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.
Gwendolyn Bennett’s Career: A Brief Snapshot
Gwendolyn B. Bennett (1902-1981) was a key figure in the development of the Harlem Renaissance and was a mainstay in the Harlem arts and education communities long after the Renaissance ended. Between 1924 and 1928 Bennett enjoyed her most successful publishing period. She published over thirty poems, short stories, and reviews in leading African American magazines and anthologies, including Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk (1927), Charles S. Johnson’s Ebony and Topaz (1927), and William Stanley Braithwaite’s Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1927; created magazine cover art that adorned two leading African American periodicals, the NAACP’s Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races and the National Urban League’s Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life; wrote a highly-renowned literary column, “The Ebony Flute”; and worked as an editor or assistant editor of several little magazines, including Opportunity and Fire!!. Bennett’s artistic output during the early days of the Renaissance fostered community between various racial groups, generations, classes, and genders, and her constant emphasis on youthfulness, paralleled her vitality and vision for the development of the African American race. In the Depression and post-Depression years, Bennett again championed community as she sought to help African Americans excel.
Before the Renaissance bloomed twenty-one-year-old Bennett began drawing from her diverse artistic interests she enjoyed as a youth and the encouragement she received from her peers. While Bennett attended Brooklyn Girls’ High School from 1918 to 1921, she excelled in several areas of the arts, including writing, painting, and drama. Bennett completed her fine arts degree at the Pratt Institute in 1924 and that fall she began teaching art at Howard University. It was during her time at Pratt that Bennett began submitting her poetry and artwork to several magazines, including Opportunity, Crisis, and The Messenger. African American magazines like these were an important venue for artists to contribute to the development of their community, share their material with an interested audience, and obtain a small income. Bennett’s first publication was her poem, “Heritage” in Opportunity’s December 1923 issue. In the poem the youthful speaker longs to connect with the positive sight, sounds, smells, and feelings of his/her African heritage, while also connecting with her “sad people’s soul/ Hidden by a minstrel-smile.” The speaker’s ability to embrace his/her ancestral past was a rallying cry for New Negroes to embrace their past while moving towards an exciting future.
As a published writer and active artist Bennett helped build artistic momentum in Harlem. With her friends, Opportunity’s Jessie Redmond Fauset and Regina Anderson, Bennett assisted Charles S. Johnson with the upcoming March 1924 Civic Club Dinner.Bennett was one of the featured speakers at the event which would later be regarded as the “‘coming out party’ for young black artists, writers, and intellectuals whose work would come to define the Harlem Renaissance” (McHenry 383 n.100). Bennett read “To Usward,” a poem she “dedicated to all Negro youth known and unknown who have a song to sing, a story to tell or a vision for the sons of the earth.” The poem’s strong message of racial uplift, acknowledgement of the achievements of earlier generations, and call for New Negroes to lift their voices proudly, was a great success, and was simultaneously published in the May 1924 issues of Crisis and Opportunity. Bennett became lifelong friends with many influential members of the New Negro movement, including Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Helene Johnson, Eric Walrond, and Countee Cullen. In his autobiography, The Big Sea, Hughes wrote of meeting literary and artistic figures, including Bennett, whom he began forming his “first literary and artistic friendships” (173).
Before long Bennett was regularly publishing in various artistic forms, all of which had ties to Bennett’s goal of bringing diverse communities together to better the race. In addition to her poetry, Bennett’s artwork became popular adorning several Crisis and Opportunity covers. All her covers, regardless of their theme included diverse races, ages, classes, and/or genders allowing Bennett to display the beauty in diversity: honoring dark skinned and light skinned individuals, youthfulness and maturity, the erasure of class distinction, a combined history, and gender equality, in a way that inspired her audience to work together for the betterment of the race.
Bennett’s editorial work during this period also promoted community between diverse groups and the development of the African American race. Whether Bennett was working as a member of the controversial Fire!! magazine or writing her monthly Opportunity column “The Ebony Flute” her vision was clear. Her short story in Fire!! “Wedding Day” highlighted the consequences of different racial groups not working together, as seen through the eyes of the protagonist, Paul Watson, an expatriate-African American living in France. In “The Ebony Flute” Bennett fostered congeniality between diverse groups by providing her audience with a structured, yet friendly, discussion each month that offered an alternate viewpoint of controversial figures or topics, gave readers international and national updates, and promoted reader involvement.
By the time Bennett completed her final “The Ebony Flute” column in May 1928 she was about to embark on a journey to the South with her new husband, African American doctor, Alfred Joseph Jackson. The racism Bennett and her husband encountered in Florida and the different financial blows throughout the region, including the housing bust, the Mediterranean fruit fly plague, and the collapse of the national markets prompted the young couple to return to the New York area less than four years later. The Harlem Bennett returned to in the early 1930s shocked her. The once vibrant community was, like many other parts of the country, in the grip of the nation’s worst financial crisis. Bennett continued to create poetry and artwork after she returned to the New York area but with few publishing outlets available little of it was published.
Even with her marriage crumbling around her and having to take on various jobs to make ends meet, one of the greatest advocates for the African American community, adapted her vision for building a brighter future and within a few years went about achieving her goal. Now, rather than trying to build up her race and promote community between diverse groups via her published poetry, short stories, columns, and artwork, Bennett pursued her vision through various appointments that would provide hope to numerous African Americans, including administrator on the New York City Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project, member of the Harlem Artists Guild; director the Harlem Community Art Center, director of the George Washington Carver Community School, and director of the School for Democracy. As part of this work, Bennett wrote countless newspaper and journal articles describing the plight of the Harlem communities and their need for assistance. Bennett’s work helped educate thousands of African Americans and enabled countless artists to maintain a livelihood despite the bleak economic climate. Bennett was regularly praised in the media for her efforts and in 1939 she was one of a select group of women who were award medals for their service in their chosen fields at the World’s Fair.
Much was going well for Bennett during this period, including her marriage to her second husband, Dick Crosscup (Bennett’s first husband died in 1936). In 1941, however, Bennett’s day-to-day existence was imposed upon by various FBI investigations. Led by J. Edgar Hoover, Bennett and many other active community members, administrators, and writers were investigated for alleged Communist activity. Though Bennett was never found to be a Communist she was investigated off and on from 1941 through to 1959. Despite this constant scrutiny, Bennett remained in the New York area and later took on a position as secretary for the Consumer’s Union. In 1968, she and her husband retired to Kutztown, Pa., and opened up a small business, Buttonwood Hollow Antiques. Bennett and her husband lived quietly in the small town with most of the locals unaware of her critical importance to the Harlem Renaissance and the Harlem community more broadly.
Poet, artist, short story writer, columnist, journalist, editor, educator, administrator… Gwendolyn Bennett was a true Renaissance woman. Her vision of community building between diverse groups and her commitment to developing the race was instrumental to the Harlem community during and after the Harlem Renaissance and left a legacy for future writers and artists.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.
McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.
Gwendolyn Bennett: In Memoriam: “Gwendolyn Crosscup Dies”
Gwendolyn Bennett Crosscup of Kutztown, Pa., a figure in the Harlem Renaissance Movement in the 1920s, died in the Reading, Pa. Hospital on May 30.
She would have been 79 in August.
Her poetry has been published in anthologies and has been translated into Spanish and other languages.
In 1979, a doctoral dissertation on her life and career as a poet, painter, art teacher, and Harlem educator, was accepted at a university in Atlanta.
In New York City in the 1940s and 1950s she was the director of the George Washington Carver School, an adult education center, and was also head of the Harlem Art Center.
- New York Amsterdam News (1962-1993); June 20, 1981: 22.
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