Olivia Ward Bush-Banks and the Dualism of African and Native American Identity

The birth of the African American literary condition occurred in 1773 with the publication of Phyllis Wheatley’s book of poetry and has evolved into a thriving apparatus within American literature ever since. Olivia Ward Bush-Banks is amongst this tradition and the presence of her literary work offers a view into the complex identities of Americans—Black, Native American, and a woman, Bush-Banks had plenty to pull from when she began her writing career at the turn of the 20th century.

Bush-Banks on left with Montauk relative Emma D. King  on right at Indian Meeting.  Sag Harbor, New York, 1931

Bush-Banks on left with Montauk relative Emma D. King
on right at Indian Meeting.
Sag Harbor, New York, 1931

The papers of Olivia Ward Bush-Banks consist of her published and unpublished fiction, and display her role as a teacher, poet, playwright, socialite, historian, and activist. The hand script and typescript materials include drafts and final copies of her work. Several of the poems, plays, and stories were subsequently published in The Collected Works of Olivia Ward Bush-Banks as part of The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers. Amistad also holds a copy of this book. Press clippings include notice of artistic social gatherings at her home in New York City, brief biographical sketches, and course outlines for her lectures on public speaking, English, and the dramatic arts.

A letter from Carter G. Woodson to   Bush-Banks complimenting her poems  and offering to publish them  in the Journal of Negro History.

A letter from Carter G. Woodson to Bush-Banks complimenting her poems and offering to publish them in the Journal of Negro History.

Bush-Banks was born in Sag Harbor, New York, to Abraham and Eliza Draper Ward. She was raised by her aunt, Maria Draper, after her mother’s death in 1869. She married Frank Bush in 1889 but the marriage had ended by 1895 and Bush-Banks was forced to become the sole provider for her two children. She took menial jobs to survive and her hardships inspired her writings, which culminated in the 1899 publication of her first volume of poetry titled, Original Poems. She shelved her literary ambitions for years afterwards, placing the financial security of her family above her burgeoning writing career. She remarried a Pullman porter, Anthony Banks, and spent the remainder of her life traveling between her residences in Chicago and New York where she became immersed in the New Negro Movement of the 1920s.

Bush-Banks had Montauk ancestry through both of her parents and she maintained a linkage to these roots by attending pow-wows and other native gatherings. She even served as the Montauk tribal historian. Glimmers of her Native identity are present in an unfinished play, titled Indian Trails, where some of the names and functions of the characters are rooted in Algonquian social customs and material culture. In Scene 1: Act 1, two Native American characters, Quashawan and Wantoconomese, discuss the impending presence of white men in their territory. It reads:

“Wantoconomese will speak the truth to Quashawan.
His heart is heavy. The trail along the teepees is this
with the footprints of the paleface. Ere the rising of another moon,
trouble comes to Montauk.”

Bush-Banks never allowed her Montauk ancestry to overshadow her identity as an African American or her African roots. Themes related to the diminished status of African Americans are mentioned in her work. In Prologue to Shadows, she offers an interpretation of the achievements of early African civilization. It begins:

“Nolanda, the African Maiden, does the jungle dance
and is conscious of the wild ecstasy of jungle rhythm.
Later, the urgent primal call within her, seems to forecast
the centuries of bondage, under the pitiless
white light of advanced civilization,
to be fraught with untold suffering for her people.”

In the writings above, none of the characters know for certain how their contact with Europeans will change the economic, political and spatial expansion of America. Ironically, Bush-Banks starts the dialogue in both writings with a foreboding mood of the subjugation that Africans and Native Americans will experience in the name of Western progression. The subsequent forced bondage of Africans and the near extinction of Native peoples serve as the price for the “white light of advanced civilization.” The dual identity of Bush-Banks, represented by her Native American and African heritage, allowed her to articulate and draw similarities to the displacement and exploitation of both groups. Many published and unpublished works, such as Indian Trails and Prologue to Shadows, serve as a window into the experiences of a multi-ethnic woman during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Post by Chianta Dorsey.

Images and information from Olivia Ward Bush-Banks papers and The Collected Works of Olivia Ward Bush-Banks. May not be reproduced without permission.

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