A play by Michael Dinwiddie and a book by Kerri K. Greenidge evoke an illustrious American family of mixed ancestry, and none is more iconic than Angelina Weld Grimke. She was three-quarters white—her mother was white and her father was half white—and so together Angelina was a “woman of color”. The proverbial “drop theory” may have its star with it.

Race notwithstanding, Angelina was a talented poet, and she is best remembered for her words in more genres than the color of her skin. She was born on February 27, 1880 in Boston. Her father, Archibald Grimke, was a prominent lawyer whose father owned slaves, including a female slave her father owned. He was the second black man to graduate from Harvard Law School. Angelina’s mother, Sarah Stanley, was a woman of European ancestry, and other than that, little is known of her.

We do know, however, that they met in Boston where Archibald established his law firm. She was named for her father’s paternal white aunt, Angelina Grimke Weld, and thus a turning point in her name. Their marriage was not appreciated by the family, race being the main issue. After Angelina was born, Sarah left her husband and started her own career in the Midwest. When Angelina was seven, she was sent back to Massachusetts to live with her father. This ended his contact with his mother who committed suicide a few years later.

No reason was given for her to commit suicide, although it could be her connection to a family with a convoluted mix of slavery and complicated ancestry. Moreover, we can never be completely sure how these factors may have troubled her and compelled her to send her daughter back to live with her father. Even so, her in-laws had a number of distinguished personalities, and Angelina would follow in their wake as she began her educational journey at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics, later the Department of Hygiene at Wellesley College. After graduating, she moved with her father to Washington, DC, joining her uncle, Francis Grimke.

Angelina began teaching English at the Armstrong Manual Training School in 1902. The school, conforming to the Jim Crow system at the time, was black and segregated. In 1916, she was a teacher at the famous Dunbar High School. Among his notable students was playwright and poet May Miller. During her summer holidays, she often took classes at Harvard University. On July 11, 1911, she was traveling on a train to Connecticut when it crashed; she suffered a back injury that never fully healed. Seven years later, his father fell ill; in 1928 she retired to care for him and assisted him until his death in 1930. She left the nation’s capital and moved to New York City where she lived in a semi-reclusive apartment in the side of the Upper West before his death in 1958.

His literary legacy was quite impressive, having published in a number of prestigious journals, including the NAACP’s Crisis magazine and the Urban League Opportunity. She was part of a coterie of noted writers in several anthologies and her poetry was included in “Caroling Dusk and Negro Poets and Their Poems”. According to the publication, she is often considered a writer of the Harlem Renaissance or shortly before. In 1916, his play “Rachel” was produced in both New York and Washington, D.C. According to the NAACP, his play was “the first attempt to use the stage for racial propaganda to enlighten the American people about the lamentable condition of ten million citizens of color in this free republic. The play depicts the life of a black family from the South who migrated North in the early 20th century and their responses to the racial ignominies they faced and endured. Also, she questions the themes of motherhood, and the problems encountered by children. A lynching episode is crucial for the development of the play. “The play was published in 1920, but received little attention after its first productions. In the years that followed, however, he was recognized as a precursor to the Harlem Renaissance. It is one of the earliest examples of this political and cultural movement to explore the historical roots of African Americans,” one review noted.

Angelina wrote a second anti-lynching play, “Mara”, parts of which were never published. And the lynching continued to be a central concern in later publications, both in a fictional and non-fiction mode. His play “Goldie” was based on the lynching of Mary Turner in 1918, anticipating Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”.

As for her sexual orientation, it was partly revealed when, as a teenager, she wrote to a friend and lover: “I know you are too young now to be my wife, but I hope, my dear, that in a few years you come to me and be my love, my wife! How my brain swirls, how my pulse leaps with joy and madness when I think of those two words, “my wife.” an ultimatum about the case, insisting that she choose between him and the young woman.

Her sexuality was often a matter of controversy and evidence of her lesbian or bisexual streak has been further credited in publications such as the “Dictionary of Literary Biography: African-American Writers before the Harlem Renaissance” which quotes: “In many poems and in her journals Grimké expressed the frustration her lesbianism created; thwarted desire is a theme in several poems. Some of her unpublished poems are more explicitly lesbian, implying that she lived a life of suppression, “à la both personal and creative”.