By Tara Mae
Everyone is influenced by their cultural background, either through acceptance, rejection, or some combination of the two.Olivia Ward Bush-Banks was a writer, journalist, historian, and dramatist. Her relationship with her Black and Montaukett lineage, and her ties to Long Island, informed and inspired her work. In her writing and much of her other work, Bush-Banks amplified her cultural identity.
During her life, Bush-Banks was a respected and valued figure in Black and Indigenous communities. Throughout her many travels, her ties to her heritage kept her grounded in her history even as her writing and outreach relayed it to a larger audience. Sustained by her familial ties, her work was driven by the need to provide for her family, and it elevated the effort of her pursuits.
Born on May 23, 1869, in Sag Harbor, she was the youngest of three daughters. Her parents, Eliza Draper and Abraham Ward, were each of Black and Montaukett descent. It was not uncommon for Blacks and Indigenous people to intermarry: such unions and their resulting families faced racism and discrimination. Her mother died when she was around 9 months old, and her father moved the family to Providence, Rhode Island. Upon Abraham’s remarriage, he gave Bush-Banks to be reared by her maternal aunt, Maria Draper, who raised her as her own. She studied nursing in high school but, encouraged and supported by Maria, developed a passion for drama and poetry.
When Bush-Banks was about 20 years old, she married Frank Bush. They had two daughters, Rosamund, who died as a young woman, and Marie. They were divorced by 1895. Bush-Banks later referred to the union as “most unfortunate.” She was then the primary caretaker and money earner for her family, including her aunt. In the years following, Bush-Banks traveled between Providence and Boston, seeking employment while crafting her first book of poetry, Original Poems, published in 1899. The volume, consisting of 10 poems, was lauded by Black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Its topics were ones that she revisited in her career: Black experience and identity, religious exaltation, faith and determination. Voice of the Negro, an established Black publication, printed several of them.
Supporting her art as well as her dependents, she interwove her social conscience into these enterprises. Circa 1900, Bush-Banks was employed as an assistant theater director for the Robert Gould Shaw Settlement House in Boston, a position she had for approximately the next 14 years. She continued to write and publish, contributing to publications such as Colored American Magazine. Bush-Banks was a literary editor of the Citizen magazine of Boston and was a member of the Northeastern Federation of Women’s Clubs.
She returned with her family to the South Fork of Long Island in 1914 and became the Montaukett tribal historian. Because of its association with Black people, the Montauket was
often not considered to be a tribe. Her mother and aunt were raised in the Montaukett culture, and Bush-Banks valued its practices and preservation. As the historian, she was responsible for upholding and imparting the tribe’s oral history and traditions. This role, while always vital, was incredibly significant since in Riverhead, 1910, Judge Abel Blackmar ruled, in Wyandank Pharoah v. Jane Benson, et. al., the tribe extinct. He announced his decision to a courtroom full of Montaukett persons. His verdict stripped the tribe of all its tribal land.
Because the tribe is still not recognized by New York State, it is not recognized by the federal government. Most closely related to the Pequot and Narragansett tribes of Connecticut and Rhode Island, who share customs and the Algonquin language, the tribe’s lack of official status renders its people unable to have their own tribal government. To this day, there is an ongoing fight to have its designation restored. The Montaukett people remain part of the Lenape/Algonquin tribes.
While working as the tribal historian, Bush-Banks was developing her poetry. Driftwood, published in 1914, remains her best-known collection. This anthology included two prose pieces and 25 poems, among them elegies for prominent men in the American history of the Black community: Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Driftwood further examines ideas put forth in Original Poems. In “Hope,” Bush-Banks muses “Prejudice, the floating wreckage of chattel slavery, rises ever to the surface of the turbulent waters of a Nation's life, obstructing each best attempt toward a safe course to its highest citizenship.” She knows that the country will not and cannot meet its noblest intentions until it reckons with its ongoing issues of discrimination, and acknowledges the lasting and detrimental impact of slavery.
Other writings allude to different dichotomies, like the thin, tenuous line that separates hope from despair. “Morning on Shinnecock,” published in 1916, invokes natural imagery that addresses the promise of a new day: “Soft on my ear the warbling birds/Were heralding the birth of morning.” This respite then cedes to the acceptance that this fresh start will not bring change but rather give way to another day of trials and tribulations.
Twas this,—how fair my life began;
How pleasant was its hour of dawn;
But, merging into sorrow’s day,
Then beauty faded with the morn.
Bush-Banks conjures a joy that is fleeting when confronted with the reality of a trying present.
Admired by her literary peers, society sought to limit her because of her race and sex. As a biracial female artist, her mere existence, much less her work, was arguably a radical statement to (white) society. Bush-Banks’ writing is noteworthy for incorporating and recording ethnic and regional dialects that would otherwise not exist in written form. Only one of her plays was published while she was alive, Memories of Calvary: An Easter Sketch, which was one of the final elements of her oeuvre to be heavily influenced by religion. Her plays that had elements of interracial culture were viewed as too controversial for the time and not produced during her life. Yet the art she created was simply born of her own experience and circumstances.
Her second marriage, to Anthony Banks, yielded a move to Chicago where his job with the Pullman Company was located. Bush-Banks maintained her connections to New York as Marie lived in New York City with her family. She was estranged from Rosamund seemingly due to personality differences, and a dislike of her husband. Rosamund apparently died before the two could reconcile.
Circa 1920, Bush-Banks wrote Indian Trails: Or Trail of the Montauk. Surviving in segments, this play reflects her Montaukett birthright. Utilizing her personal knowledge of the ways of the tribe, it addresses the fracturing cultural unity of the Montaukett people and envisions a harmonious reunification at the play’s conclusion when European settlers of the future agree to restore the lands to the Indigenous people.
Following this composition, her focus more completely shifted to exploring Black life and heritage. While based out of Chicago, Bush-Banks grew increasingly involved in the intellectual and artistic elements of the Harlem Renaissance, and counted Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Countee Cullen as friends. Her writing from this period highlights the collective struggles of Black people, the need for social reform, and her faith. Bush-Banks also promoted opportunities for other creators.
She and her husband founded the Bush-Banks School of Expression in Chicago. It provided a space for Black artists to meet and nurture their art. Musicians and actors gave recitals and put on performances at the school. Bush-Banks accessed her theatrical roots, crafting dramas and teaching drama in Chicago public schools.
By the 1930s, Bush-Banks was home in New York state. She started writing for the New Rochelle Westchester Record-Courier as a “cultural art” critic. Increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of the Harlem Renaissance and living in New Rochelle, she joined the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theater Program in 1936 and served as a drama coach for the community center of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. That same year, she finished an adult education course, and became a certified teacher.
Although Bush-Banks continued to write her own material, certain pieces remained unpublished, probably because so much of it dealt with interracial dynamics. She died in 1944, leaving behind more unpublished than published writing. Bush-Banks is, perhaps, less well known than her creative contemporaries, but her life and work are vital to understanding, appreciating, and learning about the cultural diversity of America.