Arna Wendell Bontemps (bahn-TAHM) began his literary career writing poetry, yet his fame as one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and versatile black writers rests largely on his association with the Harlem Renaissance, on one widely anthologized short story, on his children’s books, and on his novel Black Thunder.
Born in Alexandria, Louisiana, on October 13, 1902, the son of musician, brickmason, and lay minister Paul Bontemps and teacher Marie Pembroke, Arna Bontemps grew up in Los Angeles, California, attending boarding school and earning his B.A. from Pacific Union College (1923) and his M.A. from the University of Chicago (1943). After his mother died when he was twelve, Bontemps lived with his grandmother and her younger brother. His father’s inclination toward fundamentalist Christianity and his disinterest in African American folk heritage contrasted with his granduncle’s affinity for drink, gambling, music, and spontaneity. Bontemps ultimately sided with his granduncle and chose African folk expression, even though his father’s persistent influence left him ambivalent.
In the 1920’s, Bontemps left his Los Angeles post-office job for New York City, where he quickly achieved poetic success. In 1926, he married schoolteacher Alberta Johnson. He acquainted himself with the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance and began a correspondence and collaboration with Langston Hughes. His Harlem period culminated...
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Arna Wendell Bontemps descended from a prosperous, light-complexioned family of “Creoles of Color” (French and African American heritage) in Louisiana; when he was a small child, he and his nuclear family and almost all of his mother’s extended family migrated to California. After his mother’s death, he lived on his grandmother’s farm near Los Angeles until his father sent him away to boarding school to complete his secondary education. As Bontemps was leaving to enroll at Pacific Union College, his father commanded him to renounce his African American past, about which the boy learned a great deal from his Louisiana relatives, who were living in California or were visiting there. His appreciation of his racial past continued to grow.
After receiving his B.A. in English, Bontemps moved to New York, where he became a part of the Harlem Renaissance along with Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes, who became one of Bontemps’s closest friends and his literary collaborator. In New York, Bontemps taught school and married Alberta Johnson in 1926. They had five children.
Bontemps taught for a year at Oakwood Academy in Huntsville, Alabama, and learned about racial oppression through the famous trials of the “Scottsville boys,” which were being held nearby. He escaped to California, where he finished his second novel. Settling in Chicago, Bontemps received a master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago. He then returned to the South to accept a position as a full professor and head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, where he remained until 1966 when he was named writer-in-residence at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. In 1969 he rejoined the Fisk faculty to serve as writer-in-residence. He died in Nashville in 1973.
Arna Wendell Bontemps, whose parentage was Louisiana Creole, was born in the front bedroom of his maternal grandfather’s comfortable home at the corner of Ninth and Winn Streets in Alexandria, Louisiana. The house is still standing, though it has been moved; in 1992 it became the site of the Arna Bontemps African American Museum. Bontemps’s father, a skilled stonemason, bricklayer, and former trombonist with a New Orleans marching band, moved with his wife, children, and in-laws to California following a racial incident in Louisiana. The elder Bontemps also served as a Seventh-Day Adventist preacher after he abandoned Catholicism.
Bontemps’s earliest childhood was spent happily in his grandparents’ house in Alexandria. Later, in California, he was greatly influenced by a great-uncle, Uncle Buddy, who came from Alexandria to stay with his relatives in California. Though Uncle Buddy was a down-at-the-heels alcoholic, he nevertheless represented for young Bontemps the essence of Louisiana culture, folklore, and history with his colorful stories and speech. Self-educated, intelligent, and articulate, Uncle Buddy was a good reader and storyteller and awakened in his grandnephew a love of hearing and telling stories and of reading and reciting poetry. Most important, Uncle Buddy reminded young Bontemps of his Louisiana and southern roots, which were later to be a great literary storehouse for the budding author.
Bontemps’s mother died when...
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