Bennett, Gwendolyn B.
Gwendolyn B. Bennett
Gwendolyn Bennett contributed to the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s, celebrating her African-American culture and heritage in her writings and artwork. Though the products of Bennett's artistic output are few, her impact remains worthy of note, as Bennett's body of work added to the overall significance of the cultural flowering of the Harlem Renaissance. Moreover, Bennett influenced the creativity of countless others through her work as a journalist, editor, and administrator in such government and community programs as the Welfare Council of New York and the Harlem Community Art Center.
Gwendolyn Bennetta Bennett was born in Giddings, Texas, on July 8, 1902, the only child of Joshua Robin and Mayme Frank Bennett. Much of Bennett's early childhood was spent on an Indian reservation, for her father and mother accepted jobs teaching for the Bureau of Indian Affairs on a Paiute Indian reservation in Wadsworth, Nevada. After teaching on the reservation for three years, her father moved his family to Washington, D.C., in 1906, so that he could work as a clerk for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and attend the Howard University School of Law, from which he graduated in 1908. Bennett's parents divorced in 1910. Though her mother retained legal custody of her, Bennett's father abducted her and moved to Pennsylvania and then to Brooklyn, New York.
As a child, Bennett developed her skills as an artist and enjoyed literature. She won special praise by entertaining adults with long recitations of poems. She nurtured these interests further in school, becoming the first African American to join the drama and literature clubs at Brooklyn's Girls' High School. Her artistic ability was recognized in high school when she won first place in a poster design contest.
Bennett came of age at a heady time in New York, especially for a young woman interested in the arts. She experienced firsthand the cultural shifts that led to the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African-American literary and artistic output that was at its high point between 1919 and 1929. As part of New York's artistic community, Bennett was poised to contribute herself. She pursued her interest in visual art after high school, studying at Columbia University in 1921 before transferring to complete her degree in art education in 1924 at the esteemed Pratt Institute in New York City.
While still in school, Bennett made her first contributions to the Harlem Renaissance by publishing in the most prominent African-American publications of the time. In 1923 her poem "Nocturne" was published in The Crisis, a magazine published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Another poem, "Heritage," was accepted that same year by Opportunity magazine, the official publication of the National Urban League, in its inaugural year of publication. In addition, Bennett created an illustration that graced the cover of The Crisis in 1923. Over the next eight years, Bennett published poetry and created cover illustrations for various journals.
She did not limit her creative output there, however. In 1924 Bennett taught design, watercolor, and crafts at Howard University. The following year she accepted a Delta Sigma Theta sorority fellowship to study art in Paris at the Académies de la Grande Chaumière, Julian, and Colarossi, and the École du Panthéon. Upon her return to the United States, much of Bennett's artwork was destroyed in a fire. Bennett did study art again on an Alfred C. Barnes Foundation fellowship in the late 1920s, in Marion, Pennsylvannia, but little of Bennett's artwork survives. The five magazine cover illustrations she created were black-and-white drawings that exhibited her appreciation of the sinuous lines of the Art Nouveau artistic movement, and the lone oil painting that survives, Winter Landscape (1936), reflects her understanding of cubism. With so little art to analyze, the bedrock of Bennett's cultural legacy is rooted in her subsequent literary output, and her educational and editorial contributions.
The bulk of Bennett's publications appeared in the 1920s. In addition to her poetry, which dealt mainly with racial pride, Bennett published two short stories. Her first, "Wedding Day," appeared in 1926 in Fire!!, a small arts magazine she helped to found with African-American artists Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Bruce Nugent, and others. She published her second, "Tokens," appeared in Ebony and Topaz the following year. She also wrote a monthly literary column for Opportunity from 1926 to 1928. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, Bennett's writings were included in anthologies of American poetry.
Marriage disrupted Bennett's artistic contributions. In 1927 she married Dr. Alfred Joseph Jackson, whom she had met while working at Howard University. Jackson had completed an internship at Freedman's Hospital at Howard University. For the first years of their marriage the couple lived in Eustis, Florida. They eventually moved to New York in the early 1930s, where Bennett again involved herself in her community. She took work as a journalist for the Department of Information and Education of the Welfare Council of New York. Her articles appeared in such publications as the Amsterdam News, Baltimore Afro-American, Better Times, and New York Age. And in 1935 Bennett joined an alliance of graphic artists called the Harlem Artists Guild.
After Jackson's death in 1936, Bennett immersed herself in community activity. She continued work as a journalist until 1938. She then took on the directorship of the Harlem Community Art Center from 1939 to 1944. But Bennett's work there was cut short by the investigations of the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which led to her suspension for her leftist beliefs. Not intimidated by the HUAC, Bennett immediately started up the George Carver Community School, an adult education center for African Americans in Harlem. Another HUAC investigation, however, eventually caused the school to close in 1947.
In the meantime, Bennett had met and married Richard Crosscup, a literature teacher and social activist, in 1941. They were among the very few who dared to form an interracial union at the time, for interracial couples caused much social controversy. After the closure of the George Carver Community School, Bennett remained in New York and worked as a correspondent for the Consumers Union until her retirement in 1968. Bennett and her husband retired to Kutztown, Pennsylvania, where she began work as an antiques dealer. Crosscup died in 1980, and Bennett died a year later on May 30, 1981.
At a Glance …
Born on July 8, 1902, in Giddings, TX; died on May 30, 1981, in Reading, PA; married Alfred Jackson, 1928 (died 1936); married Richard Crosscup, 1941 (died 1979). Education: Attended Columbia University, NY, 1921–24; Pratt Institute, NY, BA, art education, 1924; attended Académies de la Grande Chaumière, Julian, and Colarossi, and the École du Panthéon, Paris, 1925.
Career: Howard University, Washington, DC, assistant professor, 1924–25; Opportunity magazine, New York, editor, 1926–28; Fire!!, New York, editorial board member, 1926; Department of Information and Education of the Welfare Council of New York, New York, journalist, 1932–38; Harlem Community Art Center, New York, director, 1939–44; George Carver Community School, New York, director, 1943–47; Consumers Union, New York, correspondent, c. 1948–1968; Pennsylvania, antiques dealer, late 1960s through early 1970s.
Memberships: Harlem Artists' Guild; Writers' Guild.
Awards: Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Fellowship, 1925; Alfred C. Barnes Foundation Fellowship, 1928.
"Wedding Day," Fire!!, November 1926, pp. 26-28.
"Tokens," Ebony and Topaz, 1927.
"The Future of the Negro in Art," Howard University Record, December 1924, pp. 65-66.
"Negroes: Inherent Craftsmen," Howard University Record, February 1925, p. 172.
"The American Negro Paints," Southern Workman, January 1928, pp. 111-112.
"Never the Twain Shall Meet," Opportunity, March 1934, p. 92.
"I Go to Camp," Opportunity, August 1934, pp. 241-43.
"The Harlem Artists Guild," Art Front, May 1937, p. 20.
"Heritage," Opportunity, December 1923, p. 371.
"To Usward," Crisis, May 1924, p. 19.
"Wind," Opportunity, November 1924, p. 335.
"Purgation," Opportunity, February 1925, p. 56.
"On a Birthday," Opportunity, September 1925, p. 276.
"Street Lamps in Early Spring," Opportunity, May 1926, p. 152.
"Hatred," Opportunity, June 1926, p. 190.
"Lines Written at the Grave of Alexander Dumas," Opportunity, July 1926, p. 225.
"Moon Tonight," Gypsy, October 1926.
"Song," "Dirge," and "Dear Things," Palms, October 1926.
"Epitaph," Opportunity, March 1934, p. 76.
Govan, Sandra Y., Gwendolyn Bennett: Portrait of an Artist Lost. Ph. D. diss., Emory University, 1980.
Fax, Elton C., Seventeen Black Artists, Dodd, 1971.
Perry, Margaret, Silence to the Drums: A Survey of the Literature of the Harlem Renaissance, Greenwood Press, 1976.
Primeau Ronald, "Frank Horne and the Second Echelon Poets of the Harlem Renaissance," in Arna Bontemps, ed., The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1972, pp. 247-267.
Michigan Chronicle, March 4, 1992, p. C1.
Middle Atlantic Writers Association Review, December 1988, pp. 227-231.
Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 1989, p. 66.
Reuben, Paul P., "Chapter 9: The Harlem Renaissance, Gwendolyn Bennett," PAL: Perspectives in American Literature—A Research and Reference Guide, http://web.csustan.edu/english/reuben/home.htm (January 5, 2007).
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