Gwendolyn Bennett and the FBI
Harlem Renaissance poet, designer withstood government scrutiny
Her sunny smile must have caved a bit knowing the FBI were filing away notes on her activities, searching for samples of her handwriting.
Illustration by Lileen.com | Instagram: instagram.com/lileenillo I did these illustrations for an online class, Redrawing Black History with Lilla Rogers & Tamisha Anthony.
Harlem Renaissance - Much to be a part of
A Harlem Renaissance notable, Gwendolyn Bennett, had not been on my radar until illustrator Tamisha Anthony highlighted her as an African American historic figure to illustrate for her class.
Multiple career titles are used to describe Gwendolyn, so you can observe her from multiple angles, depending on your personal perspective. At first I looked at her as a designer/illustrator. As I read her poems, I decided I liked them better than her art.
This large online illustration class was tasked with drawing Gwendolyn Bennett, 1902-1981, in period clothes, such as people wore in the 1920s. Some picture material was provided to the class to start us off.
First I drew Gwendolyn in a bouncy dress you might go out dancing in Harlem in, in the Springtime.
Still I needed to search for other reference material for the time period to get a sense of surroundings. I scrolled down to the bottom of the G. Bennett wiki page and noticed a second to last link that was labeled FBI files.
Two pdfs were available on archive.org, declassified in response to a 2007 FOIA request, which was attached to the front of pdf number one. I read through scanned pages of typewritten notes on who Gwendolyn associated with, married, worked for. Honestly, she was more than an artist. She did lend an administrative hand to a number of local community projects and a school.
Illustration by Lileen.com | Instagram: instagram.com/lileenillo
Old Ways of Collecting Personal Data
Flipping through the digitally preserved FBI pages with my left and right keyboard keys, I saw a redacted lines which were few enough in number to avoid completely obliterate phrases and observations that agents typed in and noted in pencil on the original papers. Pages had two holes at the top, close together, indicating where two file folder prongs may have protruded to hug the pages together and retain order.
Or maybe a bent steel binder ring held it all in place?
Human hands pulled the rings or prongs apart and laid the paper pages on a scanner, bringing us crisp pdfs to flip through with no guilt. At one time the files would have been hidden from our eyes. In a file cabinet - in a NYC FBI office? No telling where these were kept when the fresh typewriter ink was still smudge-worthy.
I contemplated the process that agents had to engage in to write up their notes on people, and then deliver them up the command chain. Watch the activities of the people of interest, pencil in notes on pads, get back to office, lay hands on an Underwood typewriter, formalize notes onto standardized FBI reporting paper, review for correction purposes, file or hand to supervisor.
What was lost in translation in that process? What vocabulary used tipped the scales between noting and accusing someone of anti-US or pro-Communist behavior?
Gwendolyn was assumed to be a Communist due to groups she was associated with. Was she a Communist? I’m not sure based on what I read. She was employed later in her life by an organization called Consumers Union Inc., which we know of today as ConsumerReports.org.
It’s a wonder how recording peoples’ activities via pencil and pad in the 1920s – before ‘everyone’ became a videographer with their smartphones (I’d love to see the people of the 1920s process that concept - record films on a phone - HOW???) – was the sole means of retaining the reality playing out before an agent’s eyes and ears. Then the agent coherently describes scenarios in a second round of writing, typing on paper impressions and hearsay. These observations were eventually forwarded up the chain to J. Edgar Hoover’s office in Washington.
Despite the FBI attention, Gwendolyn remains a Harlem Renaissance forerunner extraordinaire.
Trying to keep my vector drawings fresh and alive.
#makeartthatsells #redrawingblackhistory #lillarogers