Gwendolyn Bennett's Life and Career
Sandra Y. Govan
Poet, short-story writer, columnist, journalist, illustrator, graphic artist, arts educator, teacher and administrator on the New York City Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project (1935-1941). Gwendolyn Bennett was one of the most versatile figures to participate actively in both the 1920s Black American arts movement, which was designated the Harlem Renaissance, and in the 1930s arts alliance formed among African-American graphic artists that was called the Harlem Artists Guild. Although she never collected her published poetry into a volume nor produced a collection of short stories, Gwendolyn
Bennett was recognized as a versatile artist and significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
Torn between her ambition to work as a graphic artist and her desire to become a proficient writer using the medium of either poetry or prose, Bennett maintained the profile of an arts activist in New York City's African American arts community for over twenty years. However, the five-year period spanning 1923 to 1928 proved to be the most productive for her as a creative writer. It was within this brief span that James Weldon Johnson recognized Bennett as a lyric poet of some power.
Born in Giddings, Texas, Bennett led a nomadic childhood before her father, Joshua Robbin Bennett, finally settled his family into comfortable surroundings in Brooklyn, New York. Bennett completed her secondary education at Girls' High, where she had been active in both the literary society and the school's art program. The first Negro to join the literary society, she participated in the drama society, and won first place in an art contest with a poster design.
Graduating in 1921, Bennett came of age just as the Harlem Renaissance was beginning to flower. Attempting to remain loyal to both of her dreams, Bennett began college classes at Columbia University in the Department of Fine Arts but she subsequently transferred to and graduated from Pratt Institute in 1924. While studying painting and graphic design at Pratt, Bennett also began seeking artistic outlets in the two major journals accepting work from African American artists--the NAACPs the Crisis and the Urban League's Opportunity.
Bennett's banner years were 1923 to 1925. The Crisis carried a cover she illustrated and her poem "Heritage" was published by Opportunity in 1923. In 1924 her commemorative Poem "To Usward" was chosen as the dedication poem to honor the publication of a Jessie Redmon Fauset novel at the showcase Civic Club dinner for Harlem's writers sponsored by Charles S. Johnson of the Urban League. Both "Heritage," with its allusions to "lithe Negro girls" dancing around "heathen fires," and "To Usward," which celebrated the spirit of youth on the march, anticipated and invoked African and African American images, motifs, themes, or cultural icons that became central to much of the literature of the Harlem Renaissance.
From 1923-1931, twenty-two Bennett poems appeared in journals of the period: Crisis, Opportunity, Palms, and Gypsy. Additionally, other poems were collected in William Stanley Braithwaite's Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1927 and Yearbook of American Poetry (1927), Countee Cullen's Caroling Dusk (1927), and James Weldon Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry (1931). During the twenties Bennett's poetry reflected either the shared themes and motifs of the Harlem Renaissance--celebrating racial pride, rediscovery of Africa, recognition of Black music and dance--or, she penned romantic lyrics, the poetry of personal statement.
In this same period Bennett began a warm, supportive, and sustained association with a cadre of younger writers and artists known in Harlem circles. Belonging to this group were Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Eric Walrond, Helene Johnson, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, Aaron and Alta Douglass, Rudolph Fisher, and later the irrepressible Zora Neale Hurston. These young artists supported and encouraged each other and were, in turn, encouraged to pursue their aspirations by older, more established scholars and writers such as Charles S. Johnson, Alain Locke, W E. B. Du Bois, Jessie Fauset, and James Weldon Johnson. In a 1979 interview Bennett noted that it was "fun to be alive and to be part of this. . . ." There was, she observed, "nothing like this particular life in which you saw the same group of people over and over again. You were always glad to see them. You always had an exciting time when you were with them."
The supportive energy Bennett drew from her contact with her peers helped sustain her whether she was in Harlem or not. She kept her connections alive when she went to teach art at Howard University in 1924. She also maintained contact while studying art in Paris from 1925 to 1926, From France she wrote to Hughes and Cullen giving them the news; each wrote back, giving her news of the opportunities available to Negro artists and urging her to write for publication. Returning to Harlem in 1926, Bennett joined with Hughes, Thurman, Nugent, and a few others to form the editorial board of Fire!!, a quarterly journal created to serve the younger African American artists. Bennett's "Wedding Day" first appeared in Fire!!. Despite her return to Howard (1927-1928), Bennett relied upon her network contacts as news sources to inform her "Ebony Flute," a literary chitchat and arts news column which she produced for Opportunity for almost two years.
Yet despite a facility for both poetry and prose, Bennett never devoted her full attention to writing. She married Alfred Jackson in 1928; he died in 1936.
The Great Depression of the 1930s effectively altered the arts landscape through which Gwendolyn Bennett moved. The new era's change of tone caused a shift in her own artistic sensibility from exuberant and often whimsical personal poetry toward the cause of public advocacy for the arts and artists in the community.
Subsequently she focused less on her own creative work, writing or painting, and instead concentrated on facilitating the artistic development of others. She joined the Harlem Artists Guild; from 1938 to 1941 she directed the Harlem Community Art Center (largest of the Federal Art Projects); she served on the Board of the Negro Playwright's Guild; and she directed the development of the George Washington Carver Community School. In all these capacities Bennett nurtured and fostered the talents of countless young African-American artists.
See also: Arna Bontemps, ed., The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (1972). Ronald Primeau, "Frank Horne and the Second Echelon Poets of the Harlem Renaissance" in The Harlam Renaissance Remembered, ed. Arna Bontemps (1972), pp. 247-267. Walter C. Daniel and Sandra Y. Govan. "Gwendolyn Bennett," in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, Vol. 51, ed. Trudier Harris (1987), pp. 3-7. Sandra Y. Govan, "After the Renaissance: Gwendolyn Bennett and the WPA Years." in The Middle Atlantic Writers Association Review 3, no. 2 (December 1988): 227-231.
From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press.
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