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To a Dark Girl by Gwendolyn Bennett

Gwendolyn Bennett’s one of the best-loved lyrics, “To a Dark Girl,” is an impassioned address to all the girls from around the world who are discriminated against because of their “dark” skin. Bennett, a lily of the “Harlem” valley, is respected as a strong influencer of African-American women’s rights during the “New Negro Movement” of the 1920s and 1930s. In this poem, she emphasizes her racial pride of being an African and shares her romantic vision concerning a “dark girl.” It captures the strength of their voice and gives utterance to all the black women who suffered for ages.

  • Read the full text of “To a Dark Girl” below:
To a Dark Girl
by Gwendolyn Bennett

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.

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!

- from The Book of American Negro Poetry by James Weldon Johnson
Analysis of To a Dark Girl by Gwendolyn Bennett


Summary

In “To a Dark Girl,” Bennett describes her undying love for a young black girl who has been going through the same experiences that all the African-Americans went through. She appreciates her “brownness” by describing how all her features are beautiful even though society makes her feel otherwise. According to the speaker, even the “breaking sadness” of her voice is admirable because it stands as testimony to the amount of pain the blacks have been through. She compares her to the African-American ancestors, who fought through slavery, the lasting effects of which are still haunting the black girls. Overall, this poem is a beautiful and sentimental lyric to all the brown and black girls everywhere.

Meaning

“To a Dark Girl” is a beautiful, optimistic, and romantic account of the African-American’s struggles of living in a society where racism exists. Through this poem, Bennett implies that she has faced discrimination too and understands the struggles of the dark girl. According to her, despite slavery that still affects black people, they are brave and beautiful in their own way. She emphasizes her love for the black women and their physical features, their “breaking” voice that tries to defend themselves when discriminated against, their “brownness,” their “walk,” and their mannerisms. The tone of this poem is very kind, empathetic, and affectionate, which brings hope to everyone who reads it.

Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter

“To a Dark Girl” is a lyric poem that is addressed to a “dark girl.” It can be regarded as an ode to the unique beauty of the girl. The text consists of three quatrains or stanzas, having four lines each. Besides, the rhyme scheme of the poem is ABCB. It means the second and fourth lines of each stanza ends with a similar rhyme. For instance, in the first stanza, “breast” in line 2 rhymes with the word “rest” in line 4. This scheme is followed throughout the text.

The text also has internal rhymes like “I love you for your brownness/  And the rounded darkness of your breast,/ I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice.” Besides, it is composed of iambic tetrameter with a few metrical variations. Let’s have a look at the scansion of the last stanza:

Oh, little/ brown girl,/ born for/ sorr(o)w’s mate,

Keep all/ you have/ of queen/-li-ness,

For-get/-ting that/ you once/ were slave,

And let/ your full/ lips laugh/ at Fate!


Poetic Devices

Bennett uses poetic devices in order to enhance the central message of the poem. The important devices used in “To a Dark Girl” are:

  • Transferred Epithet: In the line, “I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice,” the adjective “breaking” is transferred from the term “voice” to “sadness.”
  • Metaphor: The phrase “Something of old forgotten queens” is a metaphor for the rich African American history, and “something of the shackled slave” is a metaphor for shame and indignation.
  • Apostrophe: It occurs in the line, “Oh, little brown girl, born of sorrow’s mate.”
  • Personification: In the last stanza, Bennett personifies the abstract ideas “sorrow” and “Fate.”
  • Alliteration: Bennett uses alliteration in the following phrases: “shackled slave/ Sobs,” “brown girl, born,” “lips laugh,” etc.
  • Consonance: The poet uses this device in the lines, “And shadows where your wayward eyelids rest,” “Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk,” “And let your full lips laugh at Fate!” etc.
  • Repetition: It occurs in the very first stanza. Here, the phrase “I love you” is used twice to express the speaker’s love for the girl. Besides, there is a repetition of the term “forgotten” in the fifth line and “Forgetting” in the eleventh line, emphasizing how just as the regal black history is forgotten, so the history that haunts the girl will be forgotten one day.


Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-4

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.

“To a Dark Girl” is a lyrical love letter by Bennett written for a dark girl, representing all the African-American women. Bennett’s speaker begins this piece by exclaiming her love for her brown skin, which is usually demeaned by a racist society.

She loves the “breaking sadness” of her voice, which has been strained because of racism, inequality, and discrimination. “And the shadows where your wayward eyelids rest” is a beautiful line where the poet’s tone is gentle and calm, showing how she has been through the same things. Here, the “shadows” represent the past of which the girl feels ashamed.

Lines 5-8

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.

In the second verse, Bennett refers to the old “queens,” a symbolic reference to the rich history of the blacks, who are long gone but left their legacy in the dark girl. The girl carries their royal gait in the way she walks. According to the speaker, the elegant, unrestrained style of her walking is comparable to the gait of a queen.

In the following lines, the speaker refers to the time in history when African-Americans were treated as slaves. The unforgettable effects of those days still lurk in the girl’s mind. Those memories still hurt black people, including the speaker’s lady love.

Lines 9-12

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!

The last verse begins with the use of an apostrophe. Here, the speaker affectionately refers to the girl as a “little brown girl.” This phrase hints at the tender age of the girl. Furthermore, the speaker describes how the girl is a queen in her own right. Thus, she must forget the “shackled” past that brings her down.

By using the terms “full lips,” Bennett accentuates another feature of black women that society used to degrade before it became a modern-day trend. Overall, the poem is a spectacular commentary on racism and its effects on a little black girl’s life. Bennett implies that the girl must try to rise above society’s perception of her community and uphold her pride in her “brownness.” Being black is not a shame. She should wear it as a shield; thus, none can ever use it against her.

Theme

“To a Dark Girl” highlights the effects of racism that continue to haunt African-American people. Racial inequality, discrimination, and alienation deeply affect their lives and make them feel insecure about themselves. Their fear is only fuelled when society enables this behavior. This poem is a beautiful open letter to all the dark girls out there who feel insecure about themselves. Bennett advocates for self-love and emphasizes how she loves all these girls for their inherent beauty, style, strength, and “queenliness.” In the end, she describes how they should forget about their “shackled” past and look forward to a better future.

Historical Context

“To a Dark Girl,” one of the best-loved poems of Gwendolyn Bennett, was first published in James Weldon Johnson’s The Book of American Negro Poetry in 1922. This poem was written during the “New Negro Movement,” also known as the Harlem Renaissance. It alludes to the slavery of Africans and African Americans in the United States that was legalized for a long time. This was known as Chattel Slavery. It was abolished in the year 1865 with the end of the Civil War. Bennett’s poem highlights the effects that racism continues to have on black people, especially women. Gwendolyn Bennett, a prominent figure of the Harlen Renaissance, was an artist, writer, and journalist. She made considerable accomplishments in art, poetry, and prose.

Questions & Answers

What is the poem “To a Dark Girl” about?

Gwendolyn Bennett’s “To a Dark Girl” is an open love letter to a dark girl who is discouraged by her past and thinks less of her. In this poem, the speaker tells her that she loves her as she is, with her “brownness,” painful past, and stain of slavery. She is as beautiful as any other woman out there. Hence, she should revisit her past and seek inspiration from there.

When was “To a Dark Girl” written by Gwendolyn Bennett?

This poem was written in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance. It was published in The Book of American Negro Poetry, a collection of African-American poetry by James Weldon Johnson, in 1922.

How is the poem “To a Dark Girl” relevant today?

The poem speaks about how racism affects the mind of a little dark girl and that of black women who are often called “flawed” because of their dark skin and full lips. Bennett advocates self-love when she says, “Forgetting that you once were slave,/ And let your full lips laugh at Fate!” These lines leave a hopeful mark on readers for a future where the world will be free of racism and discrimination.

What type of poem is “To a Dark Girl”?

It is a lyric poem that is written in appreciation of the inherent beauty of a black girl. The rhyme scheme of the poem is ABCB, and the text is composed of iambic tetrameter.

What is the theme of “To a Dark Girl”?

The main theme of the poem is racial pride. It also taps on some other themes such as identity, discrimination, racism, slavery, history, self-love, and inner beauty.

What is the tone of “To a Dark Girl”?

The tone of the poem is affectionate, impassioned, compassionate, and hopeful. It reflects a speaker’s pride in her identity as well as her community.


Similar Poems about “Black” Consciousness & Identity

  • The Woman” by Kristina Rungano — In this poem, Rungano describes how women are treated in Zimbabwean rural society.
  • To a Poor Old Woman” by William Carlos Wiliams — This poem is about an old woman who savors the taste of ripe plums in the street.
  • One’s Self I Sing” by Walt Whitman — This piece celebrates equality, democracy, and individuality.
  • Iron” by Elizabeth Acevedo — In this poem, Acevedo confronts gender, race, and culture.


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