For many years in various books on the Harlem Renaissance, Gwendolyn Bennett’s name has popped up. However, very little has been said about her, and she is hardly a footnote in a litany of notable writers and artists of the era. Recently, while thumbing through James Davis’ biography of Eric Walrond, I came across a gorgeous photo of Bennett, perhaps in the prime of her life. Unlike many books on the fabled Renaissance, Davis gives Bennett more than a passing nod, mainly because of her close association with Walrond.
Even so, Bennett’s life and her artistic versatility warrant more than a few paragraphs, no matter how warm and compassionate they are in Davis’ book. Bennett was primarily a writer, though she was also a talented artist and illustrator, and it may have hindered her development as either because so often her proclivity was to serve both muses.
Sandra Y. Govan, in her brief profile of Bennett, summarized this dilemma. “Torn between her ambition to work as a graphic artist and her desire to become a proficient writer using either the medium of poetry or prose Bennett maintained the profile of an arts activist in New York City’s African-American arts community for over 20 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, July 8, 1902, Bennett was brought to Brooklyn by her nomadic father. In her snapshot of Bennett’s early years, Belinda Webster wrote that Bennett attended Brooklyn Girls High School from 1918 to 1921. In high school she excelled as a student and was active in a number of literary and art society programs. Drama was another activity when she wasn’t busy with brush and palette. Her ability as a graphic artist won her several prizes, including an art contest in which one of her poster designs won top honors.
In 1924, she completed her arts degree at Pratt Institute. At the same time, she was polishing her creativity as a writer, submitting poems and some of her drawings to major African-American publications. Her work was soon appearing regularly in the NAACP’s The Crisis, the National Urban League’s Opportunity magazine and the more militant platform at A. Philip Randolph’s The Messenger. Along with her writing, Bennett was cultivating her academic career and accepted a teaching post at Howard University.
As Govan notes, Bennett’s banner years occurred between 1923 and 1928, when the Renaissance was in full bloom. She was a member of a remarkable talented circle of writers and artists, and she quickly found a place in the brilliant orbit that included Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Walrond and, perhaps most importantly, editor Jessie Fauset of The Crisis. One of her most popular poems was “To Usward,” dedicated to the publication of Fauset’s novel “There Is Confusion.” I found her poetry less inspired than her prose, particularly the short story “The Wedding,” which appeared in “Fire!!” the Wallace Thurman-edited publication that had only one edition.
“The Wedding” is about a young Black man named Paul Watson living in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris in the 1920s who has an unrelieved hatred of white people, male and female, though he eventually succumbs to the wiles of a determined white woman. “Rue Pigalle in the early evening has a somber beauty,” Bennett wrote, “gray as are most Paris streets and other-worldish. To those who know the area, it is the Harlem of Paris and Rue Pigalle is its dusky Seventh Avenue. Most of the colored musicians that furnish Parisians and their visitors with entertainment live somewhere in the neighborhood of Rue Pigalle.”
Bennett’s vivid portrait of Paris was acquired during her short stay there when she studied art in 1925 and 1926. Her creative ingenuity and production continued right up to the Great Depression. She married Alfred Jackson in 1928, but he died in 1936. From 1935 to 1941, she was an arts educator and the administrator on the New York City Works Progress Administration. In this capacity she was the director of the Harlem Community Art Center, one of the largest of the Federal Art Projects.
Among the other institutions in Harlem that called on her services were the Negro Playwright’s Guild and the George Washing Carver Community School. Later, in addition to her varied skills, Bennett became a profound educator but was never too busy to ignore her personal life. She married Dick Crosscup in the early 1940s.
Bennett’s activism—and possibly her association with a number of radical artists of the day—brought her into the crosshairs of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. It meant little to the agency that she was never a card carrying member of the party, she was a “fellow traveler” and thus ensnared in their systematic harassment and intimidation. By the late fifties and early sixties, she was a secretary for the Consumers Union. In 1968, she and her husband left New York City and retired in Pennsylvania.
She was 79 when she died in the Reading Hospital May 30, 1981.