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West, Dorothy (1907-1998)

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Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West was born on June 2, 1907 in Boston, Massachusetts.  She was the only child of Rachel Pease Benson and Isaac Christopher West.  Isaac West was a former slave from Virginia whose small-business success afforded Dorothy a childhood of relative comfort.  At the age of two Dorothy began her formal education and by four she was admitted to the second grade at Farragut School in Boston.  At the age of seven Dorothy discovered her love for writing and in 1921, when she was 14, her first story was published in the Boston Post, a newspaper for which she continued to write for the rest of her life.   In 1923 at the age of 16 she enrolled at Columbia University in New York to study journalism and philosophy.  In 1926 her short story “The Typewriter” appeared in  Opportunity, the  journal of the National Urban League and a major literary outlet for Harlem Renaissance writers.

West however put her writing on hold as she spent the next few years as an actor.  In 1927 she applied for a playwriting position with the original stage production of Porgy and Bess but was instead offered a small acting part in the play.  In 1929 West went with Porgy to London where it was performed for only three months as the English had trouble understanding the actors’ black Southern dialect.  In June 1932 she visited the Soviet Union along with other Harlem Renaissance intellectuals to film Black and White, a story about racism in the United States.  Although the film project was cancelled just before their arrival, West decided to remain in the Soviet Union for a year, returning home only after the death of her father.

West returned to Harlem and began to write again in 1934.  She was mentored by Carl Van Vechten, white writer, journalist, and music critic of the Harlem Renaissance.  Van Vechten helped her refine her writing skills and enhance her literary voice.  In the late 1930s West edited two magazines, Challenge and later New Challenge, through which she hoped to showcase young black talent.  When few of the entries met her standards, she ended both publications.   Beginning in 1938, West worked as a welfare investigator in Harlem for a year and half and in the early 1940s became a regular contributor for New York Daily News.  In 1945 West moved permanently to Martha’s Vineyard where she had spent many summers as a child, and began work on her novel The Living is Easy which appeared in 1948.  
West’s novels, short stories, and periodical publications discussed African American life as well as black political and social issues.  Her experiences with racism in school, work in Harlem, and acting overseas all influenced her writing.  She continued to publish short stories and in 1995, at the age of 88, West finally published her second novel, The Wedding, which entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey produced as a two-part television miniseries.

Dorothy West died in Boston on August 16, 1998, three years after completing The Wedding.  She is considered the last survivor of the Harlem Renaissance.

Sources:
Trudier Harris, Afro-American Writers, 1940-1955 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1988); Walter C. Daniel, “Challenge Magazine: An Experiment That Failed,” CLA Journal, 19 (June 1976); Genii Guinier, Black Women Oral History Project Interview with Dorothy West, May 6, 1978 (Cambridge: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, 1981).

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University of Washington, Seattle

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