Gwendolyn Bennett’s (1902-1981) “The Ebony Flute” column (1926-1928) in Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life was a pioneer in African American magazine circles. The brainchild of Bennett and Opportunity editor Charles S. Johnson, Bennett’s column was created in direct response to “the growth of Negro literary groups throughout the country and their manifest concern about the activities of other writers” (August 1926, 241). When Bennett first began “The Ebony Flute” in August 1926 she noted that her column would contain “literary chit-chat and artistic what-not I stumbled upon” (260). Closer examination of her columns, however, reveal that from day one Bennett created a structured, yet personal, column that applied “fragmentation inherent in an interdisciplinary field” by dividing it into different subjects and then systematically discussing important topics of the day (Howsam 75). Each month Bennett’s column reached approximately 11,000 Opportunity readers and its popularity spawned other columns such as Countee Cullen’s “The Dark Tower.” Bennett’s friendly, tailored discussions each month played a leading role in the development of the Harlem Renaissance by fostering congeniality between diverse groups, offering an alternate view of controversial figures or topics, giving readers national or international updates, and promoting reader involvement. All of Bennett’s nineteen columns support this thesis in one form or another, but one particular column that has yet to be critically analyzed is Bennett’s August 1927 anniversary column. This column shows a confident Bennett providing her audience with the conversational, yet informative and well-structured discussion readers came to expect.
One of the first ways Bennett established a dialogue with her diverse audience each month was to begin the column with a warm, friendly greeting that eased her readers into the conversation. The anniversary column is no exception:
As I go about this month’s mental gymnastics I am in quite a festive mood…just one year ago this very month ‘we’ came into being…I say this ‘we’ in the true Lindberghian fashion…and so this month I, in the role of fond parent, am celebrating the first anniversary of my brain-child, The Ebony Flute. At birth this instrument was destined to be a ‘literary chit-chat of artistic what-not’…fate has not as yet played us too foul and we are still keeping up the what-not side of the bargain. (242)
To further connect with her diverse audience Bennett went on to celebrate many of the diverse texts and people who were discussed in her column over the past year:
This has been an eventful year for my child and me what with the appearance of Tropic Death, by Eric Walrond; [William Stanley] Braithwaite’s Anthology of Magazine Verse; The Second Book of Negro Spirituals by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson; Fine Clothes to a Jew by Langston Hughes; The Pamphlet of Negro Poets by Alain Locke […] Nigger Heaven, Tom-Tom, and Black April have cast intelligent light on the subject of artists by the other group. (242)
Readers would have been aware of the racial diversity mentioned in this list, but they would have also been aware of the interracial and intergenerational collaborations that took place while creating some of the aforementioned texts, such as Braithwaite’s (a Caucasian American’s) decision to include material by African Americans and Caucasians in his anthology and Alain Locke’s commitment to helping members of the New Negro movement, such as Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes publish with a significant press, Simon and Schuster.
In keeping with Bennett’s commitment to establishing stronger connections between diverse groups, and to providing the suitable context for new readers that would make them feel welcome, she reminded her audience about how her column’s title came into being:
And by the way, while I am dancing a jig over this first birthday I don’t want to forget the godfather of this column…for the benefit of those who were not among my audience last summer let me say that there appeared in Theatre Arts Magazine for October, 1926, a poem entitled ‘Harlem’ by William Rose Benet [a Caucasian American poet] in which the line, I want to sing Harlem on an ebony flute, occurred…and so I called this column the ‘ebony flute’ and it was not but recently that I reminded Mr. Benet that he was the godfather of my column…he took the relationship very graciously and I gleaned further that he is still reading what we have to say here each month which is not faint praise coming from a godfather who himself writers a literary column. (242)
Bennett further sought to unite diverse communities by addressing controversial issues or defending controversial figures. One of the most controversial figures during this time period was Carl Van Vechten and the publication of his book, Nigger Heaven (1926). Many African American writers and editors supported Van Vechten and his novel, including Bennett, Johnson, and Hughes, but there were an equal number of African Americans, including Cullen, Locke, and Crisis editor, W.E.B. Du Bois, who deemed the novel “an affront to the hospitality of black folk and to the intelligence of white” (“On Carl” 516). Bennett referred to Van Vechten or his book in fourteen of her nineteen columns, including lengthy discussions about the author or his novel. Bennett’s brief mention of Van Vechten’s book in her anniversary column’s opening “celebration” paragraph, its placement alongside some of his greatest supporters and critics, and the fact that Bennett recognized that readers already knew his name, reflected Bennett’s continuing support of the writer and her belief that a text like Nigger Heaven was just as important to celebrate as Locke’s The Pamphlets of Negro Poets.
Another significant feature of Bennett’s column, generally, and her anniversary column, specifically, was her national or transnational updates. Harlem was abuzz during this time with people actively seeking to better the African race artistically, but Bennett also knew there were people around the country and the globe who were interested in lifting up the African race in other ways. By providing these updates Bennett showed her readers that the Renaissance was expanding well beyond Harlem and it helped her readers further connect with the developing movement. In her anniversary column, Bennett mentioned the work of Alain Locke and his commitment to African nations:
Dr. Locke has sailed for Europe and in addition to the translation of [René] M. Maran’s book he will make a firsthand study of the work of the League of Nations in African reconstruction with particular reference to the administration of the African mandates. This investigation is under the auspices of the Foreign Policy Association and is made possible by a grant from the Pauline Wells McCabe Memorial Fund. (243)
Though, arguably not as significant to the African race as Locke’s critical assessment of the League of Nations in African reconstruction, expatriate-entertainer Josephine Baker’s reported marriage to “Count” Giuseppe “Pepito” Abatino was also noteworthy. Though it would later be revealed that Abatino, Baker’s manager and companion, never technically married Baker (many believed it was a publicity stunt), and that he was technically never a count, the news of such a celebrated and successful expatriate-African American marrying a man with royal ties further demonstrated the limitless possibilities for African Americans:
[…] speaking of Josephine Baker reminds me that the altogether remarkable ‘Jo’ has done the inimitable again…according to the New York Morning World for June 27th she has now become Countess d’Albertini…in Europe she has been exposed to royalty and in the manner of the true stage darling has captured one of the nobility in matrimony…her words on the subject are gems: ‘He sure is a count—I looked him up in Rome. He’s got a great big family there with lots of coats of arms and everything.’ (242)
Another significant way Bennett’s column was significant was its ability to spark creativity in its diverse audience. Each month Bennett provided her audience with news about upcoming contests and encouraged them to participate:
As for the contests et al there are a few juicy morsels for this month; The Penn Publishing Company at 925 Filbert Street, Philadelphia, Pa., will offer their annual play contest again this year. The closing date for the manuscripts to arrive in that office is December first of this year…there are to be five prizes—First: $1,000; Second: $500; Third: $250; Fourth: $150; Fifth: $100…the royalties for production are to be divided equally between the authors and the publisher. In view of the Krigwa Players having won a $200 prize at the Belasco Tournament this year this contest might be an interesting try for an aspiring Negro playwright. […] A fund has been donated by [pianist and composer, Ignacy Jan] Paderewski for the purpose of encouraging serious creative effort among musicians in the United States…the contest is open to anyone who is an American-born citizen or born abroad of American parents…There will be two awards—one of $1,000 for the best orchestral work not exceeding fifteen minutes in performance; the other of $500 for the best piece of chamber music. The judges are to be George W. Chadwick, Fredrick S. Converse and Henry Hadley…the address for the manuscripts is Mrs. Elizabeth C. Allen, Secretary, 296 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Mass. (242)
The diverse type of contests listed in this, and other “The Ebony Flute” issues, reflected Bennett’s strong commitment to the arts, generally, and her desire not to favor one artistic genre over another. Her decision to also include additional information about the contest, such as the address for competition entries, shows that Bennett wanted to provide her readers will the vital information immediately so they did not have to waste time finding out those details and could instead focus on creating and mailing their entries. Finally, the placement of the contest information, usually in the middle of the column, was also important. By talking about the contests in between information about noted artists or events occurring inside and outside of Harlem and encouraging “unknowns” to enter, Bennett placed her audience in the center of the conversation, suggesting that it might not be long before they would be praised in her column.
Bennett’s “The Ebony Flute” anniversary column, and her other monthly columns, represent an important time capsule that highlighted various topics that were of interest to her diverse readership. Rather than simply provide readers with a simple “chit-chat” column, Bennett carefully structured her discussion with diverse topics, genres, people, and texts in such a way that had a direct and lasting impact on the Harlem Renaissance.
The August 1927 reproduction of Bennett’s “The Ebony Flute” column in Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life is published with the permission of the National Urban League. The spelling and usage in the excerpts have remained in their original form except for obvious typos, which have been corrected. Ellipses not enclosed in brackets are in the original document. Special thanks to the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture and New York University’s Faculty Resource Network for supporting my Gwendolyn Bennett research.
Bennett, Gwendolyn. “The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity, Aug. 1927: 242-243. Print.
---. “The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity, Aug. 1926: 260-261. Print.
Du Bois, W.E.B. “On Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven.” W.E.B. Du Bois: A Reader. David
Levering Lewis, ed. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. Print.
Howsam, Leslie. Old Books and New Histories: An Orientation to Studies in Book and Print
Culture. Buffalo: U of Toronto P, 2006. Print.
Johnson, Charles S. “Introduction to The Ebony Flute.” Opportunity, Aug. 1926: 241. Print.