Gwendolyn B. Bennett (July 8, 1902 – May 30, 1981) was an African American writer who contributed to Opportunity, which chronicled cultural advancements in Harlem. Though often overlooked, she herself made considerable accomplishments in poetry and prose. She is perhaps best known for her short story, "Wedding Day', which was published in the first issue of Fire!!.
Early life and work
Gwendolyn B. Bennett was born July 8, 1902 in Giddings, Texas to Joshua and Maime Bennett. She spent her early childhood in Wadsworth, Nevada on the Paiute Indian Reservation. Her parents taught in the Indian Service for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1906, when Bennett was four years old, her family moved to Washington D.C. so Joshua could study law and Maime could train to be a beautician. The move eventually led to her parents' divorce when Bennett was seven years old. Maime gained custody of Bennett, however her father kidnapped her and they lived in hiding, along with her stepmother, Marechal Neil, along the East Coast and Pennsylvania. Her father eventually took them to New York where she attended Brooklyn's Girls' High from 1918 till 1921. While attending Girls' High, Bennett was awarded first place in a school wide art contest, and was the first African American to join the literary and drama societies. She wrote her high school play and was also featured as an actress. She also wrote both the class graduation speech and the words to the graduation song.
Read Gwendolyn Bennett's poems, free from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champain's' Modern American Poetry project.
After her graduation in 1921, she began to take art classes at Columbia University and the Pratt Institute. In her undergraduate studies, Bennett's poem "Heritage" was published in Crisis in November, 1923 and also in December of the same year, her poem Heritage was included in Opportunity, a magazine published by the National Urban League. She graduated from both institutes in 1924 and in June of that year, started teaching design, watercolor and crafts at Howard University. She graduated from Pratt Institute in 1924 and was hired as an Assistant Professor of Art at Howard University. A scholarship enabling her to study abroad in Paris, at Sorbonne, was awarded to Bennett during December, 1924 Bennett then continued her fine arts education at Academic Julian and Ecole du Pantheon in Paris. During her studies in Paris, she worked with a variety of materials, including watercolor, oil, woodcuts, pen and ink, and batik which was the beginning of her career as a graphic artist. However, most of her pieces from this period of her life were destroyed during a fire at her stepmother's home in 1926.
When Bennett left Paris in 1926, she headed back to New York to become the assistant to the editor for Opportunity. During her time employed at Opportunity, she received the Barnes Foundation fellowship for her work. Later during the same year she returned to Howard University once again to teach fine arts. She remained the assistant to the editor at Opportunity and was given the chance to publish her own article to discuss literary and fine arts. She titled her column The Ebony Flute and used it to distribute news about the many creative thinkers that were involved with the Harlem Renaissance. In 1926, She was also a co-founder of the literary journal Fire!!. She reviewed many writers' works and gave criticism on a regular basis through Opportunity and Fire!!
Gwendolyn B. Bennett was one of the prominent participants in the 1920s Black American arts movement, which is also more commonly known as the Harlem Renaissance. Many of issues that plagued the African American community are evident in her works. Her African heritage is a main theme in her poetry. Her works reflected the shared themes and motifs of the Harlem Renaissance. Racial pride, rediscovery of Africa, recognition of African music and dance were common themes in Bennett's works.
Her column, The Ebony Flute, was Bennett's link to the Harlem cultural and social life. She used it to her advantage to network with other poets and to spread the news of the Renaissance. She would feature other writers' work and discuss them in her column. Although Bennett never published a collection of her own works and poetry, she was a strong influence on the Harlem Renaissance by giving the African American community racial pride. She also created a romantic vision of being African through romantic lyric.
During 1923 to 1931, Bennett started a support group that provided a warm, supportive place for the young writers of Harlem that provided sustained association with their peers. Included in this group were Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Eric Walrond, Helene Johnson, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, Aaron Douglas, Alta Douglass, Rudolph Fisher and Zora Neale Hurston. The group was designed to motivate these young writers to support and encourage each other and were also, in turn, encouraged to aspire to the levels of more established scholars such as Charles S. Johnson, Alain Locke, W. E. B. Du Bois, Jessie Fauset, and James Weldon Johnson. Bennett said in a 1979 interview that, "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." This Harlem circle that Gwendolyn developed helped her sustain her steady connection with the Renaissance in New York throughout a period of her life.
Her work during this period of her life was praised by her fellow writers in Harlem. The playwright Theodore Ward declared that Bennett's work was one of the "most promising of the poets out of the Harlem Renaissance" and also called Bennett a "dynamic figure... noted for her depth and understanding." J. Mason Brewer, an African American storyteller, called Bennett a "nationally known artist and poetess." Since Mason was also a native Texan, he further stated that as a result of Bennett's Texas birthplace, "Texans feel that they have a claim on her and that the beautiful and poignant lyrics she writes resulted partially from the impression of her early Texas surroundings". Bennett was a breath of Texan airs breezing through the halls of the Harlem Renaissance.
Later life and Harlem influence
Bennett moved farther away from Harlem when she married Dr. AlBert Joseph Jackson in 1927 and moved to Eustis, Florida. Jackson died in 1936 and Bennett moved back to New York. In 1940, Bennett became involved in an interracial marriage with Richard Crosscup which was not socially acceptable at Bennett's time. Harlem was Bennett's passion however and during the late 1930s and the 1940s she remained in the arts and also served as a member of the Harlem Artists Guild in 1935. The Harlem Community Arts Center was under her leadership from 1939 to 1944. During this time, Bennett was also active on the board of the Negro Playwright's Guild and involved with the development of the George Washington Carver Community School.
Bennett faded from the public eye during the late-1940s but she remained close to the hub of busy Harlem in New York and her fellow writers. She began working for the Consumers Union during the later years of her life. Her retirement occurred in 1968 and moved with her husband, Crosscup, to Kutztown, Pennsylvania where they opened an antique shop. Her husband died in 1980, due to heart failure, and Bennett died on May 30, 1981 at the Reading County Hospital.