Gwendolyn Bennett: An American in Paris

Gwendolyn Bennett: An American in Paris

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What was it like being an intellectual woman in
the City of Light’s predominately male dominated literary Paris of the
1920’s and 30’s? For many female poets, novelists, and journalists,
early 20th century Paris was a place were they could escape a society
that limited their intellectual ambitions and lives without forcing
them into a traditional lifestyle. These
expatriates created an environment for women who felt dispossessed in
America and England then went on to make significant contributions to
modern literature and the expat culture in Paris.

But
for Gwendolyn Bennett (1902-1981) Paris was a beautiful but lonely
place that eroded her personal identity and renewed her sense of
patriotism. African American writer and artist Gwendolyn Bennett played
an active role in the African-American arts Community for over twenty
years and helped energize the Harlem Renaissance. She was born on July
8, 1902 in Giddings, Texas. Her Father, Joshua, studied law in
Washington DC and her mother was a trained beautician. As a young girl
Bennett won art contests, was elected to literary and drama societies,
and wrote graduation speeches and songs. Although Bennett had
considerable talent in art she had shown an early interest in creative
writing. At the young age of twenty-two, Charles S. Johnson, editor of
Opportunity introduced her to such major writers W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Weldon Johnson.

In
June 1924 Bennett began teaching design at Howard University in
Washington, DC, and by December of that year, she was awarded a
scholarship by Delta Sigma Theta sorority and chose to use the prize
money for a year of study in Paris. She set sail for Cherbourg on June
15, 1925.

Although she was
well versed in French fiction she did not speak the language well. Once
she arrived in France, however, she fell in love with the Parisian
lifestyle of dinning with friends and discovering art. ‘’There never
was a more beautiful city than Paris’’ she said, ‘’One has the
impression of looking through at fairy-worlds as one sees gorgeous
buildings, arches and towers rising from among the mounds of trees from
afar.’’

But by the Fourth of
July Bennett began to feel lonely and a strange feeling of patriotism
swept through her, although she did not lack company. ‘’ There are
times I’d give half my remaining years to hear the ‘Star-Spangled
Banner’’ she wrote in her diary. For Gwendolyn Bennett the desolation
she felt in Paris made her see America in a rosier light.

She
took to filling her loneliness with tea dances at the stylish Les
Acacias in the Bois de Boulogne, drinking champagne at the Royal
Montmartre, and evenings of music at Bricktop’s. By the end of August,
Gwendolyn Bennett was not certain whether she liked Paris or whether
she did not. ‘’My first impressions were of extreme loneliness and
intense homesickness’’ she wrote in a letter to the poet Countee
Cullen. ‘’Now through the hazy veil of memories I see Paris is a very
beautiful city and that people here are basically different from those
I have always known. I feel I shall like being here bye and bye.’’

Bennett
returned to the US in June 1926 to resume teaching at Howard University
while simultaneously acting as an associate editor for Opportunity.

Her
experience as a young woman with the Paris expat literati had enriched
her life. Although she never had a chance to grow as a writer or
painter Gwendolyn Bennett was nonetheless viewed by her peers as one of
the most promising authors of the Harlem Renaissance.

Special
note: The Harlem Renaissance is the name given to the period from the
end of World War I and through the middle of the 1930’s Depression,
during which a group of talented African-American writers produced a
sizable body of literature in the four prominent genres of poetry,
fiction, drama, and essay.

Recommended reading:

From Harlem to Paris by Michel Fabre

A Renaissance in Harlem: Lost Essays by Lionel C. Bascom


Christiann Anderson is the co-author of Paris Reflections: Walks through African American Paris (McDonald & Woodward, 2002).

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