Arna Bontemps

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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 in the early years of the Great Depression, not with poetry but with prose. His first novel, God Sends Sunday, described the exciting life of a black jockey in the 1880’s. The children’s book he wrote with Hughes (Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti) met an acknowledged need for juvenilia with black characters.

Bontemps moved to Alabama in 1931 to teach. There, he was influenced by the trial of the Scottsboro Boys. He wrote several stories, some unpublished until 1973. The best one, “A Summer Tragedy,” portrays two old sharecroppers who have lost everything. Their dignified joint suicide relieves them from the real tragedy: the plight of the old and poor in an uncaring society. Bontemps left Alabama to return to California to write what has come to be regarded as his single best work, Black Thunder, a romanticized historical account of the Gabriel Prosser slave rebellion near Richmond, Virginia, in 1800.

By 1938, Bontemps had moved to Chicago; shortly afterward, he received his first Rosenwald Fellowship, which allowed him to travel and to enroll in the University of Chicago’s graduate school. His third and final novel, Drums at Dusk, failed critically. He worked for the Illinois Writers Project and began a writing partnership with Jack Conroy that lasted into the 1950’s. During the 1940’s, Bontemps became a librarian at Fisk University, where he stayed until his death, except for stints at Yale University and the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle. He and Countée Cullen adapted God Sends Sunday as the play St. Louis Woman, which was then further adapted into a successful Broadway musical in 1946. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Bontemps developed biographical juvenilia concentrating on the black experience.

Always shining through Bontemps’s works is an unapologetic view of black history and black people at their worst and their best. His biographies of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and George Washington Carver affirmed his early recognition that he could neither shed his “Negroness” nor break with the past. Neither was possible; both were unthinkable.


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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...

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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.


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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 he was ten years old, and he and his sister went to live on his grandmother’s farm near Los Angeles. Bontemps completed his secondary schooling at a private boarding school and his bachelor’s degree at the University of the Pacific. After college he went to New York City, where he joined the Harlem Renaissance, which was in full swing, and began a close, lifelong friendship with writer Langston Hughes.

Bontemps taught school in New York, married Alberta Jones when he was twenty-four, and subsequently fathered six children. In 1931 Bontemps and his family moved to Alabama, where he taught in a junior college and observed southern behavior and customs. The family left Alabama in 1934 because of a hostile racial climate following the trial of the Scottsboro Nine, black men who were unjustly convicted of raping two white women, and moved into Bontemps’s father’s small house in California. There the author worked on his second novel, frequently writing outdoors with his small portable typewriter on a makeshift desk.

By 1943 he had moved to Chicago, where he earned a master’s degree in library science. Accepting an appointment as full professor and head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Bontemps served there until the mid-1960’s, when he accepted a professorship in history and literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. He also served as curator of the James Weldon Johnson Collection.

He retired in 1969 to work on his autobiography, which remained unfinished at his death. In 1972 he published The Harlem Renaissance Remembered and returned to visit his birthplace in Louisiana. After his death on June 4, 1973, he was honored at both Protestant and Catholic memorial services.


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Arna Bontemps, at age twenty-one, accepted a teaching position in New York City at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Through his poetry, novels, short stories, and essays, he became one of that movement’s defining writers. Bontemps, whose father was a bricklayer and whose mother, a schoolteacher, instilled in him a love of books, was born in Louisiana, but, because of white threats against his family, was reared and educated in California, where he was graduated from Pacific Union College in 1923.

The Bontemps family settled in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1905. At the time they were the only African American family in the neighborhood. When Bontemps was twelve years old, his mother died, and he was sent to live with relatives in the California countryside. There, by becoming his Uncle Buddy’s “companion and confidant in the corn rows,” Bontemps gained access to a living embodiment of Southern black folk culture. According to Bontemps, Uncle Buddy was an “old derelict” who drank alcohol and loved “dialect stories, preacher stories, ghost stories, slave and master stories. He half-believed in signs and charms and mumbo-jumbo, and he believed whole-heartedly in ghosts.” Concerned at Uncle Buddy’s influence, Bontemps’ father sent his son to a white boarding school, admonishing him, “Now don’t go up there acting colored.” Fifty years later, the rebuke still rankled: Recalling his father’s advice in 1965, Bontemps exclaimed, “How dare anyone, parent, schoolteacher, or merely literary critic, tell me not to act colored?” Pride in color and heritage stamps all Bontemps’ works.

The African American experience is at the heart of all Bontemps’ work. His novel God Sends Sunday, which he and Countée Cullen adapted for Broadway in 1946, is based loosely on the life of Uncle Buddy. The work offers a glimpse of the Southern racing circuit through the eyes of a black jockey in the late 1800’s. Another novel, Black Thunder, is based on Gabriel Prosser’s slave rebellion. Bontemps edited an anthology, Great Slave Narratives, and The Book of Negro Folklore in 1958. With Langston Hughes, Bontemps edited The Poetry of the Negro 1746-1949 (1963). Bontemps was a central figure in the rediscovery and dissemination of African American literature.

Bontemps was a librarian at Fisk University from 1943 to 1965. Although he left to teach at the University of Illinois and then at Yale during the late 1960’s, he returned to Fisk in 1971 and remained there until his death in 1973.