Arna Wendell Bontemps was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, in 1902, to a Roman Catholic brick mason and accomplished trombonist, Paul Bismark Bontemps, and a Methodist schoolteacher, Marie Carolina Pembrooke. His father, who left the Roman Catholic Church to become a lay minister with the Seventh-day Adventists, was a somewhat distant, practical man who hoped his son would join the family trade in building construction and masonry. From the start, however, Bontemps’s mother instilled in him a love of reading and encouraged him to give his imagination free rein. Her free-spirited creativity had a great influence on him.
Bontemps had just turned three when the family moved to the Watts area of California because his father had grown tired of the indignities suffered by blacks in the South. Bontemps’s father had been walking down the sidewalk when a pair of drunken white men grew close; when they hurled an epithet, his father, following convention, had stepped down into the street to avoid a confrontation. The three-year-old Bontemps was too young to understand the full implications of the incident, and when at age twelve, after his mother’s death, he was sent to San Fernando Academy, a mostly white boarding school, he misunderstood his father’s admonition that he not “act all colored” at the school. He saw this warning not as the safety measure it was designed to be, but as an attempt to make him forget his past, to negate everything in him that was black. His father was trying both to protect him and to get him away from the influence of his uncle Buddy, who drank heavily, loved tall tales told in dialect, and believed in ghosts. The young Bontemps, however, admired and enjoyed Uncle Buddy’s energy and good humor, as well as the company of his friends. Physical separation did not remove his uncle from his mind; Bontemps even based the main character of his first novel, God Sends Sunday (1931), on him.
The idea that he was being miseducated, that he was expected to assimilate into white society and to be no different, stayed with Bontemps for many...
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