Juanita Harrison’s only book, My Great, Wide, Beautiful World (1936), is one of the earliest examples of autobiographical travel writing by an African American woman. The book presents the accounts of her journeys around the world in an unedited, vernacular text that illustrates Harrison’s vigorous autonomy and transcendence above the race and class drawbacks she experienced as a young girl growing up in rural Mississippi.
Little is known about Harrison’s life beyond My Great, Wide, Beautiful World, and the book’s preface relates the few details known regarding her youth. Juanita Harrison was born in 1891 somewhere in Mississippi. Her formal schooling ended by the time she was ten, at which point she began doing household labor—cooking, washing, and ironing—to help support her family.
The travel pictures Harrison saw in magazines instilled a wanderlust that became the defining aspect of her life. She began her travels at age sixteen, finding employment in Canada and Cuba. During this time she took classes in conversational Spanish and French at the Young Women’s Christian Association, gaining skills that would prove a great asset in her future travels.
For the next twenty years Harrison saved her earnings, and at age thirty-six she set out from California, traveling through twenty-two different countries from June 1927 to April 1935. In France, her employer, Felix Morris, suggested that she write a book about her experiences. Morris’s daughter, Mildred, helped Harrison approach the Macmillan publishing firm, and My Great, Wide, Beautiful World was born. The book was dedicated to Harrison’s employer in Los Angeles, Myra K. Dickinson, and her husband, who helped Harrison invest and save her money to finance her travels.
It was rare for an African American writer to accomplish such lofty goals at the height of the Great Depression, and a recurring theme in My Great, Wide, Beautiful World is Harrison’s staunch autonomy. Harrison refused to be bound by conventions of gender and race, and she often wrote of her pride in being an unmarried woman able to choose which of her numerous male suitors she allowed to accompany her on her travels.
Harrison praises different cultures’ pageantry and delights in the exotic sights, sounds, and foods that she experiences. She attends bullfights, the theater, and Greek, Catholic, and Protestant churches, all with equal fervor. These passages point toward Harrison’s understanding and appreciation of the variety of customs she encountered.
My Great, Wide, Beautiful World was initially serialized in the March and November 1935 issues of Atlantic Monthly. Its publication in book form in 1936 garnered warm reviews from the New Republic, the Saturday Review of Literature, and the New York Times. The book fell out of print until 1996, when it was reissued with a critical introduction by Adele Logan Alexander as part of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s series, African American Women Writers, 1910–1940.
My Great, Wide, Beautiful World concludes with Harrison on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii in 1936. Having traveled through Israel, Burma, Thailand, Russia, and Europe, she pitches a tent and decides to end her journey amid the tropic beauty and harmony of Honolulu rather than returning to the harsher American homeland. Harrison appears not to have written any more in her lifetime, and details of her death are unknown.
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- Lean’tin L. Bracks, in Black Women of the Harlem Renaissance Era, ed. Lean’tin L. Bracks and Jessie Carney Smith (2014)
- Cathryn Halverson, Maverick Autobiographies: Women Writers and the American West, 1900–1936 (2004)
- Emmanuel S. Nelson, African American Autobiographers: A Sourcebook (2002)
- Lorraine E. Roses and Ruth E. Randolph, Harlem Renaissance and Beyond: Literary Biographies of 200 Black Women Writers, 1900–1945 (1990)