One the lesser-known figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Jessie Redmon Fauset was born in 1882. Early in life her family moved from New Jersey to Philadelphia. Though she wished to attend Bryn Mawr, she received scholarship money to attend Cornell University. Upon failing to gain employment as a teacher in the Philadelphia area, she taught in Washington until W.E.B. DuBois called her to work for the NAACP’s Crisis magazine. While there she published essays, poems, and stories of her own, as well as edited works of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Her own works did not receive much attention at the time, but they are currently being revived academically, particularly her novel Plum Bun. She died in Philadelphia in 1961.
Jessie Redmon Fauset was born April 27, 1882, in Camden, New Jersey. Her parents were Redmon Fauset, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and Annie Seamon Fauset. Redmon Fauset married Bella Huff after the death of Annie Fauset and the couple moved their family to Philadelphia. In 1929, Jessie Fauset married Herbert Harris, an insurance broker, at the age of 47. The couple resided with Fauset’s sister, Helen Lanning, in Harlem, New York until Lanning’s death in 1936. Fauset and Harris were separated from 1931 to 1932. In the 1940’s, they moved to New Jersey, where they lived until Harris died in 1958. The couple had no children.
Fauset graduated with honors from Philadelphia’s High School for Girls in 1900 as the only African American student. She applied to Bryn Mawr College and rather than accepting her as a student, the college helped Fauset obtain financial aid to attend Cornell University. Fauset studied classical languages at Cornell and was elected to the honor society, Phi Beta Kappa. After she graduated from Cornell in 1905, Fauset searched for a teaching job in Philadelphia, but was denied a position because of her race and sex. She eventually obtained a job at the Douglass High School in Baltimore, where she taught for one year. Fauset then moved to Washington, DC to teach French at the M Street High School, where she remained for 14 years. In 1919, sociologist and political activist W.E.B. DuBois asked Fauset to move to New York City and accept a position as the literary editor of the magazine Crisis. Fauset received a Masters of Arts Degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1929 and a certificate from the Sorbonne in Paris, France.
Fauset is most noted for her work at the Crisis, the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). As editor, Fauset published the works of Harlem Renaissance writers such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and George Schuyler. In addition to editing the magazine, Fauset also contributed some of her own essays, poetry, and short stories to the magazine. In 1920 and 1921, she spent time as the editor of the NAACP monthly children’s magazine, The Brownie’s Book. Much of the credit for her work was given to the magazine’s founder, W.E.B. DuBois. Fauset also published four novels during her career as a writer. The first novel, There is Confusion, was published in 1924 and was created as a response to what Fauset believed to be an inaccurate portrayal of black life in fiction. The second novel, Plum Bun, is the story of a woman trying to make people believe she is white, and the novel is Fauset’s most acclaimed piece of work. Her final two novels, The Chinaberry Tree and Comedy, American Style, did not receive as much attention as her first two works.
Unfortunately, Jessie Fauset only received a small amount of recognition and honor during her life and career as a writer. Some believe her modesty and selflessness kept her from becoming a greater figure in literature. Although she did not receive awards for her work, she is now remembered for her success in writing, editing, translating, and teaching. Her work has also been included in various anthologies.
Jessie Redmon Fauset died April 30, 1961, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania due to hypertensive heart disease.
I hope when I am dead that I shall lie
In some deserted grave–I cannot tell you why,
But I should like to sleep in some neglected spot,
Unknown to every one, by every one forgot.
There lying I should taste with my dead breath
The utter lack of life, the fullest sense of death;
And I should never hear the note of jealousy or hate,
The tribute paid by passers-by to tombs of state.
To me would never penetrate the prayers and tears
That futilely bring torture to dead and dying ears;
There I should lie annihilate and my dead heart would bless
Oblivion–the shroud and envelope of happiness.
Based on what you have read about Langston Hughes, compare the tone of this poem to a similar poem of Hughes (i.e., The Weary Blues). Why do you think poetry of that time by many talented poets was sad or depresing?