ed. John Michael Cooper
The Heart of a Woman is the first of forty-eight poems in the eponymous collection by Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966). Born into a mixed-race family in Atlanta, Georgia, Johnson (née Camp) was hailed by William Stanley Braithwaite as "the foremost woman poet of the [Black] race," a writer of "flame-like intensity and delicate music" who "renders and interprets the mysterious and inexplicable secrets of femininity." It is no coincidence that the poem was published in 1918, during the final heated and controversial, but eventually successful, push to win enfranchisement for (White) women in U.S. electoral politics. The poem likens the expansive, soaring vision of Woman's heart in freedom to a bird soaring freely, and pits this image against the narrow constraints of the ostensibly "sheltering bars" of "some alien cage" that "break" the bird as it tries to soar but is forced to "[try] to forget that it has dreamed of the stars" — an allegorical but clear reference to the anti-suffrage voices of the day who purported that denying women the freedom to vote and insisting that women work only in the home was actually protecting women's better interests. Johnson's poem takes a dim view of those societal restrictions on women, likening the symbolic bird's soaring in freedom to dawn and the cage's restrictions to night, bluntly labeling life within the cage's "sheltering bars" the bird's "plight," and bitterly restating the word "breaks" no fewer than three times in the last line.
Florence Price made this poem her own. Unlike Johnson's lyric, which contains no overt reference to race, Price's musical language employs blue thirds and other melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic devices characteristic of Black repertoires, pointedly suggesting that the denial of freedom was one that befell not only women, but also and especially Black women. Moreover, whereas Johnson's poem ends pessimistically, Price concludes with a musical suggestion of freedom: just as her setting of "those echoes the heart calls home" climaxes on a high G in the vocal line and continues upward first to C and then to the supertonic F in the piano before falling back into the middle registers (mm. 11-13), at the end of the poem Price repeats the melodic ascent — but now the voice continues along with the piano to the tonic E-flat or G, and the piano further extends its flight of freedom to the uppermost tonic in the composition (E-flat4). This final roaming afar on life's turrets and vales is musically accomplished by the music's figurative struggle to break loose in the chromatic ascent B-flat – B – C – D-flat – D – E-flat, where Price repeats the word "breaks" not three times, as Johnson had done, but four. Johnson's concluding bitter pessimism is thus replaced by Price's musical vision of the fulfillment that freedom brings.
— John Michael Cooper