Form and Content
We Have Tomorrow consists of twelve essays about successful African Americans who in 1945, the year of the book’s publication, were in their twenties or early thirties. Arna Bontemps selected men and women whose names would probably not have been famous in their time, nor familiar to modern readers, but who had distinguished themselves in their fields in an era when prejudice and segregation often truncated opportunity. Each essay includes a photograph of the subject, often in his or her workplace. Bontemps stresses their professionalism, remarking that “the fact that they are young Negroes is interesting, but secondary.”
The accounts begin with an anecdote about an early awakening of the interest that would later determine the individual’s career choice. For example, at the age of eleven, E. Simms Campbell sold a picture of a Thanksgiving turkey to a grocery store for seventy-five cents. He went on to win major art competitions, graduate from the Chicago Art Institute, and find his drawings and cartoons in demand by magazines and Hollywood billboard companies.
The essays include sufficient detail about the subjects’ youth to convey the enormity of the prejudice that could have crushed them. Future sociologist Horace R. Cayton was ostracized by white classmates at a high-school dance. Benjamin Davis, one of the first African Americans admitted to West Point, endured a yearlong silent treatment from fellow plebes. Other hardships were no less daunting, such as the poverty and sickness suffered by Mildred E. Blount. Lacking even a doll to play with, eight-year-old Blount created her own dolls out of grass and leaves. She would one day sew the hats of haute couture.
The portraits are chronological, each depicting a bright, inventive child who faced difficulties with courage and optimism and emerged in adulthood as an outstanding artist, scientist or other specialist. The book includes nine men and three women.
In many cases, their accomplishments break the color barrier of previously all-white professions such as symphony conducting or aircraft designing. Campbell regularly received letters from fans who expressed doubt that such a talented cartoonist could really be an African American. Campbell credited his artistic success to the camaraderie he had found while working at a restaurant, learning from the other African-American waiters “how close man can be to his fellow men.”