Bontemps, Arna 1902–1973

views updated May 21 2018

Arna Bontemps 19021973

Novelist, poet, editor, educator, librarian

At a Glance

Louisiana Roots, California Childhood

Harlem Renaissance Star

Explored Childrens Lives

Selected Writings


In 1933, while researching for what has since become his most renowned novel, Black Thunder, Arna Bontemps was given an ultimatum by his employer, the head of the Huntsville, Alabama, Seventh-Day Adventist school. The headmaster demanded publicly that Bontemps burn most of the books in his small personal library if he wished to continue teaching there. Burning works by Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, and Claude McKay, the headmaster believed, would prove to the world that Bontemps had no connection to the widespread protests surrounding the nearby Scottsboro trials, in which five young black men were falsely accused and later convicted of raping two young white women.

While he had no connections to the unrest surrounding the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, as they became known, Bontemps had raised suspicions by meeting with his close friends, the poet Langston Hughes and the writer Countee Cullen, and by ordering numerous books central to African-American history and life through the mail. Refusing to repudiate black claims to equal justice in the South, Bontemps did not burn his books; instead, he resigned at the end of the term and moved to Los Angeles, where he wrote his novel of black revolt, Black Thunder.

In a 1991 essay in Studies in American Fiction, literary critic Daniel Reagan described three lessons that he believed Bontemps learned from the ultimatum and which, subsequently, shaped his book, Black Thunder. Reagan noted: First, he learned that books like [those written by Douglass, DuBois, and McKay] were considered dangerous in the hands of black Americans because they asserted an independent black voice and identity. Second, he learned that, for the African American of the 1930s, reading and writing were considered subversive activities. Finally, he encountered directly the power of society to eradicate voices from history.

Bontemps labored in writing Black Thunder and throughout his life to assert an independent black voice and identity in opposition to the negating effects of white racism. He began writing poetry during the Harlem Renaissance, the period in the 1920s when African-American writers centered in Harlem first broke into major mainstream publishers. Bontemps turned next to historical novels, rewriting dominant conceptions of history to include African-American voices. Later, he pioneered the reversal of racist stereotypes in childrens stories by writing a number of childrens books. In the course of his life, he also wrote successfully in a number of other

At a Glance

Born Arnaud Wendell Bontemps, October 13, 1902, in Alexandria, LA; died of a heart attack, June 4, 1973, in Nashville, TN; son of Paul Bismark {a brick mason, jazz musician, and minister) and Maria Caroline (a teacher; maiden name, Pembrooke) Bontemps; married Alberta Johnson, August 26, 1926; children: Joan Marie Bontemps Williams, Paul Bismark, Poppy Alberta Bontemps Booker, Camille Ruby Bontemps Graves, Constance Rebecca Bontemps Thomas, Arna Alexander. Education: Pacific Union College, A.B., 1923; University of Chicago Graduate School of Library Science, M.L.S., 1943.

Harlem Academy, New York City, teacher, 1924-31; Oakwood Junior College, Huntsvilie, AL, teacher, 1931-34; Shiloh Academy, Chicago, IL, teacher, 1935-38; served on Federal Writers Project, W.P.A., Chicago, 1938-42; Fisk University, Nashville, TN, professor and head librarian, 1943-64, writer-in-residence, 1970-73; University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, professor, 1966-69; Yale University, New Haven, CT, visiting professor and curator of James Weldon Johnson Collection, 1969.

Selected awards: Poetry prize, Crisis magazine, 1926; Alexander Pushkin poetry prizes, 1926, 1927; short story prize, Opportunity magazine, 1932; Julius Rosenwald Fellowships, 1938-39, 1942-43; Guggenheim Fellowships, 1949-50, 1954-55; Jane Addams Childrens Book Award for Story of the Negro, 1956; James L. Dow Award, Society of Midland Authors, for Anyplace but Here, 1967; honorary consultant in American Cultural History, Library of Congress, 1972; honorary LH.D., Morgan State University, 1969, and Berea College, 1973.

Member: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), PEN, American Library Association, Dramatists Guild, Metropolitan Nashville Board of Education, Sigma Pi Phi, Omega Psi Phi.

genres, including drama, literary criticism, history, and biography, while editing a number of anthologies to make available the works of other black writers.

In addition to his writing, Bontemps worked for decades as a teacher and librarian, building the Fisk University library, in the words of his biographer, Kirkland C. Jones, into one of the best in the South. Throughout his career, he received a number of awards and fellowships but it was not until the 1980s and early 1990s that Bontemps received scholarly recognition as a pioneering African-American author with apparent influences on a number of subsequent writers.

Louisiana Roots, California Childhood

Arna Bontemps spent the first three years of his life in Alexandria, Louisiana, where he developed close emotional ties to the state and to Southern black culture. Born in 1902, into a relatively comfortable Creole family, Bontemps began his life immersed in a thriving culture. His father, Paul Bontemps, worked in building construction as a skilled brick and stone mason but was also an accomplished jazz trombonist, blowing his horn in a band during slow periods at work. One of his fathers older brothers lived in New Orleans and had a daughter who married the prominent New Orleans jazz player, Kid Ory. Though Bontemps remembered few details of his early life in the South, the pace and the mood of Southern life remained with him, and stood in opposition to the faster pace of Los Angeles, where the family moved.

In Los Angeles, Bontemps felt pressure from his father to set aside Louisiana and to assimilate into the white mainstream. While his father held ambivalent feelings toward Louisiana, fluctuating between nostalgia and the estimation of it as a disadvantage in Los Angeles, he was glad, for his childrens sake, that he had moved to a different environment. In an act of subtle protest against an indignity imposed on him by his native church during Arnas baptism, Paul Bontemps dropped his Catholicism and eventually became an Adventist minister. In an effort to restrict him from the influences of a grand-uncle from Louisiana who once possessed exquisite charm and grace but had since fallen into alcoholism, Paul sent the young Arna to a white boarding school and then on to a Seventh-Day Adventist college.

Though not a model of the upwardly-mobile life, Uncle Buddy, as the dissolute grand-uncle Joe Ward was called, was still a rich source of traditional black folk materialand sweets from Louisianawho endeared himself to the young Bontemps. Bontemps wrote in The Old South: Buddy was still crazy about the minstrel shows and minstrel talk that had been the joy of his young manhood. He loved dialect stories, preacher stories, ghost stories, slave and master stories. He half believed in signs and charms and mumbo jumbo, and he believed wholeheartedly in ghosts. While not the only older relative available for Bontemps to learn fromhe also had a pair of doting grandparents who showered him with lovethe young Bontemps had grown fascinated with his grand-uncle.

The conflict between his father and Uncle Buddy schooled Bontemps in the contradictory attitudes blacks held toward their Southern heritage, as Bontemps revealed in The Old South. In their opposing attitudes toward roots, my father and my great-uncle made me aware of a conflict in which every educated American Negro, and some who are not educated, must somehow take sides. By implication at least, one group advocates embracing the richness of the folk heritage; their opposites demand a clean break with the past and all it represents. While Bontemps would follow his fathers advice in school, Bontemps modelled the main character of his first novel, God Sends Sunday, published in 1931, on his grand-uncle. In his subsequent novels, Bontemps would explore and articulate the epic heroism of his African-American heritage, as well.

Harlem Renaissance Star

Soon after graduating with an A.B. degree from Pacific Union College in May of 1923, Bontemps became enchanted with Harlem and moved from Los Angeles to New York. In his last volume of poetry, Personals, Bontemps wrote: In some places, the autumn of 1924 may have been an unremarkable season. In Harlem it was like a foretaste of paradise. What a city! What a world! And what a year for a colored boy to be leaving home for the first time! Full of golden hopes and romantic dreams, I had come all the way from Los Angeles to hear the music of my taste, to see serious plays, and God willing, to become a writer.

Becoming a writer was exactly what Bontemps did. With an appointment at Harlem Academy, the largest high school of the Seventh-Day Adventist denomination, Bontemps busied himself in his off-time by writing poems and working on a novel. After a short time, he had published more than one dozen poems in literary magazines, winning the poetry prize from Crisis magazine in 1926, and the Alexander Pushkin poetry prizes in 1926 and 1927.

A publisher expressed interest in publishing his poems as an anthology with the addition of some 20 more, but Bontemps had grown immersed in writing his first novel, Chariot in the Sky. Chariot remained unpublished but led to the 1931 publication of Bontempss next novel, God Sends Sunday. Centered on Little Augie, a character based on Bontempss grand-uncle, God Sends Sunday was set in New Orleans, St. Louis, and Mudtown, a black rural neighborhood at the edge of Watts in Los Angeles. Bontemps was well on his way to exploring the form of the novel.

In Harlem, Bontemps enjoyed the community of black authors and intellectuals, made lasting friendships with many, and met and married his wife, Alberta Johnson. The couple had their first child in 1927. In November of 1924, Bontemps met the poet Langston Hughes, and with him, began a life-long friendship and correspondence that yielded a number of artistic collaborations as well as about 2,300 letters; nearly 500 were selected and published in 1980, by Charles H. Nichols in the volume, Arna Bon-temps-Langston Hughes Letters: 1925-1967.

Bontemps also developed lasting friendships with fellow writers Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Rudolph Fisher, while attending parties attended by W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, and Gwendolyn Bennett, among others. Bontemps analyzed the Harlem Renaissance from a more objective perspective in his 1972 volume, The Harlem Renaissance Remembered.

By 1932, the Great Depression had finally ended the Harlem Renaissance and scattered its authors across the nation in search of financial sustenance. In the early thirties, Bontemps moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where he taught at another Seventh-Day Adventist high school and researched his next novel, Black Thunder. He crafted Black Thunder from his fathers house in California.

In Black Thunder, Bontemps portrays the Virginian slave revolt led by Gabriel Prosser in 1800. In a 1936 review of Black Thunder, author Richard Wright considered it the only novel dealing forthrightly with the historical and revolutionary traditions of the Negro people. Not until the 1980s, however, did Black Thunder begin to be recognized by critics as a pioneering work of historical fiction that influenced a number of later writers.

In 1992, critic Eric J. Sundquist analyzed the complex interaction of a diversity of voices and perspectives in the novel. That year, Princeton University critic Arnold Rampersad appreciated Bontempss pioneering achievement in having written perhaps the first novel by a black American to be based on an actual American slave revolt or a conspiracy to revolt. Yet another perspective, as issued by critics Hazel V. Carby and Albert E. Stone, traced Bontempss influence on a number of later writers, including historical novelists David Bradley and Sherley Anne Williams.

Explored Childrens Lives

Interestingly, Black Thunder was not as well received by readers in its time. While it was reprinted four times during the late 1960s and again in the early 1990s, the novel failed to earn more than the publishers advance during its original run in 1936. Bontemps would write one more adult novel, Drums at Dusk, published in 1939, but then turned away from the form in frustration. I was in no mood merely to write entertaining novels, Bontemps told John OBrien in an interview published in 1973. The fact that Gone With the Wind was so popular at the time was a dramatic truth to me of what the country was willing to read. And I felt that black children had nothing with which they could identify. As a result I tried my hand at writing for children and with immediately better results.

From 1932 until his death in 1973, Bontemps published numerous novels, biographies, histories, and anthologies for children. His first, entitled Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti, was a collaboration with Langston Hughes and met with phenomenal popular success. In arguing that Bontempss childrens literature should be anthologized, critic Violet J. Harris noted in Lion and the Unicorn that many of his childrens books are still in circulation, and that some have remained in publication continuously. Bontemps almost singlehandedly created a canon of childrens literature that focused, primarily, on the African-American experience, Harris assessed.

In the last four decades of his life, Bontemps wrote in a variety of other genres. In 1934, he collaborated with the poet Countee Cullen to adapt his novel God Sends Sunday for the stage. The two collaborated again more than ten years later to create another stage adaptation of the novel, this one entitled St. Louis Woman. St. Louis Woman opened on Broadway in 1946, the year of Cullens death, to mixed reviews and a disappointing run, but enjoyed a successful tour later in the year. In 1952, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the movie rights to the play for $75,000.

Meanwhile, starting in 1946, Bontemps had begun writing scholarly articles on the Harlem Renaissance. Over the next two decades, he would continue to write and speak widely on this subject. Finally, he edited a number of anthologies, including a collaboration with Langston Hughes entitled American Negro Poetry, published in 1963.

While writing in these various genres over the decades, Bontemps worked at several jobs. As soon as he received the publishers advance for Black Thunder, he moved to Chicago, where he taught at another Seventh-Day Adventist school. Soon, the Seventh-day Adventists once again condemned his literary activities. Bontemps finally cut his ties with the schools in 1938. From there, he served on the Federal Writers Project with the Franklin D. Roosevelts Works Progress Administration (WPA) and wrote on fellowships into the 1940s.

In 1935, Bontemps enrolled in the Graduate School of the University of Chicago in pursuit of a Ph.D. in English but stopped just before the preliminary exams. He matriculated in the Graduate School of Library Science in 1942, and completed the M.L.S. degree the following year. That same year, Bontemps accepted the offer for the position of head librarian and full professor at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee. From the mid-1960s until his death in 1973, Bontemps taught African-American literature at a number of universities, including Yale University and the University of Illinoiss Chicago Circle campus, as well as Fisk.

Bontemps biographer, Kirkland C. Jones, described him in summation as a dedicated, devoted man. Jones wrote: This pioneer African-American literary personality remained faithful also in his friendships and was a devoted family man. Above all, he was a champion of freedom and dignity for everyone.

Selected Writings


God Sends Sunday, Harcourt, Brace, 1931.

Black Thunder, Macmillan, 1936.

Drums at Dusk, Macmillan, 1939.

The Old South: A Summer Tragedy and Other Stories of the Thirties, Dodd, Mead, 1973.

Childrens Books

(With Langston Hughes) Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti, Macmillan, 1932.

Golden Slippers: An Anthology of Negro Poetry for Young People, Harper, 1941.

Story of the Negro, Knopf, 1948.

Frederick Douglass: Slave, Fighter, Freeman, Knopf, 1958.

Young Booker: The Story of Booker T. Washingtons Early Days, Dodd, Mead, 1972.


(With Jack Conroy) They Seek a City, Doubleday, 1945; revised as Anyplace But Here, Hill & Wang, 1966.

We Have Tomorrow, Houghton, 1945.

(With Langston Hughes) The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949, Doubleday, 1949, revised as The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1970, 1970.

(With Langston Hughes) The Book of Negro Folklore, Dodd, Mead, 1958.

One Hundred Years of Negro Freedom, Dodd, 1961.

Personáis (poems), Paul Bremen, 1963.

The Harlem Renaissance Remembered: Essays, with a memoir, Dodd, Mead, 1972.



Bontemps, Arna, Black Thunder, Beacon Press, 1992.

Carby, Hazel V., Ideologies of Black Folk: The Historical Novel of Slavery, Slavery and the Literary Imagination, Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad, eds., Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Jones, Kirkland C., Renaissance Man From Louisiana: A Biography of Arna Wendell Bontemps, Greenwood Press, 1992.

OBrien, John, ed., Interviews With Black Writers, Liveright, 1973, p. 13.

Stone, Albert E., The Return of Nat Turner: History, Literature, and Cultural Politics in Sixties America, University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Sundquist, Eric J., The Hammers of Creation: Folk Culture in Modern African-American Fiction, University of Georgia Press, 1992.


Callaloo: An African-American and African Journal of Arts and Letters, February-October 1981, pp. 163-9.

The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 14, 1990, pp. 108-127.

Studies in American Fiction, Spring 1991, pp. 71-83.

Partisan Review and Anvil, April 1936, p. 31.

Nicholas Patti

Arna Bontemps

views updated May 23 2018

Arna Bontemps

Arna Bontemps (1902-1973) was an accomplished librarian, historian, editor, poet, critic, and novelist. His diverse occupations were unified by the common goal of forwarding a social and intellectual atmosphere in which African-American history, culture, and sense of self could flourish.

Bontemps was born on October 13, 1902 in Alexandria, Louisiana, to Creole parents, Marie Carolina Pembrooke and Paul Bismark Bontemps. His relationship with his father, a stonemason turned lay minister in the Seventh Day Adventist church, was complicated by his attachment to his mother, a former schoolteacher, who died when Bontemps was twelve. She had instilled in her son a love for the world of books and imagination stretching beyond his father's view that life consisted of practical concerns.

Several racially motivated incidents led the strong-willed Paul Bontemps to relocate his family to Los Angeles when Arna was three. He and the more exuberant Uncle Buddy, younger brother of the grandmother with whom Arna went to live in the California countryside, proved to be contradictory influences upon Arna after his mother's death. As the older of two children, Arna disappointed his father by choosing a life of writing over following four generations of Bontemps into the stonemason's trade. It was the warm, humorous Uncle Buddy who became for his great-nephew a resource for, as well as support of, the art of storytelling. While Paul Bontemps respected Uncle Buddy's ability to spell and read, he disapproved of his alcoholism, his association with the lower classes, and his fondness for minstrel shows, black dialect, preacher and ghost stories, signs, charms, and mumbo jumbo. Through Buddy, however, Arna Bontemps was able to embrace the black folk culture that would form the basis for much of his writing.

To counter what he perceived as the pernicious effects of Uncle Buddy's attitudes, the elder Bontemps sent his son to San Fernando Academy, a predominantly white boarding school, from 1917 to 1920, with the admonition, "Now don't go up there acting colored." As Arna grew older, he found his parents' antipathy to their own blackness echoed by educators and intellectuals sympathetic to the philosophy of assimilationism. He later pronounced such views efforts to "miseducate" him. He began to understand the opposing responses of his great-uncle and his father toward their racial roots as symbolizing the conflict facing American blacks to "embrac[e] the riches of the folk heritage" or to make a clean break with the past and all that it signified. He concluded that American education reduced the Negro experience to "two short paragraphs: a statement about jungle people in Africa and an equally brief account of the slavery issue in American history." He would devote his life to reinstating the omissions.

Bontemps's diverse occupations were unified by the common goal of forwarding a social and intellectual atmosphere in which African-American history, culture, and sense of self could flourish. Having graduated from Pacific Union College in 1923, he moved from California to New York City to teach at the Harlem Academy and to write. Bontemps became fast friends with Langston Hughes, a physical lookalike as well as an intellectual twin, evidenced by Hughes's 1926 manifesto on black art which became Bontemps's as well: "We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark skinned selves without fear or shame."

First Poem Was Published

In the summer of 1924, at age twenty-one, Bontemps published a poem, "Hope," in Crisis, a journal instrumental in advancing the careers of most of the young writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Recognition thereafter came quickly with his poems "Golgotha Is a Mountain" and "The Return," which in 1926 and 1927, respectively, won the Alexander Pushkin Award for Poetry offered by Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, and "Nocturne at Bethesda," which in 1927 won a first prize for poetry from Crisis. Both the Opportunity pieces are atavistic poems connecting Bontemps to other Harlem Renaissance poets who express a longing for their roots in Africa. They synthesize racial consciousness and personal emotion, rendering the theme of alienation central to so much of Renaissance poetry. They also suggest through images of jungles, rain, and the throbbing of drums the attempt to return to original sources, to unleash racial memory by moving back to a more primitive, more sensuous time. Bontemps asserts the archetypal black consciousness as a suffering but indomitable self, a symbol of endurance. In "Nocturne for Bethesda," as in many other poems, he juxtaposes racial consciousness with the traditional Christianity of his youth, lamenting in this poem the inability of religious teachings to make the suffering of the black race meaningful; only through the power of racial memory can blacks find solace. But while the poet recognizes the sustenance gained from such a return in consciousness, he also acknowledges that only a moment of intense insight is possible before the vision fades in the harsh light of reality. Although his stay in Harlem spanned barely seven years, Bontemps interacted with a chorus of new voices who made the Harlem Renaissance a golden age of black art. In addition to Hughes, these included Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston.

Teaching Assignment at Oakwood Junior College

Although Bontemps harbored plans of pursuing a Ph.D. in English, the Great Depression, family responsibilities, and the demands of his writing contracts with publishing houses stifled such hopes as well as the spirit of optimism that pervaded his early verse. Having married Alberta Johnson on August 26, 1926, Bontemps was now a family man already supporting two of the six children he would eventually father. Forced by economic necessity to leave the Harlem Academy in 1931, Bontemps taught at Oakwood Junior College, a black Seventh Day Adventist school in Huntsville, Alabama. His situation there mirrored the working conditions of much of his career: he was typically short on funds and rarely had a comfortable place to work. His persistence paid off, however, particularly when he turned to writing children's books in the belief that a younger audience was more receptive to the positive images of blacks he wished to instill. Over the next forty years he wrote and edited such books for children and adolescents as Popo and Fifina (1932), You Can't Pet a Possum (1934), We Have Tomorrow (1945), Frederick Douglass: Slave-Fighter-Freeman (1959) and its sequel Free at Last: The Life of Frederick Douglass (1971), and Young Booker: Booker T. Washington's Early Days (1972).

His first novel, God Sends Sunday, the story of the most successful black jockey in St. Louis, was published in 1931. Most critics were receptive to the book, and Bontemps himself liked the story well enough to collaborate with Countee Cullen to turn it into a play, St. Louis Woman (1939). It premiered in New York on March 30, 1946, and ran for 113 performances. Bontemps's efforts to alter the perception of blacks in American literature ultimately proved disadvantageous to his teaching career: the administration of Oakwood Junior College accused him of promoting subversive racial propaganda and allegedly ordered him to burn his books. He resigned in 1934 and took his family to California, much as his father had done years before.

Black Thunder

While "temporarily and uncomfortably quartered" with his father and stepmother, Bontemps produced Black Thunder, his best and most popular novel. Published in 1936, it offers a fictional version of an 1800 slave rebellion led by Gabriel Prosser. Rendering the theme of revolution through the device of the slave narrative, the novel has become one of the great historical novels in the American tradition.

In 1935 Bontemps accepted a teaching assignment at the Shiloh Academy in Chicago, resigning in 1937 to work for the Illinois Writer's Project. The Caribbean flavor of some of his writing may be traced to a study tour in the Caribbean subsidized by a Rosenwald Fellowship for creative writing received in 1938 and renewed in 1942. His third novel, Drums at Dusk, appeared in 1939; continuing his interest in slave history, it depicts the revolt of blacks in Haiti occurring simultaneously with the French Revolution.

Librarian at Fisk University

After receiving a master's degree in library science from the University of Chicago in 1943, Bontemps was appointed head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he remained until 1965. During this period he received two Guggenheim Fellowships for creative writing (1949, 1954). Using his friendship with Hughes to establish at Fisk University Library a Langston Hughes collection, securing as well the papers of such Harlem Renaissance figures as Jean Toomer, James Weldon Johnson, and Countee Cullen, and establishing a collection to honor George Gershwin, Bontemps made the library an important resource for the study of African-American culture.

While his poetry, fiction, and histories have been widely recognized, perhaps Bontemps's most enduring contribution to African-American literary history lies in the scholarly anthologies he compiled and edited, alone or in collaboration with Hughes. They appeal primarily to high school and college undergraduate students. Golden Slippers (1941) is a collection of poems by black writers suitable for young readers. The Book of Negro Folklore (1958) is a collection of animal tales and rhymes, slave narratives, ghost stories, sermons, and folk songs as well as essays on folklore by Sterling Brown and Zora Neale Hurston. Hold Fast to Dreams: Poems Old and New (1969) is an anthology of poems blending, without chronological or biographical data, works by blacks and whites, English and American authors. Great Slave Narratives (1969); and The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (1972) are collections of eyewitness descriptions of the period accompanied by a memoir by Bontemps.

Bontemps's series of anthologies was capped with a collection of his own poetry in 1963. Personals, consisting of twenty-three poems of the 1920s, remains a moving record of a young black artist exercising his imagination for the first time amid Harlem's turbulent literary and social excitement; it also contains an introductory comment describing the goals of the writers of the period and Bontemps's 1940s reaction to the Harlem milieu of the 1920s. Appropriately titled, the collection reveals the personal wonder of a young man whose consciousness is expanding with the enormous possibilities of self-definition and self-acceptance through art while simultaneously acknowledging a brooding sense of homelessness. This expression of the black self makes Personals a mirror for the development of black American literature during the 1920s. Bontemps captured the significance of the poetry of the period to all black artists in his 1963 introduction to American Negro Poetry: "In the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties poetry led the way for the other arts. It touched off the awakening that brought novelists, painters, sculptors, dancers, dramatists, and scholars of many kinds to the notice of a nation that had nearly forgotten about the gifts of its Negro people."

In 1966 Bontemps renewed his ties with Chicago by teaching black studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. In 1969 he became curator of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection at Yale University, an important repository of original materials from the Harlem Renaissance. By 1971 he was back at Fisk as writer in residence, working on an autobiography he would not live to complete. He died in Nashville of a heart attack on June 4, 1973.

Though his accomplishments as librarian, historian, editor, poet, critic, and novelist were stunning, Arna Bontemps was perhaps as overshadowed by Langston Hughes as Zora Neale Hurston was by Richard Wright. Epitomizing the quiet, understated endurance celebrated in his poems. Contributing in ways large and small to the perpetuation of what was a limited interest in African-American life and culture, Bontemps paved the way for subsequent scholars and writers to find easier access to research materials as well as public recognition. He takes his place as a pioneer who, as Arthur P. Davis asserts, "kept flowing that trickle of interest in Negro American literature—that trickle which is now a torrent."


Baker, Houston A. Jr., Black Literature in America, 1971.

Bone, Robert A., The Negro Novel in America, 1958.

Brown, Sterling, The Negro in American Fiction, 1937.

Fleming, Robert E., James Weldon Johnson and Arna Wendell

Bontemps: A Reference Guide, 1978.

Gloster, Hugh M., Negro Voices in American Fiction, 1948.

Page, James A., Selected Black American Authors: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography, 1977.

Turner, Darwin T., Black American Literature: Poetry, 1969.

Whitlow, Roger, Black American Literature: A Critical History, 1973.

Young, James D., Black Writers in the Thirties, 1973.


American Libraries, December 1974.

From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900-1960, 1974. New York Times, June 6, 1973. □

Bontemps, Arna

views updated May 23 2018

Bontemps, Arna

October 13, 1902
June 4, 1973

Arna Bontempspoet, playwright, novelist, critic, editor, and anthologistwas a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. His work is distinguished by a passionate struggle for liberation and a mystical faith in the unseen. The latter may derive from his early religious training, for his parents were Seventh-Day Adventists. Born in Alexandria, Louisiana, Bontemps grew up in Los Angeles. The early death of his mother left him in the care of an austere father and his grandparents. Upon his graduation from San Fernando Academy in 1920, he enrolled in Pacific Union College, another Seventh-Day Adventist institution, where he earned an A.B. degree in 1923.

In 1924 Bontemps went to New York, where he met other young writers, including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay. He was stimulated by the cultural vitality of New Yorkits theater, its music, its concern with world affairs, and the struggle of its black people for social recognition and cultural realization. Bontemps taught in Adventist schools, such as the Harlem Academy, and began his serious career as a writer. His first novel, God Sends Sunday, published in 1931, is the story of Little Augie, a jockey who earns a great deal of money and spends it lavishly on brothels, women, and fancy cars. The character was suggested by a great-uncle of Bontemps. Bontemps and Countee Cullen transformed the story of Little Augie into a musical, St. Louis Woman, which played on Broadway in 1946.

Bontemps's historical novel Black Thunder (1936), among the first of the genre in African-American literature, was based on a Virginia slave revolt in 1800. Drums at Dusk (1939), more superficial and romantic than Black Thunder, deals with the Pierre Toussaint-L'Ouverture uprising in Haiti. Other historical works include We Have Tomorrow (1945) and the biography Frederick Douglass: Slave, Fighter, Freeman (1958). In collaboration with Jack Conroy, Bontemps wrote a history of black migration, They Seek a City (1945; updated in 1966 as Any Place but Here ).

In 1932 Bontemps coauthored, with Langston Hughes, Popo and Fifine: Children of Haiti. He and Conroy also produced a series of original tales for children: The Fast Sooner Hound (1942); Slappy Hooper, the Wonderful Sign Painter (1946); and Sam Patch, the High, Wide and Handsome Jumper (1951). In writing books for children, Bontemps made a major contribution, since juvenile literature written by and for African Americans was virtually nonexistent at the time. In 1956 he received the Jane Addams Children's Book Award for Story of the Negro (1948).

Throughout his career, Bontemps produced original poetry, notable for its brooding quality and its suggestive treatment of protest and black pride. "A Black Man Talks of Reaping," which won a Crisis magazine first prize in 1926, is one of the strongest of his protest poems. "Golgotha Is a Mountain" and "The Return" won the Alexander Pushkin Award for Poetry offered by Opportunity magazine in 1926 and 1927, respectively. Personals, a collection of his poems, was published in 1963 by Paul Bremen in London.

In 1943 Bontemps became head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee; in 1965 he became director of university relations. From 1966 to 1969 he was a professor at the Chicago Circle campus of the University of Illinois and in 1969 served as visiting professor and curator of the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale University. In 1970 he returned to Fisk as writer-in-residence; he died there in 1973.

See also Cullen, Countee; Harlem Renaissance; Hughes, Langston; McKay, Claude


Bontemps, Arna. The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972.

Bontemps, Arna. The Old South. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1973.

Hughes, Langston, and Arna Bontemps. Book of Negro Folklore. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1958.

charles h. nichols (1996)