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.