Arna Bontemps

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Bontemps, Arna 1902–1973

Bontemps was an American novelist, poet, children's writer, biographer, editor, and playwright. He wrote optimistically, striving to preserve the cultural heritage of the black in American history and to relate the changes he had seen in his own lifetime. Bontemps collaborated with Langston Hughes, Jack Conroy, W. C. Handy, and Countee Cullen. Black Thunder is generally regarded as his best novel. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed.)


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Arna Bontemps' first venture in fiction ["God Sends Sunday"] is to me a profound disappointment. It is of the school of "Nigger Heaven" and "Home to Harlem." There is a certain pathetic touch to the painting of his poor little jockey hero, but nearly all else is sordid crime, drinking, gambling, whore-mongering, and murder. There is not a decent intelligent woman; not a single man with the slightest ambition or real education, scarcely more than one human child in the whole book. Even the horses are drab. In the "Blues" alone Bontemps sees beauty. But in brown skins, frizzled hair and full contoured faces, there are to him nothing but ugly, tawdry, hateful things, which he describes with evident caricature.

One reads hurriedly on, waiting for a gleam of light, waiting for the Sunday that some poor ugly black God may send; but somehow it never comes; and if God appears at all it is in the form of a little drunken murderer riding South to Tia Juana on his back.

W.E.B. DuBois, "The Browsing Reader: 'God Sends Sunday'," in The Crisis (copyright 1931 by The Crisis Publishing Company, Inc.), Vol. 40, No. 9, September, 1931, p. 304.

Richard Wright

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In that limited and almost barren field known as the Negro novel, Arna Bontemps's Black Thunder fills a yawning gap and fills it competently. Covering all those skimpy reaches of Negro letters I know, this is the only novel dealing forth-rightly with the historical and revolutionary traditions of the Negro people.

Black Thunder is the true story of a slave insurrection that failed. But in his telling of the story of that failure Bontemps manages to reveal and dramatize through the character of his protagonist, Gabriel, a quality of folk courage unparalleled in the proletarian literature of this country….

Black Thunder is mainly the story of Gabriel, who believes in the eventual triumph of his destiny in spite of all the forces which conspire against it. He is convinced that God and the universe are on his side. He believes he must and will lead the Negro people to freedom. He seems to have no personal fear and no personal courage. He thinks, dreams, and feels wholly in terms of Negro liberation…. When considering Gabriel solely as an isolated individual, he seems sustained by an extremely foolish belief in himself; but when one remembers his slave state, when one realizes the extent to which he has made the wrongs of his people his wrongs, and the degree in which he has submerged his hopes in their hopes—when one remembers this, he appears logically and gloriously invincible….

Gabriel believes [in the uprising], he believes even when he is caught; even when the black cowl is capped about his head, even when the ax swings, he believes. Why?

For me the cardinal value of Bontemps's book, besides the fact that it is a thumping story well told, lies in the answer to that question. Perhaps I am straying further afield than the author did in search for an answer. If I do, it is because I believe we have in Black Thunder a revelation of the very origin...

(This entire section contains 501 words.)

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and source of folk values in literature.

Even though Gabriel's character is revealed in terms of personal action and dialogue, I feel there is in him much more than mere personal dignity and personal courage. There is in his attitude something which transcends the limits of immediate consciousness. He is buoyed in his hope and courage by an optimism which takes no account of the appalling difficulties confronting him. He hopes when there are no objective reasons or grounds for hope; he fights when his fellow-slaves scamper for their lives. In doing so, he takes his place in that gallery of fictitious characters who exist on the plane of the ridiculous and the sublime. Bontemps endows Gabriel with a myth-like and deathless quality. And it is in this sense, I believe, that Black Thunder sounds a new note in Negro fiction, thereby definitely extending the boundaries and ideology of the Negro novel.

Richard Wright, "A Tale of Courage," in Partisan Review and Anvil (copyright by Partisan Review and Anvil), Vol. III, No. 1, February, 1936, p. 31.

Hugh M. Gloster

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God Sends Sunday follows Nigger Heaven in its emphasis upon sex and fast living, but differs in its introduction of a main character who is a celebrated jockey and a prodigal libertine in the racing centers of the Mississippi Valley. (p. 172)

In its abandonment of the Harlem background, God Sends Sunday exemplifies a new trend in fiction showing the influence of Nigger Heaven. Besides, more than any other novel in the Van Vechten tradition, it avoids race consciousness. (p. 173)

[Another novel by Bontemps, Black Thunder,] treats the abortive slave insurrection under Gabriel Prosser in Virginia in 1800…. (p. 213)

The underlying thesis of Black Thunder … is that Negro slaves, with the exception of a small number bound in mind as well as in body, had an obsessive love of freedom. (p. 214)

Black Thunder is written with restraint and detachment. Bontemps portrays slaves, freedmen, planters, and French radicals with impartiality, showing no disposition to glorify pro-Negro nor to traduce anti-Negro characters in the book. Miscegenation on the Southern scene is not blinked. Furthermore, Bontemps succeeds in weaving Gabriel's uprising into the web of state and national life…. Although Black Thunder is not without blemish, A. B. Spingarn is quite correct in his observation that the book is "the best historical novel written by an American Negro."

Also a record of the Negro's quest for freedom is Bontemps' second historical novel, Drums at Dusk, an account of the black insurrection which resulted in the independence of Haiti and the emergence of Toussaint L'Ouverture. (pp. 214-15)

Bontemps paints a vivid picture of social upheaval and class prejudice in tropical San Domingo. Struggling for control are the wealthy elite, the low-class whites, and the free mulattoes. The aristocrats, dominating slaves who outnumber all other inhabitants by nearly ten to one, keep their positions secure by intimidating the blacks and playing them against the mulattoes…. Miscegenation is rampant, as lecherous aristocrats frequently manifest a preference for "chocolate" and openly flaunt their yellow mistresses…. In brief, Drums at Dusk, a worthy successor to Black Thunder, is another vivid illustration of the richness of the Negro's past as a source for historical fiction. (p. 216)

Hugh M. Gloster, in his Negro Voices in American Fiction (copyright 1948 by The University of North Carolina Press), University of North Carolina Press, 1948 (and reprinted by Russell & Russell, Inc., 1965), 295 p.∗

Dorothy Weil

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[Black Thunder] is a superior piece of work. Interest in the action is sustained; the minds and feelings of the blacks are made lucid and believable; and the atmosphere is unique. Bontemps accomplished these ends partly through the skillful use of various motifs from Negro folklore. Several episodes of the novel are pervaded by beliefs and customs that appear in this folklore—beliefs and customs concerning death and the spirit, the importance of 'signs' or portents, and the use of Magic and Conjure.

Early in Black Thunder a tyrannical slave owner whips a slave, Bundy, to death, and thus hastens the rebellion that has been on the minds of the blacks of Henrico County for some time. Bontemps' treatment of the funeral of this slave and the subsequent haunting by Bundy's spirit of a fellow slave, are rooted in narratives found in folklore that have to do with death, ghosts and spirits. (p. 1)

Bontemps is faithful in detail to folklore versions of [the funeral] custom. (p. 2)

The importance of 'signs' or portents in Negro folklore underlies Bontemps' treatment of two episodes in Black Thunder, the extended argument among the rebels concerning "the stars," and the episode in which Drucilla predicts the death of another character. (p. 6)

The episode in Black Thunder in which the female house slaves compulsively chase a bird out of the house reflects the plethora of references in Negro folklore to birds as a sign of death. (p. 9)

Elements of Conjure and Magic appear in Black Thunder as they appear in folk tales and beliefs recorded by collectors. Several characters employ charms and counter charms, and one episode in the novel involves a traditional "conjure-poisoning." (p. 10)

Conjure poisoning … provides the basis for a final dramatic episode in Black Thunder. Pharoah, the slave whose death was foreshadowed in the incident with the bird, has betrayed the rebels. He became so frightened at the prospect of defeat that he ran into Richmond screaming the news of rebellion. He then begins to feel ill and suspects that he is being "conjured."… (p. 12)

Bontemps' use of folk material in Black Thunder shows him to be a conscious, skillful artist. He has used this material to create a fictional world that is believable and vivid. These elements lend strength to Bontemps' depiction of the community of beliefs among the black dramatis personae, and at the same time serve to help characterize individual personalities. The vitality of the folk credo is important in the novel; it functions in allowing the black characters to be roused to group action, and it enlivens the inner world of the rebels which is shown to be as important as outer conditions in affecting their destinies. Characters such as Ben and Pharoah are provided with believable psychologies. The motifs from folklore fulfill other functions as well. They add colorful detail to scenes such as the funeral and the insanity of Pharoah, and serve as appropriate vehicles for achieving foreshadowing and for meting out punishment. (p. 13)

Dorothy Weil, "Folklore Motifs in Arna Bontemps' 'Black Thunder'," in Southern Folklore Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the publisher), Vol. XXXV, No. 1, March, 1971, pp. 1-14.

Brian Neal Odell

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Purporting to be a biography of [Frederick] Douglass, Free at Last reads more like a novel. Emphasized throughout are the protagonist's secret musings, the author's narrative omniscience and the mood of each scene. Nowhere is there probing analysis, historical perspective or sophisticated scholarship. We read much—real or imagined—in Free at Last of Frederick Douglass the man of anger, passion and resentment; but we see little of Frederick Douglass the thinker, the writer, the political strategist. Douglass was all of these things, and because Bontemps portrays only Douglass' more "salable" characteristics, his book must be judged at best incomplete, and at worst deceitful. (pp. 295-96)

Brian Neal Odell, "Book Reviews: 'Free at Last: The Life of Frederick Douglass'," in America (© America Press, 1971; all rights reserved), Vol. 125, No. 11, October 16, 1971, pp. 295-96.

Arthur P. Davis

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Bontemps' poems [collected in Personals] make use of several recurring themes: the alien-and-exile allusions so often found in New Negro poetry; strong racial suggestiveness and applications; religious themes and imagery subtly used; and the theme of return to a former time, a former love, or a remembered place. On occasion he combines in a way common to lyrical writing the personal with the racial or the general. Many of these poems are protest poems; but the protest is oblique and suggestive rather than frontal. Over all of Bontemps' poetry there is a sad, brooding quality, a sombre "Il Penseroso" meditative cast. In Personals there are no obviously joyous or humorous pieces.

The most popular theme in these verses is that of return. There are seven poems dealing in some way with this subject. The one entitled "Return" has a double thrust, the coming back to an old love which takes on an atavistic coloring: "Darkness brings the jungle to our room: / the throb of rain is the throb of muffled drums. / … This is a night of love / retained from those lost nights our fathers slept in huts." There is definitely here the kind of alien-and-exile comparison found in these New Negro poems; the highest joy the lovers (real or imagined) can have is the remembered ancestral love in an idyllic Africa.

In a different way, "Southern Mansion" is also a return poem because for the speaker "The years go back with an iron clank…." Two waves of remembered sound come to him: music from the house and the clank of chains in the cotton field. Because of the latter, only ghosts and the poplars "standing there still as death" and symbolizing death—only they—remain.

"To a Young Girl Leaving the Hill Country" is a return poem with a Wordsworthian slant. The speaker tells the girl that she has ignored the hills of her native place, and she will therefore come back a bent old lady "to seek the girl she was in those familiar stones." He continues: "then perhaps you'll understand / just how it was you drew from them and they from you." For Bontemps, one seemingly finds his identity in a return to his remembered past. (p. 85)

What is this concern with the past—with old loves, old places, ghosts of yesterday? Is there for Bontemps … greater joy in the backward glance than in the living experience? Is he simply a late romanticist with a yen "For old unhappy far-off things, / And battles long ago"? The answer is not evident in these poems. Perhaps the answer is what each reader finds in them….

[In] "Nocturne at Bethesda," one finds the contemporary loss-of-faith theme joined with the alien-and-exile theme: "The golden days are gone … / And why do our black faces search the empty sky?" There is a suggestion here of a double loss for the black man "wandering in strange lands"—the loss of religion and of a homeland. If there is "a returning after death," the speaker tells us to "search for me / beneath the palms of Africa." In some respects this poem reminds one of Cullen's "Heritage," but as is characteristic of Bontemps, it is a much quieter poem than Cullen's masterpiece.

"Golgotha Is a Mountain," too, employs an atavistic theme. "Some pile of wreckage," we are told, is buried beneath each mountain. "There are mountains in Africa too. / Treasure is buried there," and black men are digging with their fingers for it. "I am one of them," the speaker admits. One day, however, he seems to say, I will crumble and make a mountain. "I think it will be Golgotha." One notes the joining of the personal religious thought with the racial. The return to one's ancestral roots is suggested, but, as in all of these poems, the black man's return is pointed out as being somehow different. In this particular poem there is a hint of future hope for the Negro…. There is also homage to the black man's strongest virtue: endurance.

In "A Black Man Talks of Reaping" one finds the closest approach to direct protest in these poems from Personals: "yet what I sowed and what the orchard yields / my brothers' sons are gathering stalk and root" whereas my children "feed on bitter fruit." This is the kind of muted protest expected of a controlled poet like Bontemps.

The poems of Arna Bontemps lack the clear, unambiguous statement of those of his contemporaries: McKay, Cullen, Hughes. There is modern obscurity in these verses, and the so-called meaning often eludes the reader. Their craftsmanship, however, is impressive. The reader somehow feels a certain rightness in Bontemps' lines, that what he has said could not be expressed otherwise. There is a quiet authority in these poems. (p. 86)

Bontemps' first novel, God Sends Sunday, was published in 1931…. Bontemps managed to get over a little of the spirit and atmosphere necessary to make the novel plausible. But the work is a young man's work. The touch of the beginner is everywhere apparent. For example, the author evidently did not feel up to the task of rendering Little Augie's decline from affluence and power to poverty-stricken old age, and he simply jumps to the last years…. It gives a picture of a segment of Negro life that no other novelist has touched. And though there is not much depth here, it is an entertaining and dramatic work….

Bontemps' second novel, Black Thunder …, is a much better book in every way than his first; in fact, it is perhaps the author's outstanding publication. (p. 87)

Black Thunder tells the story of the 1800 uprising led by Gabriel Prosser and it gives a convincing account of the actions and thinking of this heroic black. Although the account is fictional, it impresses the reader as being psychologically true, and that is the important thing in a work of this sort. Bontemps does not make Gabriel too brave or too clever. He describes him as a powerful black man with a gift for organization and leadership. He has no visions, is not unusually superstitious, and is not particularly religious. His driving force is a deep conviction that "anything what's equal to a grey squirrel wants to be free." Stubbornly loyal to his followers, he refuses to inform on them….

Unfortunately, Gabriel is developed so much better than the other characters in the work that we tend to forget them, especially the whites, both slave masters and sympathetic "Jacobins." But the story of Gabriel and his sexy girlfriend, Juba, of the house servants Ben and Pharoah who "sing" to the white folks, and of the other minor leaders of the insurrection is well told. Bontemps has a gift for storytelling and for making his characters talk convincingly. Moreover, he knew well the Virginia folk speech he utilized, and this gives a certain authority to his narration. Symbolically, the novel speaks for the modern Negro. One wonders why the present-day militants have not made better use of it in this respect. Incidentally, Bontemps' Gabriel impresses the Negro reader as being more authentic than William Styron's Nat Turner.

In his third novel, Drums at Dusk (1939), Bontemps again tries historical fiction, but the work suffers by comparison with the superior Black Thunder. A story of the uprising in Haiti, the one that Toussaint would eventually lead, Drums at Dusk is more a "costume piece" than an historical novel. (p. 88)

Drums at Dusk of a necessity deals with violence, but Bontemps really has no taste for violence, and he gives as little of it as possible in this work…. The action in Black Thunder was much more congenial to Bontemps' temperament because it concerns threatened rather than actual violence. (pp. 88-9)

Arthur P. Davis, "First Fruits: Arna Bontemps," in his From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900–1960 (© copyright 1974 by Arthur P. Davis; reprinted by permission of Howard University Press), Howard University Press, 1974, pp. 83-9.

Don David Guttenplan

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This collection of more than forty years of correspondence [Arna Bontemps—Langston Hughes Letters (1925–1967)] is a delight….

[There] is a wealth of observation, careerist plotting and warm personal exchange between two friends trying to make their way in the American literary scene (and succeeding). We learn that Hughes was fond of baseball, Bontemps hated the cold, and both men were vain about their weight. The fact that these sons-of-the-middle-class-turned-artists were black may have gotten the letters published; the fact that they both wrote so well is what makes them worth reading.

Don David Guttenplan, "Book Notes: 'Arna Bontemps—Langston Hughes Letters (1925–1967)'," in The Nation (copyright 1979 The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 229, No. 14, November 3, 1979, p. 441.∗

Nathan Irvin Huggins

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[The letters in "Arna Bontemps—Langston Hughes Letters 1925–1967"] were written without any awareness that they might be read by white readers. Thus they offer the general reader a rare glimpse into the candid communication between black friends. They are filled with wry comments on the ways of "white folks" and the "cullud race."…

Because Hughes and Bontemps were so close as friends, they left much unsaid. Their problems with white people on whom they depended—agents, editors, publishers, producers, directors—required only a word or two to evoke the knowing response. In the same way, the humiliation they both endured in the Jim Crow South is seldom made explicit….

Hughes and Bontemps were gentle men, inclined to amusement rather than anger; they were neither gossips, nor critics, nor mean….

The most telling revelation in these letters is how much easier it is for a black writer to make a living since the mid-1950's. It is still by no means easy, but there are vastly greater opportunities than when these men started out. They had much to do with creating an audience and an appreciation for black literature. They also wanted to make Afro-American literature—especially poetry—part of the American literary canon. On that score they were less successful, as a glance at most anthologies of American poetry will reveal.

Nathan Irvin Huggins, "Invisible Men," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 17, 1980, p. 11.∗

Mary Helen Washington

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[Arna Bontemps—Langston Hughes Letters 1925–1967 constitutes] a kind of collective authority. In surveying the American literary scene for a half a century, [Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes] selected the Big Questions for literary discussion; they helped decide what trends to notice, what influences to count; they announced the up and coming young writers. They always knew how important it is for the Afro-Americanist to claim this kind of control.

While their influential voices were used mostly to the good, in fairness to the women artists that get mentioned in these letters, it must be said that they also contributed to the climate which made it hard for women to participate as equals in that tradition. (p. 2)

The main thrust of these letters, however, is to talk about themselves, to show their determination to refine their craft and gain recognition in the world of letters. They are nearly always exuberantly optimistic about achieving their place in the sun, in spite of all the obstacles. One can almost feel the muscular effort they exerted. (pp. 2, 10)

There is almost [no gossip, scandal, or self-revelation] in these letters. Hughes and Bontemps wrote for posterity, so even the mutual love and trust they felt for each other is rarely shown here. I have the feeling that these figures we are looking at through the window saw us first and staged this show very carefully. Always the consummate theatrical producer, Hughes is entirely aware of his audience and has expertly arranged these literary remains for viewing.

Truly it is a loss and a disappointment. Literature is not, after all, unconnected with life, and we would be the richer for having shared their "felt life" as well as their "archival life." There is itinerary here and lists of projects but no illumination of their souls….

What I most perversely enjoyed in the letters was the sense of reverse double consciousness that Bontemps and Hughes maintain throughout. A two-man in-group, they pass judgment on their white counterparts with genial wit, acumen and sometimes withering accuracy…. (p. 10)

Mary Helen Washington, "The Scholar and the Troubadour," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post). March 23, 1980, pp. 1-2, 10.∗


Bontemps, Arna (Vol. 1)