A Black Girl Sings: Gwendolyn Bennett
in the Harlem Renaissance
Rightly or wrongly, many historians have marked March
21, 1924 as the official beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. On that
date, Charles S. Johnson, the director of research
for the National Urban League, hosted a dinner at New York’s Civic
Club ostensibly meant to honor the publication of Jessie Fauset’s
novel, There is Confusion, but that really served as a coming
out party for a variety of African-American writers. Speakers at the
dinner included Johnson himself, who in his position at the Urban League
edited Opportunity magazine; W.E.B. DuBois,
who as part of his role as a public intellectual edited the NAACP’s
magazine, The Crisis; and James Weldon Johnson,
novelist (Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man), lyricist (“Under
the Bamboo Tree”, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing) and
executive secretary of the NAACP. Countee Cullen, then
a twenty-one-year-old prodigy, read some verse. And toward the end of
the evening, Gwendolynn Bennett read her poem, “To Usward.”
Bennett was just shy of her 22nd birthday, and her poem, later printed
in both The Crisis and Opportunity, became a rallying
cry for the new Negro.
photo credit: Modern American Poetry
TO USWARD (excerpt)
If any have a song to sing
That's different from the rest,
Oh let them sing
Before the urgency of Youth's behest!
For some of us have songs to sing
Of jungle heat and fires,
And some of us are solemn grown
With pitiful desires,
And there are those who feel the pull
Of seas beneath the skies,
And some there be who want to croon
Of Negro lullabies.
We claim no part with racial dearth;
We want to sing the songs of birth!
It was a heady time. In the aftermath of World War I, a war in which
African-American soldiers had fought with distinction, many black leaders,
including DuBois and Johnson, believed they could help win greater equality
for Blacks—or at least less inequality—by encouraging excellence
in the arts. Surely a race capable of producing first class novels,
poems, artwork, and classical music (no jazz or blues need apply) could
not be dismissed as inferior. While such a view seems naïve viewed
from this side of the Civil Rights movement, it was in keeping with
the heavily optimistic Progressive tradition.
Moreover, whatever its political limitations, the Harlem Renaissance
did make it financially possible for Black artists to pursue their art.
The new Negro was chic, and Black artists suddenly had access to publishers
and promoters who had previously been inaccessible. Wealthy white patrons
took an interest; Howard professor and artistic patron Alain
Locke funneled the generous funds of Charlotte Osgood
Mason to such beneficiaries as Zora Neale Hurston
Hughes. The Crisis and Opportunity magazines
also provided a forum. As the literary editor of The Crisis,
Jessie Fauset published Langston Hughes as early as 1921.
Bennett was an early participant in Harlem literary circles. In the
early 1920s she studied fine art Pratt Institute but took writing classes
at Columbia University. She served as an evening volunteer at Harlem’s
135th Street Library, helping to arrange poetry readings, book discussions,
and other cultural events. In fact it was Bennett, along with her librarian
friend Regina Anderson, who gave Charles Johnson the
idea for the Civic Club dinner. In 1923, the year before Bennett was
graduated, her poem “Heritage” was published in Opportunity.
Thus began a six-year period (from 1923 to 1928) in which Bennett produced
much of her best-known work. They were busy, peripatetic years, marked
by a move to Washington DC in 1924 to teach in Howard University’s
fine arts department, a year studying art in Paris, a move back to New
York in the summer of 1926 to work as an assistant editor at Opportunity,
followed by a return to Howard. Bennett’s affiliation with Howard
gave her access to a vibrant Washington DC literary scene centered on
the Saturday night literary club of poet and playwright Georgia
Douglas Johnson. Regular guests included Jean Toomer,
Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Alain Locke, and Bennett herself.
From 1926 through 1928, Bennett took advantage of her widespread connections
to write “The Ebony Flute,” a monthly column for Opportunity
that provided news on writers and fine artists both within New York
City and outside of it.
Bennett’s traveling and socializing did not take her away from
her arts. She regularly published poems in Opportunity and
served on the editorial board of Fire!!, an avant garde magazine
meant to provide an outlet for younger writers and artists. Bennett
also wrote one of her few short stories, “Wedding Day,”
for the magazine, which published one issue before being derailed by
financial troubles and an actual fire that destroyed several hundred
One of Bennett’s most significant poems, “To A Dark Girl,”
was selected by Countee Cullen for the 1927 anthology Caroling Dusk:
An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets. The poem is notable for both
its racial pride and its direct affirmation of black female beauty.
The poem is also far more lyrical than her earlier effort, suggesting
considerable time spent refining her craft.
TO A DARK GIRL
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!
Unfortunately, Bennett’s literary production tapered
off after she married a doctor in 1927 and moved with him to rural Florida.
Her marriage and the subsequent move ended her column, as she was no
longer intimately involved with literary circles, and her career at
Howard. Unhappy in Florida and in her marriage, Bennett was unable to
write. The couple returned to New York in 1930, but by that time the
Harlem Renaissance was breathing its last; the widespread hardship of
the Great Depression made art seem like a frivolity, not a source of
racial uplift. Nor were Bennett and her husband immune from financial
pressures, eventually losing their home on Long Island. Bennett maintained
some of her literary ties and became the director of the Harlem Community
Art Center in 1937. In 1941, however, accusations of communism cost
Bennett her position at the center and later helped derail her subsequent
career in education. She ended her years as an art dealer in Kutztown,
Countee Cullen, ed., Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro
Poets, 1927. Reprinted Citadel Press,
David Levering Lewis, The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader,
Penguin Books, 1995.
David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue, Penguin Books,
Lorraine Elena Roses and Ruth Elizabeth Randolph, eds., Harlem's
Glory: Black Women Writing, 1900- .......1950,
Harvard University Press, 1996.
Sondra Kathryn Wilson, The Crisis Reader, Random House, 1999.
Cary D. Wintz and Paul Finkelman, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance,
Routledge Books, 2004.
On Modern American Poetry: http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/bennett/bennett.htm
On Perspectives in American Literature (PAL): http://web.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap9/bennett.html
Olivia Barbee has been
a professional writer for nearly 15 years, working primarily within
the financial services industry. A graduate of Stanford University,
she lived in Washington DC for years and currently resides in San Francisco.
She writes creative fiction in her spare time and is currently at work
on a crime novel.
Published in Volume
9, Number 3, Summer 2008.