Alice Ruth Moore’s history of life deserves filling. Her reputation as an eloquent speaker, writer, and activist all intertwine.
By Gayla Tillman
The Harlem Renaissance marks one of the most significant periods of Black art and Black political thought. History books all over the world hail the Harlem Renaissance as a beacon for Black cultural celebration and expression. However, similar to other ways that history books sanitize, erase, or skew the images and stories of people in other notable time periods, the Harlem Renaissance is no different. The most recognized artists from the period are mainly men, except perhaps for Zora Neale Hurston.
One woman I’d like to highlight is Alice Ruth Moore. She led the Delaware Anti-Lynching Crusaders to mobilize voters and help pass anti-lynching legislation. She was released from her position as head of the English department at Howard High School for “political activity”. She wrote prose, poetry, and traveled all over the country to give speeches to HBCU students about equity and justice. But patriarchy still informs how people engaged and remember her. Newspapers would refer to her as “former wife of Paul Laurence Dunbar” first, and then mention her writing or speaking engagements.
Also among the more underreported slices of people’s lives was their love lives, and how queer those love lives were. I understand queerness to mean deviant from socially acceptable intimacy and cis + heterosexual relations. Moore married three times. In her diaries, she speaks of her husbands like props in her life. However, she speaks of Fay Jackson Robinson as someone dear to her. From her diary, Give Us Each Day, she describes intimacy with Robinson that leads me to posing a significant question about Moore’s sexuality. She called Robinson sentimental names like “my little blue dream of loveliness” and wrote sonnets about her when Robinson broke her heart. Some infer about her relationship with Helene Johnson, fellow Harlem Renaissance poet; however, Moore’s diaries suggest more that Johnson’s affections towards Moore were unrequited. Because of how long it took Moore to start writing in a journal (age 46), the line of same gender intimacy and love she may have indulged in remains lost in history.
Moore worked as a journalist for a multitude of publications, with the famous The Crisis carrying her musings on race. As a very light-skinned Black woman, especially in this era, she often passed for white. She used this to her advantage when reporting on Jim Crow meetings. She gossiped and strategized with change-makers like Mary Mcleod Bethune and Nannie Burroughs. Her reputation as an eloquent speaker, writer, and activist all intertwine.
In 1917 she wrote the short story “Hope Deferred” for The Crisis. It predates “Harlem”/”A Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes, yet schools don’t teach it across the nation. The story follows the life of a couple experiencing financial strain because the woman’s partner, a Black man named Edward, is facing harsh discrimination under Jim Crow despite his training and education in civil engineering. Without access to a higher paying job, he takes up work at a restaurant. The language and setting of this story historicizes the Nadir period for Black people well. Moore captures some of the earlier expressions of Black rage in fiction. Black rage meaning anger seeped in unreconciled, unjust, and unacknowledged violence inflicted on Black people. Edward experiences Black rage when the white employer that denied him a job in his desired field appears in the restaurant he works at. The man makes a rude comment about Edward and it completely evaporates his assimilationist and respectable persona. “Something snapped in the darker man’s head…Reason, intelligence, all was obscured, save a man hatred, and a desire to wreak his wrongs on the man, who, for the time being, represented the author of them.” Edward’s pent up trauma response reflects generations of Black rage. The story ends with him incarcerated and his partner visiting him while in jail. He’s confused when he realizes that she hasn’t left him. This story reminds readers that under the rage and after the trauma response, Black people are owed love.
Moore’s respect and adoration for women begins as early as her first published work, “Violets and Other Tales”. In “The Woman,” she utters a major tenet of Black feminism, agency, and autonomy. The short story begins with the question of “Mr. — will you please tell us your opinion upon the question, whether woman’s chances for matrimony are increased or decreased when she becomes man’s equal as a wage earner?” Instead of reinforcing the traditional assumptions that women should yearn for a man, and her accomplishments in work or outside of romance do not compare to if she had a husband, she imagines the leisure and freedom of a woman without male worries. “To an independent spirit there is a certain sense of humiliation and wounded pride in asking for money, be it five cents or five hundred dollars. The working woman knows no such pang.” Moore particularly names how patriarchy confines women’s desires, finances, and sense of ability. She turns the question on its head. She presents many things women are forced to give up in the name of matrimony with little in return. This work was published in 1895, predating the first wave of feminism and Black feminism in the academy.
Alice Ruth Moore’s history of life deserves filling; it deserves inquiry. She wrote well, spoke eloquently, strategized, survived, loved men and women all at the same time. Black queer ancestors deserve better than sanitizing their histories into ill-fit understandings of Blackness and Black culture. When one assumes that Black excellence is only cis, straight, and/or male, it deflates the richness of Black being. It affirms standards set by colonizers to tell Black people what they should be and what they should look up to. This shows up the most in how we remember Black ancestors, and who people deem worthy of remembering. Abolishing the canon, lists of works that represent groups of people or subjects, that allow for certain identities to shine and receive praise while some lurk in the crevices of journals and diaries returns the essence of Black humanity.