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To a Dark Girl

To a Dark Girl

How do you honor two sides of your history when they could not be more different? In Gwendolyn Bennett's (1902-1981) poem "To a Dark Girl" (1922), the speaker examines the diverse, ambivalent history of African American women. Once African queens, then oppressed slaves, Black women are constantly contending with conflicting identities. Examining generational trauma, the speaker crafts a love poem to young Black girls, urging them to find their ancestor's queenliness as sources of power instead of giving in to the life that fate has chosen for them as descendants of slavery.

To a Dark Girl at a Glance

Written By

Gwendolyn Bennett

Publication Date

1922

Form

Lyric poem comprised of three quatrains (4-line stanzas)

Meter

Inconsistent

Rhyme Scheme

ABCB DEFE GHIG

Poetic Devices

Symbolism

Metaphor

Juxtaposition

Repetition

Allusion

Personification

Apostrophe

Alliteration

Imagery

Frequently noted imagery

Rounded darkness of your breast

Breaking sadness in your voice

Shadows where your wayward eyelids rest

Old forgotten queens

Shackled slave

Full lips laugh

Tone

Empowering, loving, appreciative

Key themes

The ambivalent history of African American peoples

Reflecting a legacy of power over pain

Meaning

Young Black women should embrace their ancestors' regality and power instead of letting their sorrow and pain define their future.

To a Dark Girl Gwendolyn Bennett

"To a Dark Girl" by Gwendolyn Bennett was first published in The Book of American Negro Poetry in 1922. An African American woman who was deeply proud of her ancestry, the poem is a direct reflection of Bennett's life.

Bennett was born in Texas in 1902 and raised for several years on a Native American reservation, where her parents were teachers. Although she travelled a lot in her childhood, she found her permanent home in Harlem, New York after her college graduation in 1926.

In 1926, Bennett got a job as the assistant to the editor of Opportunity magazine in New York. She had her own column called "The Ebony Flute" (1926-1928) where she promoted Black creatives during the Harlem Renaissance.

The Harlem Renaissance lasted from roughly the late 1910s to the mid-1930s. It was a celebration of Black contributions in art, literature, music, and stage performances, all places where they had been previously kept out of. The Harlem Renaissance is considered a golden age of African American culture, and it set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s.

Some Harlem Renaissance voices you might be familiar with include Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston. Bennett collaborated with all of these writers and more throughout her time in Harlem. She used her column "The Ebony Flute" to promote their poetry and prose and amplify their voices throughout the country.

Bennett herself created powerful poetry, like "To a Dark Girl," but instead of focusing her time on getting her own work published, she advocated for other Black artists and writers. Her work was never anthologized or collected, and Bennett is unfortunately a rather obscure poet today. Her poetry is still a testimony of African American pride, and it is a source of empowerment to young Black women.

To a Dark Girl Text

I love you for your brownness,

And the rounded darkness of your breast,

I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice

And shadows where your wayward eyelids rest.

Something of old forgotten queens

Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk

And something of the shackled slave

Sobs in the rhythm of your talk.

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!"

To a Dark Girl summary

The speaker is addressing a dark-skinned girl, who carries her family's legacy within her body. An African American woman, she shoulders both her people's pain and their triumph. Her family was once enslaved and shackled, and she still bears their sadness and torment in her eyes. But she also descends from powerful African queens, and she exudes their grace and dignity in her walk. After telling the Black girl that she loves her equally for her each aspect of her ancestry, the speaker implores the girl to forget her legacy as the child of slaves and instead live her life as if she were the descendent of queens.

To a Dark Girl, African fashion, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The speaker wants the Black girl to embrace her family's legacy as ancient African queens.

To a Dark Girl Tone

The tone of "To a Dark Girl" is empowering, loving, and appreciative. Although this poem was written before the Civil Rights Movement really gained momentum in the 1950s, the speaker's tone has no hint of racism or condescension. Most likely a Black woman herself, the speaker is intimately aware of all the layers and nuances of the girl's African American heritage.

Remember, we cannot assume the speaker is the poet! Although the poem probably expresses the views that Bennett held towards the world as an African American woman who advocated for Black voices, we can't say they're one and the same.

Oftentimes, poets write from a perspective that is not entirely their own. Poets often use personas in order to channel the personal experiences of people very different from themselves. For example, Bennet's friend Langston Hughes wrote the poem "Mother to Son" (1922) from a woman's perspective, even though he was a man.

Other times, poets dramatize their own personal experience in order to work through their emotions. This was very popular with the Confessional Poets like Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. Although their works were directly influenced by their personal experiences, the speakers in the poems were dramatized for effect and weren't, strictly speaking, the writers themselves.

Unless there is specific evidence that the poet is writing purely autobiographically, it is safer to assume that the speaker and the poet are not the same. This allows readers to separate the poet from their work. So while it is likely that Bennett would have said the same thing to young Black women if given the chance, without any evidence that this is an autobiographical piece, it is imperative that we analyze the poetry as it is written on the page.

The tone is loving and gentle from the start, using the intimate phrase "I love you" not once but twice (1, 3). More than sympathetic, the speaker deeply feels the varied history of African American people in her empathy. She shares in the girl's pain and her triumphs; she is attuned to the suffering in her eyes and the graceful regality of her walk. And at the end of the poem, after giving respect to all aspects of the girl's ambivalent history, she empowers the Black girl to let her ancestor's power, rather than their pain, define her future.

To a Dark Girl Analysis

Symbolism, metaphor, and allusion are all literary devices used to create juxtaposition. Those along with personification are the most prominent literary devices in the poem.

Symbolism and imagery

Throughout the poem, the speaker refers to the girl's dark skin color and femininity several times. The speaker starts,

I love you for your brownness,And the rounded darkness of your breast," (1-2)

While the girl does literally have dark skin and breasts, those characteristics have a deeper symbolic meaning that goes beyond the physical. The girl's "brownness" is a symbol for everything that is encapsulated into an African American's identity. Her skin symbolically holds centuries of violence and enslavement in the United States. It also holds centuries of power.

Symbolism: one person/place/thing is a symbol for, or represents, some greater value/idea.

Imagery: descriptive language that appeals to one of the five senses

The rounded breasts are physical symbols of femininity. When Bennett wrote this poem in the early 1920s, women had just legally earned the right to vote, but there were still many barriers to keep them from doing so. The obstacles were even more evident for Black women, who often had to wait in line for hours or pass writing tests before they were allowed to vote. In the South, white men obstructed African American women from voting by threatening bodily harm and fabricating charges against them to have them thrown in jail.

So while breasts and brownness are physical descriptions of the girl, their symbolic meaning conveys all of the pain, prejudice, and oppression that African American women had to endure in the United States.

Metaphor, Allusion, and Juxtaposition

The speaker never specifically says that the girl is of African American descent, but readers are able to deduce her ancestry through allusion and metaphor:

Something of old forgotten queensLurks in the lithe abandon of your walkAnd something of the shackled slaveSobs in the rhythm of your talk" (5-8).

The allusion to "old forgotten queens" refers to African queens throughout history that ruled their countries fiercely and gracefully. Just a few of these queens include Nefertiti of Ancient Egypt, Makeda of Ethiopia (or the Queen of Sheba), and Kandake Amanirenas of the Kingdom of Kush. These queens are largely overlooked in American and European history books, as the contributions of African people, especially African women, are often diminished and left out of history.

Allusion: a figure of speech in which a person, event, or thing is indirectly referenced with the assumption that the reader will be at least somewhat familiar with the topic

The speaker uses metaphor to compare the girl's walk to that of the queens. Although the girl herself is not a queen, her walk speaks to her ancestors' strength. The speaker also compares the girl's talk to the sobs of slaves, further revealing the complexities of the girl's heritage.

Metaphor: the comparison of two unlike things without using like/as

The "shackled slave" is an allusion to the horrific enslavement of Africans in the United States. Africans were ripped out of their homelands and sold across the United States. Often they were forced to work on plantations and were brutalized for the most minor of infractions. The African slaves were treated like property instead of people. It wasn't until the 19th century and the end of the American Civil War that slavery was abolished in the United States.

To a Dark Girl, Imprisonment, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The speaker uses allusions to depict that the girl comes from a long line of both queens and slaves.

The juxtaposition between pain and power demonstrates the central themes in the poem. On one hand, the girl carries the legacy and power of queens, while on the other she shoulders the pain and torment of slaves. Both are integral pieces of her identity as an African American woman.

Juxtaposition: when two things are placed close together that have contrasting effects/images

Repetition

The speaker uses the repetition of the phrase "I love you" (1, 3) to honor all aspects of the girl's identity. In a society where the Black girl is viewed as inferior because of her race and gender, the speaker reminds her again and again that she is worthy. Her family's history, from power and pride to oppression and opposition, is all entirely valid and should be honored. The speaker uses repetition to show that, although the girl's identity as a Black woman is ambivalent, it is completely worthy of love.

To a Dark Girl, Love token, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The speaker repeats the words "I love you" to honor every aspect of the girl's identity as a Black woman.

Personification and Apostrophe

The speaker uses personification to reveal the juxtaposition between what society and "fate" want for the Black girl and what the speaker wants for her. She says,

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!"

Because of her family's circumstances, everyone expects the Black girl to struggle and suffer throughout her life. She was born to be "sorrow's mate" because society has been working against her since before she was even born. White oppressors have systematically kept African Americans in a position of dependence and submission. By limiting access to jobs, education, and social change, those in positions of power have determined that the girl will live a life reflecting her family's struggles. Society expects her to never experience true freedom or happiness because of her circumstances.

Personification: attributing human qualities (characteristics, emotions, and behaviors) to nonhuman things.

The speaker personifies "Fate" by capitalizing the word and turning it into a proper noun. Fate is a cruel antagonizer who dictates the girl's future based on her ancestor's past. The speaker, however, tells the girl to "laugh at Fate," mocking it because it cannot keep her in a position of sorrow and oppression. Fate loses all power it has over defining her life when she embodies her ancestor's power and strength and forgets the legacy of oppression that white people have forced onto her.

The apostrophe, "little brown girl," repositions the girl as the most important protagonist of the poem. The speaker's reflections on the girl's life and legacy pale in comparison to what the girl can actually accomplish when she believes in herself and sees her race as a source of strength instead of sorrow. The poem might be spoken by a separate speaker, but the content itself is about honoring the girl and empowering her to work towards a better future. While there is no mention of the speaker's personal life, the entire poem is dedicated "To a Dark Girl."

Apostrophe: addressing an absent person or thing

Alliteration

Alliteration subtly contributes to the juxtaposition of pain and power, revealing the theme that African Americans come from an ambivalent, varied history. Some of the alliteration stresses soft sounds. Consider the repetition of the "W" sound in "where your wayward" (4) and the "S" in "something of the shackled slave / Sobs" (7-8). These sounds are hushed, like water flowing over rocks or shushing of a baby.

Alliteration also repeats bold sounds that call to mind the power of queens and the power of love. Consider the repetition of the "L" sound in "Lurks in the lithe," (6) and "let your full lips laugh" (12). The "L" sound is intimate and loving and both melodic and powerful. Also consider the repetition of the plosive "B" in "brown girl, born" (9). Plosives are powerful sounds because they are abrupt bursts of air. Like the gentler "L," the "B" sound demonstrates the power in the girl's ancestry.

Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of a group of closely connected words

Try reading the poem aloud. What other things do you notice about the speaker's syntax? What effect does that have on the poem?

To a Dark Girl Themes

"To a Dark Girl" examines themes involving the ambivalent history of African American peoples and the power that comes with embracing a legacy of power over pain.

The ambivalent history of African Americans

The Black girl is presented as having two entirely different histories. On one hand, her ancestors were queens, ruling others gracefully and fiercely. But her ancestors were also slaves, horribly oppressed and dehumanized at the hands of their white slave owners.

In America, even in the 21st century, Black people experience racism and oppression. Although the Civil War freed slaves and the Civil Rights Movement officially ended segregation, African Americans are still not treated equally to whites. This can be seen in issues of environmental justice, police brutality, and educational disparities. So even today Black people are fighting the legacy of oppression and racism that originated with their ancestors.

That isn't to say that the only legacy and history that African Americans have is one of pain. In fact, the speaker argues that Black girls also carry within themselves queenliness and grace from their ancestors. It is this other history, this rich history of power and triumph, that is often ignored in history books. The speaker seeks to show that Black history is so much more than the enslavement that was forced upon them.

Reflecting a legacy of power over pain

Going hand in hand with the nuances of Black history is the speaker's call to action and the second theme of the poem. The speaker is intimately aware of the suffering that African Americans endure. She stresses that she loves the girl for the sorrow in her eyes and the sadness in her voice. But, as she states in the last stanza, Black women are worthy of so much more than just a legacy of pain. The speaker sums it up best when she says,

Keep all you have of queenliness,Forgetting that you once were slave,And let your full lips laugh at Fate!" (10-12).

Fig. 4 - The speaker implores the young Black woman to laugh at the plans Fate has for her and write her own future.Fig. 4 - The speaker implores the young Black woman to laugh at the plans Fate has for her and write her own future.

To a Dark Girl Meaning

"To a Dark Girl" is essentially a love poem, extolling the virtues and power of Black women and honoring their pain. It examines generational trauma, as the grief and anguish of slavery was passed down through those who experienced slavery to contemporary African Americans who experience racism today.

At the end of "To a Dark Girl," the speaker tells the Black girl to forget that her family was ever enslaved. This isn't to degrade the severity of slavery or disregard an entire aspect of her heritage. Rather, it is to combat the idea that her life should be defined by the suffering of her race. Young Black women should embrace their ancestors' regality and power instead of letting their sorrow and pain define their future.

To a Dark Girl - Key Takeaways

  • "To a Dark Girl" was written by Gwendolyn Bishop in 1922.
  • Bennett was an African American woman who contributed to the Harlem Renaissance through her own work as well as by promoting that of other's.
  • The tone of the poem is loving, appreciative, and empowering.
  • The poem juxtaposes the ambivalent history of African American experiences, namely the pain of slavery with the power of the ancient queens.
  • The poem means that young Black women should embrace their ancestors' regality and power instead of letting their sorrow and pain define their future.

Frequently Asked Questions about To a Dark Girl

It means that young Black women should embrace their ancestors' regality and power instead of letting their sorrow and pain define their future. 

It was written in 1922, when Bennett was still in college. 

She describes the girl as carrying her ancestors' legacy of slavery and queenliness in her body. The girl is tired and sad because of her family's history as slaves, but she also walks with regality and grace because of her family's history as African queens.  

The themes are the ambivalent history of African American peoples and reflecting a legacy of power over pain.

The tone of the poem is empowering, loving, and appreciative. 

Final To a Dark Girl Quiz

Question

Who wrote "To a Dark Girl"? 

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Answer

"To a Dark Girl" was written by Gwendolyn Bennett. 

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Question

When was "To a Dark Girl" written?

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Answer

It was written in the early 1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance. 

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Question

How does the Harlem Renaissance's influence appear in the poem? 

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Answer

The Harlem Renaissance centered around promoting and celebrating Black voices in music, art, poetry, and stage productions. The poem itself is a celebration of African heritage. 

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Question

How does Bennett's own life influence the poem? 

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Answer

Bennett herself was a Black woman who empowered Black creatives and celebrated African American heritage in her column "the Ebony Flute." "To a Dark Girl" is all about young Black girls redefining their identity using the positive history of their ancestors instead of the slavery they were forced into.

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Question

What is the tone of the poem?

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Answer

The tone of the poem is loving, empowering, and appreciative. The first stanza repeats the intimate phrase "I love you" twice in lines 1 and 3.

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Question

What is the juxtaposition in the poem? 

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Answer

The juxtaposition occurs in the Black girl's ambivalent history. Her ancestors were once queens who ruled their people with grace. They were also slaves to white men, who oppressed them with cruelty and violence. 

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Question

What are the girl's dark skin and rounded breasts a symbol for? 

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Answer

Going beyond her physical features, the girl's skin color and sexual characteristics represent her connection to all African American women and their history. It encompasses her entire identity and heritage as a Black woman. 

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Question

What function does the personification serve at the end? 

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Answer

The personification shows what the speaker hopes for her girl and her ultimate argument. Although the world wishes to see her defined by her people's pain and limitations, she needs to remember the glory and regality she has inherited as well. If she allows her ancestor's queenliness to guide her, she can completely redefine her own fate. 

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Question

What are the themes in the poem? 

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Answer

The ambivalent history of African American peoples

Reflecting a legacy of power over pain

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Question

What is the meaning of the poem? 

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Answer

Young Black women should embrace their ancestors' regality and power instead of letting their sorrow and pain define their future. 

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