June 2nd in (Feminist) History

dorothy_westOn this day in 1907 was the birth of Dorothy West, a writer during the Harlem Renaissance. She was born to Christopher West, a former slave, and Rachel Pegues Benson (who was one of 22 children!). Dorothy wrote her first story at the age of seven and had her first published story in the Boston Post when she was only 14. After attending the Girls’ Latin School, she went on to Boston University and then the Columbia University School of Journalism. In 1926, at the age of 19, she entered a writing contest sponsored by Opportunity (a journal published by the National Urban League). Dorothy tied for second place with her story “The Typewriter”… the woman she tied with was none other than Zora Neale Hurston (a black author best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God).

Around this same time, Dorothy had moved to Harlem, where she unwittingly became a part of the Harlem Renaissance. (As she said much later, in 1995: “We didn’t know it was the Harlem Renaissance, because we were all young and all poor.”) Langston Hughes, another writer of the Harlem Renaissance, gave Dorothy the nickname “The Kid” and it stuck; she also later travelled with him to Russia for a year, for a film on American race relations that was never produced. During the Renaissance, Dorothy’s biggest contribution was publishing the magazineChallenge (and later it’s successor, New Challenge), which published the groundbreaking essay “Blueprint for Negro Writing” by Richard Wright.

Later, Dorothy would remark about how hard it was for black women to get published, let alone have a career in writing, prior to the Harlem Renaissance. She was in fact one of the first female writers of color to have her work published in the United States; her first novel, The Living is Easy, was published in 1948. She worked as a journalist for several decades until her work gained a resurgence in the 80s and 90s, with a republishing of her novel by The Feminist Press, and her inclusion in the anthology Daughters of Africa. At 85 years old, she published her second novel, The Wedding, which contained the message that love knows no bounds, despite the false distinctions of race. The novel was a bestseller, and led to the publishing of The Richer, The Poorer, which was a collection of her short stories and reminiscences. The Wedding was also turned into a two-part movie by Oprah.

Dorothy West died in 1998 at the age of 91, presumably of natural causes. Asked previously what she wanted her legacy to be, she replied, “That I hung in there. That I didn’t say I can’t.”

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