Gwendolyn B. Bennett (1902-1981)
Contributing Editor: Walter C. Daniel
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Almost always overlooked in discussion about the Harlem Renaissance, Gwendolyn Bennett was, nevertheless, a significant part of the most important artistic movement in African-American history. Chiefly remembered for "The Ebony Flute," a regular column appearing in Opportunity that chronicled the creative efforts of the writers, painters, sculptors, actors, and musicians who made Harlem the center of a profound cultural flowering, Bennett was also a poet and short story writer of considerable skill. "To Usward," for instance, a poem dedicated to Jessie Fauset in honor of the publication of her novel There Is Confusion, celebrates the newly discovered sense of empowerment permeating the Harlem community--a community envisioned as a chorus of individual voices at once aware of a rich African cultural heritage and prepared to sing "Before the urgency of youth's behest!" because of its belief that it "claim[s] no part of racial dearth."
More typical of Bennett's lyric voice is the deeply personal "Hatred." Although the motivation for hating is nowhere explicitly revealed, the tragic history of slavery is a barely concealed presence in the poem, welling to the surface as the speaker invokes memory as the agent for understanding her hatred. Unstated, of course, is the hope that memory will also ensure that past savagery is never again repeated. Of her two stories, the most popularly anthologized piece is "Wedding Day," a work that appeared in the sole issue of Fire!!, a radical 1926 periodical launched by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Wallace Thurman with the avowed intent "to burn up a lot of old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past," to validate the folk expression "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice."
The tale of Paul Watson, a black American who falsely thought he could flee prejudice in the United States by living as an expatriate in France, "Wedding Day" takes on a dirge-like quality as it recounts the stoical endurance required of black people in coping with contradictory and absurd situations even in a post-World War I Europe many of them helped to liberate.
Although her work was never collected into a single volume, Bennett's poetry and prose were, nonetheless, included in major anthologies of the period such as Countee Cullen's Caroling Dusk (1924), Alain Locke's The New Negro (1925), and William Stanley Braithwaite's Yearbook of American Poetry (1927). Admired for her artistic work on five covers of Opportunity and two covers of Crisis, praised for her "depth and understanding" of character nuances in her short stories by the playwright Theodore Ward, she was, in the words of James Weldon Johnson, a "dynamic figure" whose keenest talent lay in composing "delicate poignant lyrics."
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Why did the author coin the neologism "usward" as part of the title of the poem "To Usward?"
2. In Chinese culture, what is the significance of ginger jars?
3. In the poem "Advice," Bennett's choice of the word sophist is significant. Comment on the etymology and historical circumstances surrounding the first usage of this word.
4. Discuss the importance of Alexander Dumas as a literary figure.
5. The poem "Heritage" centers on a distinct yearning for Africa. Why did the poets of this period stress such a theme?