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Poet, critic, playwright, novelist, historian, educator, librarian, and writer of children’s books, Arna Bontemps was also a voracious reader, devoted family man, pioneering Afro-American literary figure, and, above all, a champion of freedom for all people and of dignity for the individual. A writer who began to achieve prominence in the late days of the Harlem Renaissance, the multifaceted Bontemps exercised his productive genius into the 1970s, touching audiences with a wide range of works that draw from his experience of black American culture and from his own life.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Arnaud Wendell Bontemps was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, on October 13, 1902. His parents were of Creole stock, the source for the dialect Bontemps used in some of his early writing and that he liked to employ in his correspondence with Langston Hughes. As a result of several racially motivated incidents, including one in which a group of white men threatened to beat him up, Bontemps’s father moved his family to Los Angeles, California, when Arna was three. When Bontemps was twelve, his mother died, but not before she had instilled in her son a love for books. A schoolteacher until the time of her marriage, she introduced young Arna to a world beyond the skilled labor that dominated his father’s life.
The older of two children, Bontemps would experience recurring conflict with his father, who wanted him to continue the brick masonry trade into a fourth generation of the family line. Bontemps’s father and his Uncle Buddy, his grandmother’s younger brother who had moved to California to live with the family, would prove to be significant influences upon the young Arna after his mother’s death. Bontemps’s father was negative toward his writing; however, Uncle Buddy exercised a most wholesome influence upon his personal and literary development. Through Buddy, Bontemps was able to embrace the folk heritage that would form the basis for many of his works, for he loved dialect stories, preacher stories, and ghost stories.
As an adolescent, Bontemps helped to support him self after his mother’s death by working as a newsboy and a gardener. Between 1917 and 1920, his father sent him to San Fernando Academy, a white boarding school, with the admonition not to ”go up there acting colored,” which was a frequent, embarrassing memory for Bontemps. He viewed his father’s decision and the subject matter as efforts to make him forget his blackness, and he suspected—as he confirmed during his college years—that he was being ”miseducated.” Bontemps graduated from Pacific Union College in 1923, the year before he launched his literary career with the publication of his poem ”Hope” in Crisis, a journal that was instrumental in advancing the careers of most of the young writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Although Bontemps had plans to complete a Ph.D. degree in English, the Depression years, family responsibilities, and the demands of his writing contracts with publishing houses, coupled with the rigors of fulltime employment, prevented him from following that course.
A Renaissance in Harlem
In addition to making his literary debut in 1924, Bontemps moved from California to New York to accept a teaching job at the Harlem Academy, where he taught until 1931, the year that also saw the publication of his first book, God Sends Sunday. At the time, the Harlem district was experiencing a flowering of art and culture that came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. This came hand in hand with the expansion of middleclass black communities in the northern part of the country, especially in New York City. This led to the development of music, literature, dance, and art that arose from distinctly African American roots. Notable figures of the Harlem Renaissance include activist W. E. B. Du Bois, author Zora Neale Hurston, musician Duke Ellington, and singer Billie Holiday. The artistic achievements of members of the Harlem Renaissance extended far beyond their own neighborhood, shaping the development of literature and music in mainstream American culture throughout much of the twentieth century.
In 1926 and again in 1927, Bontemps won Opportunity magazine’s Alexander Pushkin Poetry Prize. Although he did not live in Harlem for long, Bontemps met, worked with, influenced, and was influenced by several of the important figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and Countee Cullen.
Reaching Out to the Children
Bontemps moved from Harlem Academy to Huntsville, Alabama, in 1931 to teach at Oakwood Junior College, where he was on the faculty until 1934. Bontemps’s situation in Alabama epitomized his career: he was always short of funds and rarely found a comfortable place to work. In Huntsville, he and his family lived through almost insufferable summer heat and damp and piercing winter cold. While in Huntsville, Bontemps turned his attention to the writing of children’s books, partly out of a belief that the younger audience was more reachable. His first juvenile book, Popo and Fifina (1932), a story of two black children in Haiti, was written in collaboration with Langston Hughes. Over the next forty years, Bontemps continued writing for children and edited more than fifteen works for children and adolescent readers.
A new teaching assignment took Bontemps from Huntsville to Chicago and Shiloh Academy, where he taught from 1935 until 1937. He then went to work for the Illinois Writer’s Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration. During his Chicago years, Bon-temps published Black Thunder (1936), his most celebrated novel, a historical novel dealing with the theme of revolt through the recounting of a slave narrative.
Librarian, Teacher, Scholar
Bontemps ended his early teaching endeavors in 1938 to pursue more actively his possibilities as a writer. In 1943, upon the completion of his masters degree in library science, Bontemps became librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, a post he would hold continuously until 1965, after which time he would return intermittently to the school. As head librarian at Fisk, Bontemps enlarged the black collection by obtaining the papers of such Harlem Renaissance figures as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, James Weldon Johnson, Charles S. Johnson, and Countee Cullen.
Perhaps Bontemps’s most lasting contribution to Afro-American literary history is the number of scholarly anthologies he compiled and edited during these years, alone and in collaboration with Hughes. These anthologies primarily appeal to secondary school students and college undergraduates, a fact that has kept them in use since they were first issued.
In 1964, Bontemps retired from his job at Fisk. In 1966, he taught courses in black history and black literature at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle, and in 1969, he accepted a position at Yale as lecturer and curator of the James Weldon Johnson Collection, where he remained through the 1971 school term. Returning afterwards to Nashville, he began writing his autobiography, a work he never finished. He died of a heart attack in Nashville, Tennessee, on June 4, 1973.
Works in Literary Context
A distinguished figure in the history of American literature, Bontemps published his first work during the Harlem Renaissance. His literary career spanned a fifty-year period, and his versatility is seen in his creation of books of several genres directed to all age levels. A noted educator and librarian, Bontemps progressed from high school teacher and principal to librarian at Fisk University, professor of English at the University of Illinois, and curator of the James Weldon Johnson collection at Yale University.
Documenting the Black Experience
Bontemps’s histories of the black experience, his biographies of notable black Americans, his novels and short stories, his children’s fiction, his anthologies of works by black writers, and particularly his poetry explore the relationship between the past and present and its bearing on the inheritors of the black experience. In Bontemps’s writings, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 is presented as a repetition of the squelching of nine teenth-century slave uprisings. The Harlem of the 1920s echoes the primitivism and freedom of African jungles. All is of a piece. Bontemps’s importance as liter ary artist and historian hinges upon his efforts to show black Americans that their own past is rich and various, and that their yearning for freedom, both in the past and present, is an essential common bond grounded in a proud heritage. Yet, to the white reader as well, Bon-temps is an important voice—both as an American writer and as a powerful spokesman for a humanistic society. His careers as literary artist, historian, editor, critic, and as head librarian and public-relations director at Fisk University were all directed toward the goal of establishing a social and intellectual environment in which the Afro-American heritage, literature, and sense of self could be nurtured.
Bontemps was one of the first black writers for children to replace stereotyping with an accurate portrayal of black life. He also pioneered the use of realistic black speech in children’s books. Seeking to instill cultural esteem in young readers, he wrote biographies of notable black men and women, a critically praised black history, realistic fiction, and humorous tall tales. Whether writing for adults or children, Bontemps conveyed optimism and pride in his culture.
Works in Critical Context
Bontemps was the winner of numerous prizes and awards during his long and diverse writing career, and he was generally viewed positively by critics and reviewers. Virtually unquestioned is his contribution to Affican-American studies, both because of his writing and through his efforts as a collector and anthologist. As critic Arthur P. Davis asserts, Bontemps ”kept flowing that trickle of interest in Negro American literature—that trickle which is now a torrent.”
God Sends Sunday
Bontemps’s first novel, God Sends Sunday (1931), was recognized by critics for its authentic rendering of the ”Negro language,” an emotion-charged economy of speech peculiar to Louisiana Creoles that imparted uniqueness to Bontemps’s fiction. Not all of the reviews of God Sends Sunday were positive, however; in a 1931 Crisis article, W. E. B. Du Bois condemned the novel for its portrayal of the less complimentary side of life in black America, calling the book ”a profound disappointment.” A reviewer for the Boston Transcript asserted that the book ”is less narrative than descriptive and has no great significance,” but he commented that Bontemps deserved ”to be encouraged.” Still, most critics, led by the reviewer for Books, hailed Bontemps as ”one of the most important writers of his race.”
Black Thunder (1936) is widely considered to be the best and most popular of Bontemps’s novels. When it appeared, Richard Wright praised it as ”the only novel dealing forthrightly with the historical and revolutionary traditions of the Negro people.” A. B. Spin-garn called it ”the best historical novel written by an American Negro,” while Hugh M. Gloster, in Negro Voices in American Fiction (1948), notes positively that it ”is written with restraint and detachment.” Dorothy Weil, in an essay for Southern Folklore Quarterly, refers to the book as ”a superior piece of work.” Arthur P. Davis, in From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900-1960 (1974), states that ”it is perhaps the author’s outstanding publication.”
- ”Arna Bontemps (1902-1973).” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Sharon R. Gunton. Vol. 18. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981, pp. 62-66.
- Barksdale, Richard and Keneth Kinnamon, eds. Black Writers of America. New York: Macmillan, 1972.
- Bone, Robert A. The Negro Novel in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958.
- Brown, Sterling. The Negro in American Fiction. Washington, D.C.: The Associates in Negro Folk
- Education, 1937.
- Fleming, Robert E. James Weldon Johnson and Arna Wendell Bontemps: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.
- Gloster, Hugh M. Negro Voices in American Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1948.
- Jones, Kirkland C. Renaissance Man from Louisiana: A Biography of Arna Wendell Bontemps. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.
- Nichols, Charles, ed. Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters, 1925-1967. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980.
- Page, James A. Selected Black American Authors: An Illustrated Bio-References. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977.
- Whitlow, Roger. Black American Literature: A Critical History. Totowa, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams, 1974.
- Young, James D. Black Writers in the Thirties. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973.
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