Arna Bontemps was a prolific writer of African American histories, biographies, and children’s books, as well as an editor and anthologist. His best known adult novel is Black Thunder (1936). He and Countée Cullen adapted Bontemps’s first novel, God Sends Sunday (1931), as a Broadway musical, St. Louis Woman (pr. 1946). His poetry collection, Personals, appeared in 1963.
Arna Bontemps was awarded prizes by Opportunity (Journal of Negro Life) for poetry and for his story “A Summer Tragedy.” He was also granted two Rosenwald grants and two John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowships for creative writing. In 1956 he received the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award and was a finalist for the Newbery Medal. He was named Honorary Consultant to the Library of Congress in American Cultural History in 1972.
Arna Bontemps (bahn-TAHM) was a prolific author and editor. He wrote or cowrote many children’s books, biographies, and histories, and he edited or coedited more than a dozen works, including African American poetry anthologies, histories, slave narratives, and a folklore collection. His short stories were collected in The Old South (1973), and his poetry collection, Personals, appeared in 1963. He and Countée Cullen adapted Bontemps’s novel God Sends Sunday for the New York stage in 1946 as St. Louis Woman. Bontemps’s forty-two-year correspondence with writer Langston Hughes was published in 1980.
Arna Bontemps’s finely honed poems quietly reflect his lifelong Christian beliefs. After winning several prizes for his poems and short stories in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Bontemps was granted the first of two Rosenwald Fellowships in Creative Writing in 1939 (the other came in 1943). In 1949 and 1954 he received Guggenheim Fellowships for creative writing. He was given the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award in 1956 for The Story of the Negro (first published in 1948), which was also named a Newbery Honor Book in 1949. In 1969 he was appointed writer-in-residence at Fisk University, and in 1972 he was named honorary consultant to the Library of Congress in American cultural history. Beginning in the 1960’s he became a popular national speaker, and he always offered encouragement to struggling African American writers. Wherever he served as a teacher, he was loved and respected by his students.
Arna Bontemps (bon-TAHM) contributed to many genres of literature. He decided to concentrate on writing poetry after moving to Harlem in 1924 and because he felt that the mind-set of the early artists, writers, and musicians who lived there was particularly attuned to the rhythm and sound of poetry. In the 1930’s, he turned to the novel as a vehicle for attempting to right the wrongs of an educational system that minimized black contributions to society, often devoting only two paragraphs to blacks—one dealing with Africa and the other with slavery in the Americas. His best-known novel, Black Thunder (1936), told the story of Gabriel Prosser, a slave who orchestrated an unsuccessful revolt in 1800. Hoping to gain a readership whose minds were less skeptical and more malleable than adults, he collaborated on several children’s books with Langston Hughes and Jack Conroy and wrote several of his own, including You Can’t Pet a Possum (1934). He later began to concentrate on history and biography for children with such books as The Story of George Washington Carver (1954) and Frederick Douglass: Slave, Fighter, Freeman (1959). He wanted young blacks to understand their racial past and gain a sense of pride in what blacks had achieved despite the obstacles they faced. Bontemps, indeed a prolific writer, was writing his autobiography when he died in 1973.
Arna Bontemps was showered with awards and recognition for his literary works. He won the Alexander Pushkin Award for Poetry from Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life for “Golgotha Is a Mountain” in 1926 and for “The Return” in 1927. Also in 1927, he was awarded First Prize in Poetry for “Nocturne at Bethesda” by The Crisis, published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He went on to win Opportunity’s short-story prize in 1932 for “A Summer Tragedy,” a powerful tale that is included in many anthologies. He was granted two Julius Rosenwald Fellowships for travel, study, and writing, the first in 1938-1939 and the other in 1942-1943, and two Guggenheim Fellowships in 1949 and 1954. He received the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award in 1956 for The Story of the Negro.
Bone, Robert. “Arna Bontemps.” Down Home: A History of Afro-American Short Fiction From Its Beginnings to the End of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1975. 272-287. Brief but incisive analyses of four of the stories from The Old South: “Boy Blue,” “A Summer Tragedy,” “The Cure,” and “Three Pennies for Luck.” Notes the use of nature symbolism and folklore in Bontemps’s short stories.
Canaday, Nicholas. “Arna Bontemps: The Louisiana Heritage.” Callaloo 4 (October-February, 1981): 163-169. Canaday traces the significant influence of Bontemps’s great-uncle from Louisiana,...
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