The poem was first published in 1922 in The Book of American Negro Poetry compiled by James Weldon Johnson, one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Today, Bennett is remembered as an avid supporter of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black men and women who were a part of it. Gwendolyn Bennett’s ‘To a Dark Girl’ is as important in the 21st century as it was when she wrote it in the early 1920s.
Explore To a Dark Girl
‘To a Dark Girl’ by Gwendolyn Bennett is an empowering poem aimed at young girls of color in the United States and abroad.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker gives a young Black girl four reasons why she is loved. She tells her that she loves her for her dark skin, rounded breast, her “breaking sadness,” and the way her “wayward eyelids rest.” As the poem progresses, the poet emphasizes the purely beautiful and hopeful qualities of this young girl’s life and the darker, oppressive past that she has to throw off. The speaker seeks to inspire this young girl and all those she symbolizes to forget that “you once were slave” and “keep all you have a queenliness.”
Below, readers can explore a few of the primary themes in Gwendolyn Bennett’s ‘To a Dark Girl.’
Racism and Discrimination
The central theme of ‘To a Dark Girl’ is racism. Throughout, the poet alludes to the complicated and sorrowful history of African-American women within the United States. At the same time, she also reaches further back in time, suggesting a long history of oppression and discrimination against Black men and women worldwide. This is seen through the poet’s use of lines like, “And something of the shackled slave / Sobs in the rhythm of your talk.” The speaker knows how important and influential heritage and history are, and she can see them in the young girl’s movements and actions.
After acknowledging that Black women have faced oppression, discrimination, and racism throughout history, the poet focuses on reminding the young Black girl (who is a symbol for all Black girls around the world) that she is beautiful and should take strength from her dark and fearless heritage. The speaker hopes to bolster her confidence by telling her that she needs to “laugh” at the “Fate” that some would try to inflict upon her. She’s stronger than the discrimination she faces. Her “queenliness” is far more important than the fact that the girl “once were slave.”
Structure and Form
‘To a Dark Girl’ by Gwendolyn Bennett is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds in the second and third stanzas. For example, in the second stanza, the words “walk” and “talk” create a perfect rhyme.
Throughout, there are also examples of internal rhyme. This occurs when the poet uses perfect or half-rhymes in the middle of lines rather than at the ends. For instance, “brownness” in line one and “darkness” in line two of the first stanza. “Sadness,” which follows in line three, is another example.
Bennet does not use a single metrical pattern throughout the poem. But, there are a few great examples of iambic tetrameter. For instance, in line three of the second stanza. With the stresses in bold, it reads:
And something of the shackled slave
Iambic tetrameter is one of the most popular metric patterns in English. It occurs when the poet writes eight-syllable lines that can be divided into four sets of two. The set of two syllables contains one unstressed sound and one stressed sound. Another good example, also found in stanza two, is:
Something of old forgotten queens
Throughout this poem, Bennett makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Metaphor: can be seen when the poet makes a comparison between two unlike things without using the words “like” or “as.” In this case, the poet compares the young Black girl to “something of old forgotten Queens.” Here is another example of an allusion, specifically, to the rich history of Black men and women worldwide.
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues a non-human element of their work with human characteristics. For example, “Oh, little brown girl, born for sorrow’s mate.” Here, the poet personifies the experience of “sorrow.” They suggest that this young girl may be destined for a sorrowful life because of her skin and history.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting and effective descriptions. This should trigger the reader’s senses and inspire them to imagine the scene, feeling, etc., in detail. For example, “Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk” and “the rounded darkness of your breast.”
- Juxtaposition: can be seen when the poet puts two different images or ideas next to one another in a poem. In this case, the poet describes the “girl’s” walk as that of “old forgotten queens” and “something of the shackled slave.” These two images could not be more different from one another. One suggests a great deal of power, while the other implies no power.
- Allusion: is seen when the poet refers to something outside the direct scope of the poem. In this case, the poet alludes to the history of slavery in the United States and around the world when she writes, “Forgetting that you once were slave” and “something of the shackled slave.”
- Consonance: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sounds multiple times. These may fall at the beginning of words or within them. For example, the line “Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk” uses the “l” sound three times.
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 eyelids rest.
In the poem’s first line, the speaker begins by stating, without reservation or hesitation, that they love the “dark girl “for her “brownness.” The speaker knows that many others will discriminate against this young girl for her skin color. But she loves her for it. This starts the poem on a hopeful and empowering note. The same tone of empowerment and appreciation continues into the second line when the poet describes the “rounded darkness of your breast.” The speaker is not using the young girl’s body and appearance for anything other than to empower her. She is not trying to compare the young girl to other beauty standards, such as those used to judge white women, and is instead appreciating her exactly as she is.
In these lines, the poet uses an example of anaphora. This occurs when the poet repeats the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. In this case, the poet uses the phrase “I love you” twice at the beginning of line one and line three.
The poet goes on, saying that while she loves the girl for her brownness, she also loves her for the “breaking sadness in [her] voice” and “Shadows where your wayward eyelids rest.” By transitioning away from the beautiful parts of the girl to those that are more emotional and connect to the girl’s real-world experience, the speaker ensures that this young girl, and all those who she symbolizes, know that they can be, and should be, loved for every part of themselves. She does not love the young girl in spite of her sadness and shadows but because of them.
The speaker is alluding to the complexity of the girl’s life (and all other girls like her) and the long history of sorrow, suffering, oppression that she has to deal with on a daily basis. This is described in more detail in the following stanzas.
Something of old forgotten queens
Sobs in the rhythm of your talk.
In the second stanza, the poet utilizes two metaphors to describe how the young dark girl moves through the world. When she walks, there is something of “old forgotten queens” in her movement. This beautiful line suggests that within the girl’s posture and the way she carries herself, the speaker can see the power in her history. The speaker is reaching back to a proud and magisterial heritage that the young girl may need to be reminded of.
But, at the same time, using an example of juxtaposition, the speaker is also aware of the “shackled slave” in the “rhythm of your talk.” Something about the way the girl communicates reminds the speaker of the history of oppression and slavery that Black men and women have contended with in countries around the world. While this young girl is not herself an enslaved person, the history of her people (many of whom were enslaved) can be heard in her voice.
The use of words like “sobs,” “shackled,” “slave,” and “Lurks” in this stanza create very vivid examples of imagery. Despite the general lack of details, it should be fairly easy for readers to envision this young girl and how she carries herself through the world.
Oh, little brown girl, born for sorrow’s mate,
And let your full lips laugh at Fate!
In the third stanza, the poet describes the “little brown girl” as “born for sorrow’s mate.” This is an example of personification and one that alludes to the difficulties this girl is going to face in her life. Some, the speaker suggests, believe that a young Black girl is destined for nothing more than sorrow. Or, as the poet puts it, to be “sorrow’s mate.” But, the speaker intends to throw off this means of oppression and inspire the young girl to “laugh at Fate!” The girl should “keep all you have a queenliness,” or the strength and power she should take from her complex heritage and forget that she was “once… [a] slave.”
The poem ends on this optimistic and hopeful note that may inspire readers to tap into their own power and fight back against those who would seek to control or categorize them and the type of life they should lead.
Bennett wrote this poem in order to inspire young Black girls and women throughout the United States and beyond. It was published in 1922, but the poem is still just as effective and inspiring today.
The message is that Black girls and women are not defined by the long history of oppression and control of Black communities. Young Black girls should see themselves as beautiful, powerful, and strong. They should keep what “[they] have of queenliness” and walk through life with lips laughing at “Fate.”
Gwendolyn Bennett created the phrase “to a dark girl” in her 1922 poem of the same name. It is used as a means of address to all Black girls and women in the United States and beyond.
‘To a Dark Girl’ was written in the early 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance. James Weldon Johnson later published it in a collection of African American poetry in 1922.
Gwendolyn Bennett was an American poet born in 1902 in Giddings, Texas. She also worked as a journalist and artist, contributing to Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life and other important publications. She passed away in 1981 at the age of seventy-eight and is primarily remembered for her poetry.
Gwendolyn Bennett’s poems were primarily about the African-American experience, pride in Black heritage, and the contemporary issues that Black men and women faced in her community.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider exploring some related poetry. For example:
- ‘A Poem For My Librarian, Mrs. Long’ by Nikki Giovanni – a delightful homage to the librarian who introduced the poet to the world of literature.
- ‘Woman Work’ by Maya Angelou – a poem that celebrates women’s strength. It uses natural imagery to speak on this topic and various others.
- ‘A Woman Speaks’ by Audre Lorde – is both a warrior’s song for the invisible and a conversation between women of different cultures.
Also of interest may be:
- 10 Inspirational Poems about Black Women – a list of powerful and memorable poems dedicated to the strength of Black women.