Arnaud (Arna) Wendell Bontemps (October 13, 1902 – June 4, 1973) was an American poet, novelist and librarian, and a noted member of the Harlem Renaissance.
Bontemps was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, into a Louisiana Creole family. His father, Paul Bismark Bontemps, worked as a bricklayer; his mother, Maria Carolina Pembroke, as a schoolteacher. When he was three years old, his family moved to Los Angeles, California in the Great Migration of blacks out of the South and into cities of the North, Midwest and West. They settled in what became known as the Watts district.
After attending public schools, Bontemps attended Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, where he graduated in 1923. He majored in English and minored in history, and he was also a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
Along with many other West Coast Intellectuals, Bontemps was drawn to New York during the Harlem Renaissance. After graduation, he moved to New York to teach at the Harlem Academy in 1924. While he was teaching, Bontemps began to publish poetry. In both 1926 and 1927, he received the Alexander Pushkin Prize of Opportunity, a National Urban League published journal. And in 1926 he won the Crisis Poetry Prize, which was an official journal of the NAACP.
In New York, Bontemps met many lifelong friends including Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay and Jean Toomer. Hughes became a role model, collaborator, and dear friend to Bontemps.
Bontemps was married in 1926 to Alberta Johnson, with whom he had six children. In 1931, he left New York and his teaching position at the Harlem Academy as the Great Depression got severely worse. He and his family moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where he had a teaching position at the Oakwood Junior College for three years.
In the early 1930s, Bontemps expanded his writing as he began to publish fiction, in addition to more poetry. He received a considerable amount of attention for his first novel, God Sends Sunday (1931). This novel was a quintessential writing piece of the Harlem Renaissance movement. It followed the story of an African-American jockey named Little Augie who effortlessly earns money and then carelessly squanders it. Little Augie ends up wandering through the black sporting world when his luck as a jockey eventually runs out. Bontemps was praised for his poetic style, his re-creation of the black language and his distinguishing characters throughout this novel. However, despite the abundant amount of praise Bontemps received for this novel, W.E.B. Du Bois viewed it as “sordid” and equated it with other “decadent” novels of the Harlem Renaissance. Later in his career, Bontemps collaborated with Countee Cullen to create a dramatic adaption of the novel. Together in 1946 they published this adaption of the book titled “St. Louis Woman”.
Bontemps also began to write several children’s books. In 1932, he collaborated with Langston Hughes and wrote Popo and Fifina. This story followed the lives of siblings Popo and Fifina, in an easy to understand introduction to Haitian life for children. Bontemps continued writing children’s novels and published You Can’t Pet a Possum (1934), which followed a story of a boy and his pet dog living in a rural part of Alabama.
During the early 1930s, African-American writers and intellectuals were not welcomed in Northern Alabama. Just thirty miles from Huntsville in Decatur, the Scottsboro boys were being tried in court. During this time, Bontemps had many friends visit and stay with him while they came to Alabama to protest this trial. Bontemps’ constant out-of-state visitors drew concerns with the school administration. In later years, Bontemps professed that the administration at the Oakwood Junior College demanded he burn many of his private books in order to indicate his relinquishing radical politics. Bontemps refused to do so. He resigned from his teaching position and moved back to California with his family in 1934.
In 1936 Bontemps published what is known as some of his best work, Black Thunder. This novel recounts the tale of a rebellion that took place in 1800 near Richmond, Virginia led by Gabriel Prosser, an uneducated field worker and coachman. It shares Prosser’s attempted plan to conduct a slave army to raid an armory in Richmond, and once armed with weapons, defend themselves against any assailants. A fellow slave betrayed Prosser causing the rebellion to be shut down, and Prosser to be lynched. However, in Bontemps version of the story, whites were compelled to admit that slaves were humans that had possibilities of a promising life.
Black Thunder received many extraordinary reviews by both African-American and conventional journals, for example, the Saturday Review of Literature. Despite these rave reviews of this literary piece, the earnings were unable to sufficiently support his family in Chicago, where they moved shortly before he published the novel. He briefly taught in Chicago at the Shiloh Academy but did not stay long because he took a job with the WPA Illinois Writers’ Project. In 1938, following the publication of another children’s book Sad-Faced Boy (1937), Bontemps acquired a Rosenwald fellowship to work on his novel, Drums at Dusk (1939), which was based on Toussaint L’Ouverture’s Haitian rebellion. This book was more widely recognized than his other novels. Critics were split as some viewed the plot as overdramatic, while others commended its characterizations.
Bontemps struggled to make enough from his books to support his family. However, more important, he gained little acknowledgement for his work despite being a prolific writer. This caused him to quickly become discouraged as an African-American writer of this time. He started to believe that it was futile for him to attempt to address his writing to his own generation, so he chose to focus his serious writing on younger and more progressive audiences. Bontemps met Jack Conroy on the Illinois Writers’ Project, and in collaboration they wrote The Fast Sooner Hound (1942). This was a children’s story about a hound dog, Sooner, who races and outruns trains. Embarrassed about this, the roadmaster puts him against the fastest train, the Cannon Ball.
He returned to graduate school and earned a master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago in 1943. Bontemps was appointed as head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. During his time there, he developed important collections and archives of African-American literature and culture, namely the Langston Hughes Renaissance Collection. He was initiated as a member of the Zeta Rho Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity at Fisk in 1954. Bontemps stayed at Fisk until 1964 and would continue to return occasionally.
After retiring from Fisk University in 1966, Bontemps worked at the University of Illinois (Chicago Circle). He later moved to Yale University, where he served as curator of the James Weldon Johnson Collection.
During this time, Bontemps published numerous novels varying in genre. Slappy Hooper (1946), and Sam Patch (1951) were two children’s books that he co wrote with Jack Conroy. Individually he published Lonesome Boy (1955) and Mr. Kelso’s Lion (1970), two other children’s books. Simultaneously he was writing pieces targeted for teenagers, including biographies on George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. His other pieces of this time were Golden Slippers (1941), “Story of the Negro” (1948), Chariot in the Sky (1951) and Famous Negro Athletes (1964) (Fleming). Critics highly praised his Story of the Negro, which received the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award and was a Newbery Honor Book.
Bontemps worked with Langston Hughes on pieces geared toward adults. They edited The Poetry of the Negro (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958). He collaborated with Conroy and wrote a history of the migration of African-Americans in the United States called They Seek a City (1945). They later revised and published it as Anyplace But Here (1966). Bontemps also wrote 100 Years of Negro Freedom (1961) and edited Great Slave Narratives (1969) and The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (1972). In addition he was also able to edit American Negro Poetry (1963), which was a popular anthology. He compiled his poetry in Personals (1963) and also wrote an introduction for a previous novel, Black Thunder, when it was republished in 1968.
Bontemps died on June 4, 1973, at his home in Nashville, from a myocardial infarction (heart attack), while working on his collection of short fiction in The Old South (1973).
Through his librarianship and bibliographic work, Bontemps became a leading figure in establishing African-American literature as a legitimate object of study and preservation. His work as a poet, novelist, children’s writer, editor, librarian and historian helped shape modern African-American literature, but it also had a tremendous influence on African-American culture.
Legacy and honors
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included Arna Bontemps on his list of the 100 Greatest African Americans.
God Sends Sunday: A Novel (New York, Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1931; New York: Washington Square Press, 2005)
Popo and Fifina, Children of Haiti, by Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes (New York: Macmillan, 1932; Oxford University Press, 2000)
You Can’t Pet a Possum (New York: William Morrow, 1934)
Black Thunder: Gabriel’s Revolt: Virginia 1800 (New York: Macmillan, 1936; reprinted with intro. Arnold Rampersad, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992)
Sad-Faced Boy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937)
Drums at Dusk: A Novel (New York: Macmillan, 1939; reprinted Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8071-3439-9)
Golden Slippers: an Anthology of Negro Poetry for Young Readers, compiled by Arna Bontemps (New York: Harper & Row, 1941)
The Fast Sooner Hound, by Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942)
They Seek a City (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1945)
We Have Tomorrow (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1945)
Slappy Hooper, the Wonderful Sign Painter, by Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946)
Story of the Negro, (New York: Knopf, 1948; New York: Random House, 1963)
The Poetry of the Negro, 1746–1949: an anthology, edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1949)
George Washington Carver (Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, 1950)
Father of the Blues: an Autobiography, W.C. Handy, ed. Arna Bontemps (New York: Macmillan, 1941, 1957; Da Capo Press, 1991)
Chariot in the Sky: a Story of the Jubilee Singers (Philadelphia: Winston, 1951; London: Paul Breman, 1963; Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)
Lonesome Boy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955; Beacon Press, 1988)
Famous Negro Athletes (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1964)
Great Slave Narratives (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969)
Hold Fast to Dreams: Poems Old and New Selected by Arna Bontemps (Chicago: Follett, 1969)
Mr. Kelso’s Lion (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970)
Free at Last: the Life of Frederick Douglass (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1971; Apollo Editions, 2000)
The Harlem Renaissance Remembered: Essays, Edited, With a Memoir (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972, 1984)
Young Booker: Booker T. Washington’s Early Days (New York, Dodd, Mead, 1972)
The Old South: “A Summer Tragedy” and Other Stories of the Thirties (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1973)
In the Beginning: Bible Stories for Children by Sholem Asch (Folkways Records, 1955)
Joseph and His Brothers: From In the Beginning by Sholem Asch (Folkways Records, 1955)
Anthology of Negro Poets in the U.S.A. - 200 Years (Folkways Records, 1955)
An Anthology of African American Poetry for Young People (Folkways Records, 1990)
I’ve read Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps to fifth graders before. But this year it was different.
My standard is “Bubber Goes to Heaven,” written in the early 1930s but not published until 1998. That year Oxford University Press brought it out with gorgeous carved and painted illustrations by Daniel Minter. It’s about a poor, African-American kid in Alabama who falls out of a tall pine tree and goes to heaven, where everyone has plenty to eat and all the washer women have plenty of work.
It always pleases the class where I am a Read Aloud volunteer. We get to discuss this child’s idea of heaven and what it reveals about his daily life in the rural South during the Great Depression.
It also always connects, despite being so removed in time, place and even dialect. The first year, when it became clear that the boy in the story was awarded a purple ribbon bookmark from Shiloh Baptist Church for learning the books of the Bible, a girl in the class piped up, “I have one of those.” Hers was also an award for scripture knowledge. Another year, a student commented that her church had the same name.
But this year, it sparked its own little Arna Bontemps revival, right there in Charleston, W.Va.’s Piedmont Elementary School. As soon as we finished the last page, the questions came fast.
Let us dance by metal waters burned
With gold of moon, let us dance
With naked feet beneath the young spice trees.
What was that light, that radiance
On your face? — something I saw when first
You passed beneath the jungle tapestries?
Darkness brings the jungle to our room:
The throb of rain is the throb of muffled drums.
Darkness hangs our room with pendulums
Of vine and in the gathering gloom
Our walls recede into a denseness of
Surrounding trees. This is a night of love
Retained from those lost nights our fathers slept
In huts; this is a night that must not die.
Mountains are rising all around me.
Some are so small they are not seen;
Others are large.
All of them get big in time and people forget
What started them at first.
Oh the world is covered with mountains!
Beneath each one there is something buried!
Some pile of wreckage that started it there.
Mountains are lonely and some are awful.
One day I will crumble.
They’ll cover my heap with dirt and that will make a mountain.
I think it will be Golgotha.
We are not come to wage a strife With swords upon this hill, It is not wise to waste the life Against a stubborn will. Yet would we die as some have done. Beating a way for the rising sun.
Arnaud “Arna” Bontemps (1902–1973) was an African-American poet, born to a Creole family in Louisiana. He became a notable member of the Harlem Renaissance, teaching at the Harlem Academy before becoming head librarian of Fisk University in Tennessee. This poem was written during the nascent stage of the Harlem Renaissance, and at first seems to fall in line with some of the more ‘insular’ aspects of the movement, such as Guy Garvey, arguing that it’s best for the African-American community to focus on itself than be damaged in external conflict. Yet it’s not a pessimistic poem, as Bontemps still argues the dignity of Black Americans is incorrigible.
A blue haze descended at night and, with it, strings of fairy lights on the broad avenues … What a city! What a world! … The first danger I recognized … was that Harlem would be too wonderful for words. Unless I was careful, I would be thrilled into silence.
Then the golden hour Will tick its last And the flame will go down in the flower. A briefer length of moon Will mark the sea-line and the yellow dune. Then we may think of this, yet There will be something forgotten And something we should forget. It will be like all things we know: . A stone will fail; a rose is sure to go. It will be quiet then and we may stay Long at the picket gate But there will be less to say.
Quote from Anna Bontemps and shot of Zoonation The quote I’ve chosen this week; ‘Let us keep the dance of rain our fathers kept and tread our dreams beneath the jungle sky’ is from Arnaud (Arna) Wendell Bontemps (1902-1973). He and his parents moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles when he was three because his father was threatened by two drunk white men. When he was sent to the San Fernando…