trampled lanes,
Your ravaged homes and desolated fanes;
Thou art not dead, but sleeping, - Motherland.
A mighty country, valorous and free,
Thou shalt outlive this terror and this pain;
Shall call thy scattered children back to thee,
Strong with the memory of their brother slain;
And rise from out thy charnel house to be
Thine own immortal, brilliant self again!
One of his poems, “Enchantment,” was included in Alain Locke’s The New Negro (1925), the anthology that is sometimes referred to as the manifesto of the New Negro Movement. In addition, Alexander’s poem, “Effigy” appeared in Charles S. Johnson’s Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea (1927). “Effigy” with its two parts, Form and Fashion follow:
You stood in the yard
Your gown crackled loud
Alexander was particularly fond of Japanese Hokku and samples of his work from Opportunity (September 1925) follow:
Life goes by moving,
Up and down a chain of moods
Wanting what’s nothing.
My soul is the wind
Dashing down fields of Autumn:
O, too swift to sing.
I shall spend my moods
Like a rose discards leaves
And die without moods.
My ears burn for speech
And you lie cold and silent.
Look at the white moon
The sphinx does not question more.
Turn away your eyes.
The poetry of life?
NO, the picture of my dreams
Flashing on my heart.
“Negro Woman” is probably the most anthologized of Alexander’s poems, appearing in several anthologies and in Opportunity at least twice, once in April 1926, then again in January 1929.
The sky hangs heavy tonight
Like the hair of a Negro woman.
The scars of the moon are curved
Like the wrinkles on the brow of A Negro woman.
The stars twinkle tonight
Like the glaze in a Negro woman’s eyes,
Drinking the tears set flowing by an aging hurt
Gnawing at her heart.
The earth trembles tonight
Like the quiver of a Negro woman’s eye-lids cupping
Although there are just fragments of Alexander’s life in print, the fine examples of his poetry help to shed a bright light on his role as an active participant in the Renaissance.
Adoff, Arnold (editor). The Poetry of Black America. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.
Alexander, Lewis (guest editor). The Carolina Magazine. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, May 1927.
Cullen, Countee (editor). Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.
Cullen, Countee (editor). Palms, Negro Poets Number. Guadalajara, Mexico: Idella Purnell, October 1926.
Gardner, D. S. (editor) The Carolina Magazine. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, May 1928.
Johnson, Charles S. (editor). Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea. New York: National Urban League, 1927.
“Lewis Grandison Alexander” in Black American Writers Past and Present: A Biographical and Bibliographical Dictionary, edited by Theressa Gunnels Rush, Carol Fairbanks Myers, and Esther Spring Arata (Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1975).
Locke, Alain LeRoy (editor). The New Negro. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1927
Opportunity. New York: Urban League, May 1924, September 1925, April 1926, and January 1929
Thurman, Wallace (editor). Fire!! New York: Joseph Loventhal, 1926.
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The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., 1920-1930s
http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/ | last updated June 20, 2003