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Gwendolyn Bennett

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English Literature

One of the "most promising of the poets out of the Harlem Renaissance"¹ was Gwendolyn Bennett, according to popular playwright Theodore Ward. Bennett was an African-American poet, short-story writer, educator, graphic artist, editor, and columnist. She was a vital figure in the Harlem Renaissance, contributing to literary magazines and creating her own literary column that embraced racial pride.

Bennett collaborated with Harlem figures such as Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston. Her poems such as 'Fantasy' (1927) and 'To a Dark Girl' (1922) characteristically embrace her African ancestry and identity as a Black woman and they empower women in general. Today Bennett is often underrepresented, despite her contributions to poetry, art, and prose.

Gwendolyn Bennett Biography and Facts

Gwendolyn Bennet (1902-1981) was born in Texas at the beginning of the 20th century. The daughter of two teachers, Bennett spent her early childhood on the Paiute Indian Reservation in Nevada, where her parents taught for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Her family moved to Washington D.C. when she was four, but her parents divorced three years later. Although her mother won custody, her father kidnapped her and moved to Brooklyn, NY, where she lived with him and her stepmother.

Bennett attended Brooklyn’s Girls' High from 1918 to 1921 and became the first African American student to join the school's drama and literary societies. After graduation, she enrolled in both Columbia University and Pratt Institute simultaneously, pursuing a degree in fine arts.

It was during college that Bennett began writing poetry. In 1923, her first poem “Nocturne” was published in The Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), followed quickly by "Heritage" in Opportunity (in full Opportunity: Journal Of Negro Life) (1923), a magazine published by the National Urban League.

She graduated in 1924 and got a job teaching in the art department at Howard University. She received a scholarship that year allowing her to continue her education in fine arts in Paris. From 1925-1926, she studied at the Académie Julian and the École du Panthéon, where she learned the skills necessary to become a graphic artist.

After leaving Paris, Bennett moved to New York City where she worked as the assistant to the editor of Opportunity magazine. She started her own column in Opportunity called “The Ebony Flute” and became very involved in the Harlem Renaissance, reporting on the art and literature produced by creative thinkers.

Gwendolyn Bennett,  The Ebony Flute StudySmarterBennett had her own literary column, "The Ebony Flute," which allowed her to discuss Harlem Renaissance artists and writers and promote Black creatives in the movement, unsplash.

In 1927, Bennett married Dr. Albert Joseph Jackson and they moved to Florida. Their marriage was plagued by financial struggles, and they lost their home in Florida during the Great Depression. They moved to Long Island, NY in 1930, but lost their home there as well. Jackson died in 1936 and Bennett moved back to New York City. In the late 1930s and 40s she resumed her work as an artist in Harlem.

Bennett married Richard Crosscup in 1940, but their interracial marriage was not socially acceptable at the time. The FBI began investigating her in the 1940s as they suspected she was a Communist despite any lack of supporting evidence. She began to fade from the public eye in the late 1940s before officially retiring in 1968.

Bennet and her husband moved to Kutztown, Pennsylvania, where they owned an antique shop. Crosscup died in 1980 due to heart failure, and Bennett died the next year on May 30, 1981, from cardiovascular complications.

Gwendolyn Bennett and the Harlem Renaissance

Bennett played a vital role in promoting the Black artists of the Harlem Renaissance through her contributions to Opportunity Magazine. The editor of Opportunity, Charles S. Johnson, believed that Black voices were neglected and ignored in mainstream American media.

Opportunity hoped to combat that, specifically giving voice to Black culture. As such, the intellectual magazine was a major creative outlet for the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Bennett's column "The Ebony Flute" (1926-1928) focused on discussing important topics in her day and uniting diverse communities.

Bennett's column discussed controversial topics in the Black community, often offering different viewpoints. For example, Bennett publicly supported Carl Van Vechten, a white patron of the Harlem Renaissance, who himself wrote about Black artists and writers.

While other Black intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance, like W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Leroy Locke, publicly condemned Van Vechten for what they considered overstepping, Bennett backed him on multiple occassions in her column. Bennett also wrote extensively on how Africans were being empowered across the nation and internationally, hoping to show the efforts that were being made to recognize Black voices.

Gwendolyn Bennett, Harlem Renaissance, StudysmarterIn addition to promoting Black artists, writers, and intellectuals, Bennett used her column to present different points of view and debate other Harlem Renaissance thinkers, increasing diversity, pixabay.

Perhaps most importantly, Bennett used her column to promote Black artists and writers. She also included news about upcoming contests and events in the middle of her column to encourage new writers and artists to get involved.

Bennett's "The Ebony Flute" was instrumental in helping to develop the African American artistic community during the Harlem Renaissance. Bennett also contributed to the Harlem Renaissance with her own poetry and prose, much of which specifically embraces her African American heritage and the power that comes with being a Black woman.

Although she moved around a lot, Harlem was always close to her heart. Becoming a member of the Harlem Artists Guild in 1935, Bennett worked to further education, connection, and understanding between African American artists and the public. Afterwards, she directed the Harlem Community Art Center from 1939 to 1944.

The Harlem Renaissance lasted from the late 1910s to the mid-1930s. During this time, the city of Harlem in New York was developed as a hub of Black culture. The Harlem Renaissance is considered a golden age of African American culture, when Black literature, music, art, and stage performance exploded. The empowerment of Black voices in Harlem influenced the entire country and set the stage for the civil rights movement, in which African Americans demanded equality.

Harlem, situated in Northern Manhattan, was originally intended to be a neighborhood for upper class white people in the 1880s. But due to overdevelopment, landlords were desperate to fill empty apartments.

A few middle class Black families moved into the neighborhood and the white families gradually left. Coincidentally, the Great Migration (when hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved from the South to the North) happened around the same time and many Black families settled in Harlem.

The population shift resulted in a Black Pride movement. Remember, this was decades before the Civil Rights Movement and only a few decades after the Civil War. Black culture and contribution to the arts had been overlooked for years. Thinkers like Du Bois wanted to ensure that the Black community started getting credit for their cultural contributions.

Charles S. Johnson, a sociologist and integral part of the Harlem literary scene, founded Opportunity in 1923. This magazine gave voice to famous writers like Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Bennett.

The end of the Harlem Renaissance began with the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. The end of Prohibition was another hit, as white patrons no longer needed clubs to get illegal alcohol. Harlem Renaissance writers, artists, and musicians trickled out of the city, looking for work. By 1940, the Harlem Renaissance was over.

Gwendolyn Bennett Poems

Bennett's most famous poems, such as "Fantasy" and "To a Dark Girl," are about empowering African American women and embracing Black perspectives.

'Fantasy' by Gwendolyn Bennett

As the title suggests, 'Fantasy' takes readers on a journey into a mystical land full of bright colors and whimsical imagery. In the fantasy world of the speaker's dreams, women and nature are treated with dignity and respect and hold positions of power.

The poem is sensual, and the speaker is talking to her friend or possibly her lover, the queen. The world is brighter and calm; there is no hint of violence, just peace, beauty, and love. This fantasy world contrasts sharply with Bennett's real-life experience in the 1920s, where, as an African American woman, she experienced discrimination on account of both her gender and her race.

Gwendolyn Bennett, The speaker addresses a Black queen who is one with nature, empowering both African American women and nature in her dreams, StudySmarterThe speaker addresses a Black queen who is one with nature, empowering both African American women and nature in her dreams, unsplash.

'To a Dark Girl' by Gwendolyn Bennet

'To a Dark Girl' was first published in 1922 in The Book of American Negro Poetry. Bennett's 'To a Dark Girl' addresses a young Black girl who carries her ancestors' legacy in her body. Her body carries their triumphs as ancient queens and their suffering as the slaves of white men.

The speaker urges the "little brown girl" (9) to forget her ancestors' pain and instead fully embrace their regality. Slavers forced her family into submission, but her identity as a Black woman is so much more than the suffering that Black women have historically been forced to endure. "To a Dark Girl" specifically empowers African American women, emphasizing the power of their ancestry over the torment.

Gwendolyn Bennett Quotes

Bennett's poetry embraces femininity and Blackness. This is displayed in some of her most powerful quotes:

Oh, little brown girl, born for sorrow's mate,

Keep all you have of queenliness,

Forgetting that you once were slave,

And let your full lips laugh at Fate!" (9-12).

This quote is taken from Bennett's "To a Dark Girl". It states that there is immense power and honor in being Black. Black women carry a history of both queenliness and slavery in their blood, but, the speaker states, they cannot allow the pain of their ancestor's past to define their future. Instead they need to make their own fate, embracing their power over their pain. The themes in this quote are femininity, racial pride, and fate vs. freedom.

I want to feel the surgingOf my sad people’s soulHidden by a minstrel-smile" (16-18).

This quote is taken from Bennett's poem "Heritage," and it also discusses racial pride. Throughout the poem, the speaker talks about returning to her ancestor's homeland in Africa and embracing her heritage. This is the last stanza of the poem, and it juxtaposes the vibrant, rich culture of Africa with the hollow way it is presented in American culture.

The minstrel shows were racist depictions of African Americans that consisted of white actors using blackface to mock Black culture. The speaker aims to show that the way Blackness is presented in American culture is a hollow inaccuracy that is not only reductive, but also completely false.

Gwendolyn Bennett - Key takeaways

  • Gwendolyn Bennett was an African American poet, short-story writer, educator, graphic artist, editor, and columnist.
  • She was central to the Harlem Renaissance through her column "The Ebony Flute" which promoted the work of Black artists, writers, and intellectuals.
  • She herself was an accomplished poet and short story writer, but today her work is often overlooked.
  • Two of her most renowned poems are "Fantasy" and "To a Dark Girl."
  • Bennett's most famous quotes surround femininity, racial pride, and family history.

1. "Bennett," Pennsylvania Center for the Book, Pennsylvania State University.

Gwendolyn Bennett

Bennett died from cardiovascular complications in 1981. 

Bennett is important for her contributions to the Harlem Renaissance through both her own work and her promotion of other creatives in her magazine column. 

She had about 30 poems published in The Crisis, Opportunity, and a few anthologies. 

Bennett wrote poetry and prose, worked as a graphic artist and educator, and ran a literary column that promoted Harlem Renaissance creatives. 

Bennett was famous for her contributions to the Harlem Renaissance. She wrote many poems about racial pride and Black heritage. 

Final Gwendolyn Bennett Quiz

Question

Who was Gwendolyn Bennett? 

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Answer

Bennett was a writer, editor, artist, and administrator. She was involved in the Harlem Renaissance. 

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Question

What was Bennett's childhood like? 

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Answer

Bennett spent her young childhood on a Native American reservation, where her parents were teachers. When her parents divorced, her father kidnapped her and took her to Brooklyn, NY. She went to Brooklyn’s Girls' High.

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Question

What was Bennett's education like? 

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Answer

She went to two colleges simultaneously to earn a degree in fine arts. After graduation, she continued her education in Paris. 

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Question

Where did Bennett famously work? 

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Answer

Bennett worked as the assistant to the editor at Opportunity magazine. There, she started her own column "The Ebony Flute."

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Question

What was "The Ebony Flute"? 

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Answer

"The Ebony Flute" was Bennett's literary column. In her column, she promoted African American writers and artists. She also shared news and debate controversial topics to increase diverse readership. 

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Question

What was the Harlem Renaissance? 

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Answer

The Harlem Renaissance is considered a golden age for African American culture, situated in the time period between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Before the Harlem Renaissance, Black voices had been underrepresented and underacknowledged in American culture. The Harlem Renaissance aimed to showcase how much Black creatives could contribute to music, art, and the stage. 

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Question

How was Bennett controversial? 

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Answer

She married a white man in 1940, which was socially unacceptable at the time. 

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Question

What are some of Bennett's most famous poems? 

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Answer

"To a Dark Girl" 

"Fantasy" 

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Question

What kind of themes did Bennett talk about? 

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Answer

She focused her work on femininity, racial pride, and family history. 

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Question

What kind of issues did Bennett encounter? 

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Answer

She was an African American woman in the early 1900s, so she faced discrimination for both her gender and race. 

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