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Arna Bontemps' Life and Career

Charles L. James

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Portrait by Weinold Reiss

Born in Alexandria, Louisiana, the first child of a Roman Catholic bricklayer and a Methodist schoolteacher, Arna Wendell Bontemps grew up in California and graduated from Pacific Union College. After college he accepted a teaching position in Harlem at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and in 1926 and 1927 won first prizes on three separate occasions in contests with other "New Negro" poets. The same years marked his marriage to Alberta Johnson and the start of a family of six children.

Bontemps's first effort at a novel (Chariot in the Cloud, 1929), a bildungsroman set in southern California, never found a publisher, but by mid-1931, as his teaching position in New York City ended, Harcourt accepted God Sends Sunday (1931), his novel about the rise and notoriety of Little Augie. This tiny black jockey of the 1890s, whose period of great luck went sour, was inspired by Bontemps's favorite uncle, Buddy.

While teaching at Oakwood Junior College, Bontemps began the first of several collaborations with Langston Hughes, Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti (1932), a colorful travel book for juveniles that portrays two black children who migrate with their parents from an inland farm to a busy fishing village. The success of this new genre encouraged him to make juvenile fiction an ongoing part of his repertoire.

Residence in the Deep South proved fruitful for his career, for in quick succession he published his best-known short story, "A Summer Tragedy" (1932), the compelling narrative of a simple yet dignified couple worn weary by a lifetime of sharecropping on a southern plantation, wrote a dozen other tales of the South that were compiled years later under the title The Old South (1973); completed yet another profitable juvenile book, You Can't Pet a Possum (1934), for its time a charming rural Alabama story about an eight-year-old named Shine Boy and his yellow hound, Butch; initiated contact with composer and musician W. C. Handy to ghostwrite Handy's autobiography; and, in a visit to Fisk University in Nashville, "discovered" its rich and seemingly forgotten repository of narratives by former slaves.

Late in 1932 Bontemps started writing Black Thunder: Gabriel’s Revolt: Virginia 1800 (1936), his singular and inspired representation of an actual slave insurrection that failed because of weather and treachery. This work establishes the concept of freedom as the principal motif of his ensuing works and evokes questions regarding differences between writing and orality as racial and cultural markets. But because be was forced out of Oakwood at the end of the 1934 school year, the novel was completed in the cramped space of his father's California home, where the family had retreated.

Ironic relief arrived a year later from the Adventists in the form of a principalship at their Shiloh Academy on Chicago's battered South Side. The venture was bright with promise because the city and the university had attracted a young and savvy coterie of social radicals including Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and Jack Conroy. Favorable critical reception of Black Thunder assured Bontemps's celebrity among the group, and his application to the Julian Rosenwald Fund to research and write a third novel met with success. In Sad-Faced Boy (1937), he relates the travels to Harlem of three quaint Alabama boys who in time nostalgically discover the charm of their own birthplace. In 1938 he secured an appointment as editorial supervisor to the Federal Writers' Project of the Illinois WPA. He sailed for the Caribbean in the fall of 1938 and put the finishing touches on Drums at Dusk (1939), his historical portrayal of the celebrated eighteenth-century black revolution on the island of Santo Domingo.

With great relief he completed Father of the Blues (1941), the "autobiography" commissioned by the ever-testy W. C. Handy; he edited his first compilation, Golden Slippers: An Anthology of Negro Poetry for Young Readers (1941); he then published a humorous American tall tale for children co-authored with his WPA colleague Jack Conroy titled The Fast Sooner Hound (1942); he was awarded two additional Rosenwald grants to pursue a degree and to write a book on "the Negro in Illinois"; and in 1943 he completed a master's degree in library science at the University of Chicago, clearing the way to his appointment as librarian at Fisk University.

In 1946 the controversial musical based on his first novel reached Broadway as St. Louis Woman for a short but successful run. Arguably his most distinguished work of the decade was The Story of the Negro (1948), a race history since Egyptian civilization that won him the Jane Addams Children's Book Award for 1956. Then, with Langston Hughes, he edited The Poetry of the Negro (1949), a comprehensive collection of poems by blacks and tributary poems by nonblacks.

An assortment of histories and biographies, largely written with youths in mind, emerged from Fisk throughout the 1950s and the succeeding civil rights years. Bontemps and Hughes's collaboration produced two anthologies during this period, The Book of Negro Folklore (1959) and American Negro Poetry (1963).

After Hughes's death in 1967, Bontemps compiled Hold Fast to Dreams (1969), a montage of poems by black and white writers. But compilations of a more personal sort rounded off his long career. They include The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (1972), featuring an introductory reflection by Bontemps and twelve critical essays on literary figures from the era; Personals (1963), a collection of his own poems reissued in 1973 as a third edition with a prefatory personal history; and The Old South: "A Summer Tragedy" and Other Stories of the Thirties (1973), which opens with the personal essay "Why I Returned," places most of his short fiction under a single cover.

Retirement from Fisk in 1966 brought recognition in the form of two honorary degrees and distinguished professorial appointments at the University of Illinois (Chicago Circle), Yale University, and back at Fisk as writer in residence. Following his death in 1973, early estimates of his career from Sterling A. Brown and Aaron Douglas noted that he deserves to be known much better than he has been. Aptly, the Yale appointment included the title or Curator or the James Weldon Johnson Collection at the Beinecke Library, for prevalent views have come to regard him as a chronicler and keeper of black cultural heritage. It is worth noting that the vast and unique body of extant correspondence with his friend Langston Hughes is housed in this archive. Bontemps's most distinctive works are ringing affirmations of the human passion for freedom and the desire for social justice inherent in us all. Arnold Rampersad called him the conscience of his era and it could be fairly added that his tendency to fuse history and imagination represents his personal legacy to a collective memory.

See also: Charles H. Nichols, ed., Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters, 1925-1967, 1988. Kirkland C. Jones, Renaissance Man from Louisiana: A Biography of Arna Wendell Bontemps, 1992. Eric J. Sundquist, The Hammers of Creation: Folk Culture in Modern African-American Fiction, 1992. Charles L. James, "Arna W. Bontemps' Creole Hetitage," Syracuse University Library Associates Courier 30 (1995): 91-115.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press.

Robert E. Fleming

Bontemps, Arna Wendell (13 Oct. 1902-4 June 1973), writer, was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, the son of Paul Bismark Bontemps, a bricklayer, and Maria Carolina Pembroke, a schoolteacher. He was reared in Los Angeles, where his family moved when he was three. He graduated from Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, in 1923.

Bontemps then moved to New York's Harlem, where the "Harlem Renaissance" had already attracted the attention of West Coast intellectuals. He found a teaching job at the Harlem Academy in 1924 and began to publish poetry. He won the Alexander Pushkin Prize of Opportunity, a journal published by the National Urban League, in 1926 and 1927 and the Crisis (official journal of the NAACP) Poetry Prize in 1926. His career soon intersected that of the poet Langston Hughes, with whom he became a close friend and sometime collaborator. In Harlem Bontemps also came to know Countée Cullen, W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer.

In 1926 Bontemps married Alberta Johnson; they had six children. In 1931, as the depression deepened, Bontemps left the Harlem Academy and moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where he taught for three years at Oakwood Junior College. By the early 1930s Bontemps had begun to publish fiction as well as poetry. His first novel, God Sends Sunday, was published in 1931, and an early short story, "A Summer Tragedy," won the Opportunity Short Story Prize in 1932. God Sends Sunday is typical of the Harlem Renaissance movement. Little Augie, a black jockey, earns money easily and spends it recklessly. When his luck as a jockey runs out, he drifts through the black sporting world. Slight in plot, the novel is most appreciated for its poetic style, its re-creation of the black idiom, and the depth of its characterization. While most reviewers praised it, W. E. B. Du Bois found it "sordid" and compared it with other "decadent" books of the Harlem Renaissance such as Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven (1926) and Claude McKay's Home to Harlem (1928). But Bontemps thought enough of the basic story to collaborate with Countee Cullen on St. Louis Woman (1946), a dramatic adaptation of the book.

Bontemps's next novel would be on a much more serious theme, but he first attempted another genre. In collaboration with Langston Hughes, he wrote Popo and Fifina (1932), the first of his many children's books. A travel book for children, it introduced readers to Haitian life by describing the lives of a boy named Popo and his sister Fifina. Bontemps followed his initial success in the new field with You Can't Pet a Possum (1934), a story of a boy and his dog in rural Alabama.

Northern Alabama in the early 1930s proved to be inhospitable to an African-American writer and intellectual. The Scottsboro boys were being tried at Decatur, just thirty miles from Huntsville. Friends visited Bontemps on their way to protest the trial, and a combination of his out-of-state visitors and the fact that he was ordering books by mail worried the administration of the school. Bontemps claimed in later years that he was ordered to demonstrate his break with the world of radical politics by burning a number of books from his private library--works by James Weldon Johnson, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Frederick Douglass. Bontemps refused. Instead he resigned and moved back to California, where he and his family moved in with his parents.

In 1936 he published Black Thunder, his finest work in any genre. Based on historical research, Black Thunder tells the story of Gabriel Prosser's rebellion near Richmond, Virginia, in 1800. Gabriel, an uneducated field worker and coachman, planned to lead a slave army equipped with makeshift weapons on a raid against the armory in Richmond. Once armed with real muskets, the rebels would defend themselves against all attackers. Betrayed by another slave and hampered by a freak storm, the rebels were crushed, and Gabriel was hanged, but in Bontemps's version of the affair, whites won a Pyrrhic victory. They were forced to recognize the human potential of slaves.

Although Black Thunder was well reviewed by both black and mainstream journals such as the Saturday Review of Literature, the royalties were not sufficient to support Bontemps's family in Chicago, where they had moved just before publication. He taught briefly in Chicago at the Shiloh Academy and then accepted a job with the WPA Illinois Writers' Project. In 1938, after publishing another children's book, Sad-Faced Boy (1937), he received a Rosenwald fellowship to work on what became his last novel, Drums at Dusk (1939), based on the Haitian rebellion led by Toussaint L'Ouverture. Although the book was more widely reviewed than his previous novels, the critics were divided, some seeing it as suffering from a sensational and melodramatic plot, others praising its characterizations.

The disappointing reception of the book and the poor royalties that it earned convinced Bontemps that "it was fruitless for a Negro in the United States to address serious writing to my generation, and . . . to consider the alternative of trying to reach young readers not yet hardened or grown insensitive to man's inhumanity to man" (1968, p. x). Henceforth, Bontemps addressed most of his books to youthful audiences. The Fast Sooner Hound (1942), was written in collaboration with Jack Conroy, whom he had met on the Illinois Writers' Project.

In 1943 Bontemps earned his master's degree in library science from the University of Chicago. The necessity of earning a living then took him to Fisk University, where he became head librarian, a post he held until 1964. Thereafter he returned to Fisk from time to time. He also accepted positions at the Chicago Circle campus of the University of Illinois and at Yale University, where he served as curator of the James Weldon Johnson Collection of Negro Arts and Letters.

During these years Bontemps produced an astonishing variety and number of books. His children's books included Slappy Hooper (1946) and Sam Patch (1951), which he wrote in collaboration with Conroy, as well as Lonesome Boy (1955) and Mr. Kelso's Lion (1970). At the same time, he wrote biographies of George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington for teenage readers; Golden Slippers (1941), an anthology of poetry for young readers; Famous Negro Athletes (1964); Chariot in the Sky (1951), the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers; and The Story of the Negro (1948).

For adults, he and Hughes edited The Poetry of the Negro (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958). With Conroy he wrote They Seek a City (1945), a history of African-American migration in the United States, which they revised and published in 1966 as Anyplace But Here. Bontemps's historical interests also led him to write 100 Years of Negro Freedom (1961) and to edit Great Slave Narratives (1969) and The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (1972). He also edited a popular anthology, American Negro Poetry (1963), just in time for the black reawakening of the 1960s.

Bontemps had been forced by the reception of his work to put his more creative writing on hold after 1939, but the 1960s encouraged him to return to it. He collected his poetry in a slim volume, Personals (1963), and wrote an introduction for Black Thunder when it was republished in 1968 in a paperback edition. At the time of his death, he was completing the collection of his short fiction in The Old South (1973). Bontemps died at his home in Nashville.

Arna Bontemps excelled in no single literary genre. A noteworthy poet, he published only one volume of his verse. As a writer of fiction, he is best known for a single novel, written in midcareer and rediscovered in his old age. Yet the impact of his work as poet, novelist, historian, children's writer, editor, and librarian is far greater than the sum of its parts. He played a major role in shaping modern African-American literature and had a wide-ranging influence on African-American culture of the latter half of the twentieth century.


The major collections of Arna Bontemps's papers are at Fisk University; the George Arents Research Library, Syracuse University; and the James Weldon Johnson Collection, Beinecke Rare Book Room and Manuscript Library, Yale University. No book-length biography exists, but Bontemps wrote several autobiographical essays: Introduction to Black Thunder (1968), Preface to Personals (1963), and "Why I Returned," in The Old South (1973). An interview appears in John O'Brien, Interviews with Black Writers (1973). A bibliography is Robert E. Fleming, James Weldon Johnson and Arna Wendell Bontemps: A Reference Guide (1978). See also Minrose C. Gwin, "Arna Bontemps," American Poets, 1880-1945 (1986), and Kirkland C. Jones, "Arna Bontemps," Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940 (1987).

Source:;   American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Wed Mar 21 11:28:45 2001 Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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