Bontemps presents his twelve subjects with enthusiasm and a clear intention to inspire readers. He refrains from didacticism or sentimentality, letting the subjects’ courage and perseverance tell their own stories. The book emphasizes problem-solving and determination—with or without family support. There are a number of orphans and displaced children among these individuals; opposition seems to fuel them.
More than any other factor, education makes the difference between success and failure, a fact that is no doubt an object lesson to young readers. All these people sought higher education, often at great sacrifice. Their early circumstances were at best ordinary (only one or two came from families with any degree of wealth); most faced overwhelming disadvantages. Readers will find these subjects—all under-dogs—easy to like and admire.
Bontemps presents his subjects’ ordeals and achievements in plain language. Reflecting contemporary racial designations, he uses the term “Negro” (and occasionally “African-American”) rather than “black.” The book is not negative toward whites, but rather toward those members of all races who practice discouragement and injustice. Only James LuValle, a track star from Los Angeles who grew up to work for Eastman Kodak, escaped the sting of prejudice in his childhood. For the other subjects, racial inequality was a fact of life.
The individuals’ curiosity often compensated for what could otherwise have been drab and suffocating lives. Emmett M. May was so eager to see the world that he became a sailor while still in his teens. Algernon P. Henry, yearning for contact outside...
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Written prior to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, We Have Tomorrow is devoid of anger or blame; it is predicated instead on the individual’s capacity for self-motivation and ability to take responsibility for his or her own future. It makes a quiet but eloquent case for the need for racial equality in all fields of endeavor. To some extent, the book reflects changes in the racial climate engendered by Reconstruction and furthered by the rising industrialism of the world wars. An increasingly technical world was seen as being more hospitable to the contributions of African Americans. In some ways, the outlook and terminology of We Have Tomorrow are certainly dated, but the book’s emphasis on the value of education and perseverance is a timeless message. All twelve of the book’s subjects avoided or conquered self-pity and pursued as much formal training as they could obtain.
Bontemps must have seen himself in them, for as a young man he was already a major literary figure in the Harlem Renaissance. A poet and novelist, Bontemps promoted the works of other African Americans throughout his lifetime. He collaborated with Langston Hughes on anthologies as well as on a children’s book entitled Popo and Fifna: Children of Haiti (1932). Bontemps’ most highly regarded single work is probably the novel Black Thunder (1936), based on an actual slave rebellion that occurred near Richmond, Virginia, in 1800. Bontemps wrote many works of African-American history and biography, including a large number of books for children.