Juanita Harrison (December 28, 1891–?) was an African-American writer known only for her autobiography, My Great, Wide, Beautiful World (1936), which narrates her extensive travel abroad. No record exists of her life after the publication of her book. Hence, her date of death cannot be determined.
Harrison was born in Mississippi during a time that was racially oppressive for an African-American female. The times were marked by racism, laborious jobs for minorities, and not many opportunities for success. Harrison did not receive much schooling, as told in the preface of her book. Her early years started with "an endless round of cooking, washing, and ironing in an overburdened household," which was the norm for girls in her situation—young and African American (ix). Her school education ceased when she was about ten years old. There is not much known about her parents and family life other than what is presented in the preface to her autobiography.
Harrison's physical appearance is also a mystery to the readers. She is spoken of by a former employer's daughter as having "a slight form, fresh complexion, long hair braided about her head, made her appear younger than her years" (xi). This is the only description given about her looks. Harrison autographed a copy of her book and gave several personal photographs of herself to Mr. and Mrs. Frank Estes, on whose property in Hawaii she lived when she returned from her world travels.
My Great, Wide, Beautiful World
Harrison began her travels at the age of 16, traversing the world and exploring 22 countries all by herself. This was quite rare for her time.
Harrison funded her travels by working various jobs such as a nurse, nanny, and cleaning lady, among other trades of sorts. Her initial money came from the investments of a former employer of Los Angeles, California, Mr. George W. Dickinson and Mrs. Myra K. Dickinson. The Dickinsons invested portions of her salary in real estate and gave her the profits. Harrison had long expressed a love of travel and a need to see the world; these kind employers helped her get started. The investments soon yielded $200 in interest per year. Harrison dedicated the book to Myra Dickinson in an act of gratitude.
Once Harrison was on the road she stayed in YMCAs and was able to learn French and Spanish. These language skills helped her when she visited Spain and France. She often looked up the numbers to the local boarding houses and planned her trips around her lodging accommodations.
In each country she travels to, Harrison becomes enamored by something exquisite and unique. For example, she remarked about her journeys, "Can't but help love the last place best" (19). Visiting the Taj Mahal in India was different from the Eiffel Tower in France; Harrison expresses her travels as individual revelations and experiences that could not be duplicated. She said of the Taj Mahal, "It thrilled me through as the beauty cannot be painted…this was built through love, from the love of a man for a woman so it was much nicer" (133). The book reads as numerous journal entries, mistakes included: “just as I have written them misteakes and all. I said that if the mistekes are left out there’ll be only blank” (243). The pure, uncorrected language she uses to record her travels allows the reader to read it as she truly meant it to be conveyed.
She was involved in a train accident while in Czechoslovakia, Twenty-six people were killed and many injured. Harrison was able to turn her most dangerous experience into profit; she asked for compensation of damages for a black eye and received the $200 she asked for. In Turkey she compared the men and evaluated her treatment:
“He ask another man if I was French and tryed to hold my hand I got angry and Hit Him in the Face and quick as litning He hit me in the Face ... that was my first fight, and the only ungentleman man I have meet in Turkey sorry it happen as I had been thinking all day if I had to give a prize to the most respectfully men it would go to the Turks, the other men felt so sad” (90).
Here she relates her trials with the opposite sex. Her reactions to a man who hit her are quite candid and likely cannot be mistaken for a fabricated story. This incident sheds light on the culture of the men she has just encountered and although shocked, in hindsight she perceives the mishap as a learning experience. Harrison realizes that sometimes women also have to defend themselves physically, not just morally. Harrison also experienced some things most black women her age and of her time could not: freedom from racial oppression, lack of border boundaries, and the chance to publish her story. Time has forgotten about My Great Wide Beautiful World but her autobiographical travelogue of events received attention when it was published. Time magazine wrote an article about her book the year it was published: “Readers of My Great Wide Beautiful World will admire not only Juanita's freedom from economic shackles but her impressionistic spelling, sometimes better than right.” The article highlighted excerpts of the book and examines them positively. Selections of Harrison’s book were also published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1935.
Although Harrison only published one book, she has received some critical attention. The encyclopedia African American Authors, 1745–1945 A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson includes an entry on Harrison written by Debra J. Rosenthal. According to Barton, Harrison is a woman "who is not concerned about all the whys and wherefores of her past life but who only wants to convey her immediate joys to the readers." Rosenthal argues that the book concentrates on the "here and now." For example, Harrison uses the present tense throughout the book in her conversational tone and carefree manner. While in Belgrade, a passing girl carrying food caught Harrison's attention and she wrote, "where ever you go I'll flower it smelled so good I flowered Her 2 blocks" (88). Although the girl was a stranger to Harrison, the writer did follow the food seller to some extent, demonstrating that the "here and now" could be at anytime and in anyplace for Harrison. This allows, as Barton says, the readers to gather Harrison's immediate joys, thus sharing in her journeys vicariously.
Juanita Harrison was a woman ahead of her time, traveling alone and not timid about requiring respect for her morals and living conditions. Yet, her book reads as a humble comment on issues still relevant to women today. Rosenthal also mentions that the times Harrison lived in were marred by racism and that she unlike so many others "easily melds into any society and seems to be accepted by all." Harrison herself says that while "at the Aleppo they thought I was Chinese. Here they think I am Aribian" (65). However, the issue of race is not soon forgotten in times like Jena 6 in Louisiana, U.S.A. which is a more recent example of racial tension. Yet, Harrison leaves all those troubles behind to find herself immersed in the new cultures she so loves. While visiting Madrid, she remarked, "Bull fighting and ice cream are the two best things on earth" (99). As a lone traveler, Harrison had indeed seen many parts of the earth.
- Juanita Harrison, My Great, Wide, Beautiful World. NY: Macmillan, 1936.
- Nelson, Emmanuel S., African American Authors, 1745–1945, page 220, Greenwood Press.
- Adele Logan Alexander "Introduction." In Juanita Harrison, My Great, Wide, Beautiful World .(NY: G.K. Hall, 1996) xc–xxviii.
- Rebecca Chalmers Barton, Witnesses for Freedom: Negro Americans in Autobiography. Barton, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1948.
- Rev. of My Great, Wide, Beautiful World. Time 27 (May 18, 1936): 83.
- Katherine Woods, "Juanita Harrison Has Known Twenty-Two Countries." Rev. of My Great, Wide, Beautiful World. New York Times May 17, 1936: 4.