Thursday, September 8, 2016

Gwendolyn’s Song: A Comparative Essay on Gwendolyn Bennett

By Sojourner Ahébée

As the weeks of Sojourner Ahébée’s internship with the Wells International Foundation have unfolded, I have learned much from her about the contemporary poetry/spoken word scene in Paris. It occurred to me that she might want to know about a female poet who came to Paris almost a century before her, at about the same age, and with similar creative aspirations. So I gave her an assignment to compare her budding career as a poet and her time in Paris to those of the Harlem Renaissance figure, Gwendolyn Bennett.

Sojourner Ahébée at Paris Soirées
© Discover Paris!

As I write this essay during my last week in Paris, I am pleased to contemplate the time that Gwendolyn Bennett (1902 -1981) spent here almost 100 years ago. Bennett was an African-American poet, fiction writer, painter, and educator. A student of Fine Arts at Columbia University and the Pratt Institute, she had numerous poems published by African-American journals during her undergraduate career. These marked the beginning of her literary rise within the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1924, Bennett received a scholarship that allowed her to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. She continued her study of visual art at the Academie Julian and École du Pantheon for an entire year. She also wrote a considerable amount while in the city.

Of Paris, Bennett wrote:

My first impressions were of extreme loneliness and intense homesickness. . . My second impressions were of hometies, stirred by my American friends who were visiting Europe this summer.

I was deeply moved by this depiction of her time in Paris, as it overlaps with my own. Bennett’s love for the city’s physical beauty resonated with me. But more important was the sense of loneliness she felt here, which was alleviated by interaction with various expat artist communities. Meetings with Joyce and Hemingway at the legendary Shakespeare and Company bookstore and time spent with Essie and Paul Robeson served as powerful reminders of home and the capacity for human connection, even across an ocean.

I also felt lonely during my first weeks in Paris as I attempted to find my place in the city, especially as a woman of color. Like Bennett, I quickly connected with young expats. I met them as they performed at spoken word open mics, passed through the city on literary tours, or attended events that I learned about through an online Meetup page. I also found that the people I’ve encountered here allowed me to forget my homesickness, if just for a moment.

Because I am a poet, I was excited to read Bennett’s work in preparation for writing this article. I learned that her poems celebrate the themes that characterized the Harlem Renaissance movement: black pride, rediscovery of Africa, racial uplift, and the African-American musical tradition.

Portrait of author and artist Gwendolyn Bennett, circa 1920s.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1920-1929).

Retrieved from

My most striking observation about Bennett’s poetry is her obsession with form, song, and rhythm. She was a great formalist, writing countless sonnets and quatrains throughout her career. Though these forms are often thought of as belonging to “white” or European literary traditions, Bennett brilliantly navigated their challenges while documenting black life, hopes, and fears.

Consider the poem “To A Dark Girl”:

I love you for your brownness
And the rounded darkness of your breast.
I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice
And shadows where your wayward eye-lids rest.

Something of old forgotten queens
Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk
And something of the shackled slave
Sobs in the rhythm of your talk.

Oh, little brown girl, born for sorrow's mate,
Keep all you have of queenliness,
Forgetting that you once were slave,
And let your full lips laugh at Fate!

It is a kind of quatrain, as each stanza is composed of four lines and the first two stanzas have an abxb rhyme scheme. The quatrain has a long and established history in the African-American music tradition – it is found in Negro spirituals, gospel music, and blues ballads. So Bennett's use of it here is more than likely intentional.

What I find compelling about this poem is its reverence for black women and its affirmation of them as they navigate their trauma. In the way that the African-American musical tradition was often about developing a language for black resistance and pain, Bennett gloriously appropriates the quatrain to do the same.

Bennett felt moved to speak on behalf of the collective suffering of Black women and girls and I find that a similar force haunts my own practice as a poet. Though I write in free verse poet as opposed to “in form,” my poem entitled “valentine for Sally Hemings” reminds me of Bennett’s “To a Dark Girl.” “valentine for Sally Hemings” is an ode to Sally Hemings, but also an acknowledgement of the sexual violence she was victim to at the hands of President Thomas Jefferson. While it does not participate in any formalist tradition, my poem is guided by the same rhythm the quatrain hunts and wears for itself as if to resist all the darkness in the world.

Though Bennett is largely overlooked in our study of American literature, the stories and poems she left behind will continue to push us to be our bravest and freest selves. I aspire to accomplish the same with my poetry.

Sojourner Ahébée is a 2016 BOSP Continuation International Fellow for the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University. She is currently serving as the Paris intern for the Wells International Foundation.

Read more of Sojourner's work at Sojourner Ahébée.


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