The Forebears Issue
Volume 9, Number 3, Summer 2008
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.
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 and Langston 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 copies.
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, Pennsylvania.
Countee Cullen, ed., Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets, 1927. Reprinted Citadel Press, 1998.
David Levering Lewis, The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, Penguin Books, 1995.
David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue, Penguin Books, 1997.
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 over 20 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.
Gwendolyn Bennett (July 8, 1902 - May 30, 1981) was active in the Harlem Renaissance period, writing poetry, fiction, and journalism, as well as creating visual art (painting, drawing, and working in batik). She lived in DC as a child (from 1906 to 1910), and moved back as an adult, when she taught in the Art Department at Howard University (1926-1929). Bennett never published her work in book form. However, her short fiction, poems, and essays appeared in Opportunity, The Crisis, Fire!!, and other journals, and was included in the anthologies Caroling Dusk and The New Negro. From 1926 to 1928, she was an assistant editor and columnist for Opportunity, a magazine sponsored by the National Urban League, where she published a monthly column on the theme of racial pride called "The Ebony Flute."