Born in Alexandria, Louisiana, on October 13, 1902, Arna W. Bontemps began life with roots in the Southern United States. But at age 3, Bontemps moved with his family to California, escaping the racism of the South. When Bontemps’s mother died, he was sent to live with his uncle who introduced him to Southern black culture. This exposure triggered a lifelong fascination with Southern culture, which Bontemps held for the rest of his life.
Arna Bontemps graduated from Pacific Union College and published his first poem, “Hope,” shortly after graduation, winning several awards for his poetry. Bright-eyed, young, and idealistic, he moved to Harlem, New York to teach. In Harlem Renaissance Remembered, Bontemps recollects the excitement he felt upon his first view of Harlem: “I looked over the rooftops of Negrodom and tried to believe my eyes. What a city! What a world!” Harlem had a heavy influence on Bontemps: He became an active member of the Harlem Renaissance, and he later became known as one of the world’s leading experts on the cultural movement. One of Bontemps’s best known novels, God Sends Sunday, was written during his stay in Harlem and later was adapted into a mildly successful stage play, St. Louis Woman.
While in New York, Bontemps met and married his wife Alberta Johnson, with whom he would have six children. Because of economic conditions brought on by the Depression, they were forced to move south, where Bontemps found a job teaching at Oakwood Junior College in Alabama. There, in collaboration with his good friend Langston Hughes, he wrote Popa and Fifina: Children of Haiti, one of his first successful works of children’s fiction. However, his tenure at Oakwood was short-lived. Bontemps was forced to leave his teaching position there when he refused to burn his collection of “pagan” books, deemed unworthy by the headmaster. Bontemps eventually relocated to Chicago, where he obtained a Master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago.
After graduating, Bontemps accepted the position of head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he developed one of the best collections of African-American literature and culture. He also wrote another children’s novel, The Story of the Negro, which received the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award and was a Newbery Honor Book. After the success of The Story of the Negro, Bontemps realized that there was a need for this kind of writing in children’s literature. In the introduction to his novel Black Thunder, he described one of his reasons for deviating from writing adult fiction and poetry: “I began to consider the alternative of trying to reach young readers not yet hardened or grown insensitive to man’s inhumanity to man, as it is called.”
Bontemps remained at Fisk for twenty-two years. After retiring in 1965, he served as director of Fisk’s public relations and one year later became a professor at the University of Illinois. During this time his Great Slave Narratives was published. Three years later, Bontemps went to Yale University where he lectured and was the curator of the James Weldon Johnson Collection. He returned to Fisk University in 1971 as writer-in-residence.
Bontemps was prolific and versatile, publishing over forty works including poetry, fiction, history, plays, and biography. His life was devoted to making a difference and giving back to his African American heritage. He once said of the Harlem Renaissance writers, “Once they find a (united) voice, they will bring a fresh and fierce sense of reality to their vision of human life…What American literature needs at this moment is color, music, gusto….” His devotion to children’s literature reflects his desire for young African Americans to appreciate their heritage and its influence in art and literature.
Bontemps was working on his autobiography when he died in 1973. With his birth home preserved as a museum included on the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail, Bontemps’s efforts toward the appreciation and preservation of African American culture will never be forgotten.
God Sends Sunday (fiction), 1931
Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti (children’s), 1932
Black Thunder: Gabriel’s Revolt: Virginia 1800 (fiction), 1936
Golden Slippers: An Anthology of Negro Poetry for Young Readers (poetry), 1941
Father of the Blues (biography), 1941
They Seek a City (nonfiction), 1945
The Story of the Negro (nonfiction), 1948
Great Slave Narratives (nonfiction), 1969
Arna Bontemps’s page at Poets.org (The Academy of American Poets):
Arna Bontemps’s page at Modern American Poetry, from the English Department at the University of Illinois:
Arna Bontemps’ page at the Poetry Foundation:
Three poems by Bontemps: “A Black Man Talks of Reaping,” “The Day-Breakers,” and “Southern Mansion”:
Bontemps’s page at Librarypoint.org, including a link to an essay, “The African American Experience: Renaissance Man from Louisiana: A Biography of Arna Wendell Bontemps,” by Kirkland C. Jones: