“What American literature needs at this moment is color, music, gusto….”Arna Bontemps – Harlem Renaissance Remembered
The noted novelist, poet, and librarian, and celebrated member of the Harlem Renaissance, Arna Bontemps, was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, on October 13, 1902. When he was three, his family moved as part of the Great Migration out of the Jim Crow South. They headed to Los Angeles, settling in the Watts District. In 1923 he graduated from Pacific Union College with a degree in English and a minor in History. He worked at the Post Office following graduation, where he met the author Wallace Thurman.
In 1924 he moved to New York City, where he became part of the intellectual center that formed the Harlem Renaissance. His peer circle included Countee Cullen, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Wheldon Johnson, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer.
He wrote and published poetry, his first poem, “Hope,” appearing in Crisis magazine in August 1924.
In 1926 he married Alberta Johnson. Over the years, they had six children. The Great Depression caused the family to leave the city in 1931, moving to Alabama, where Bontemps had secured a teaching position at Oakwood Junior College. The same year his first novel, God Sends Sunday (1931), was published.
He also began to write several children’s books, pioneering the way for diverse representation in children’s literature when there were no African-American children in picture books. In 1932 he collaborated with Langston Hughes to write Popo and Fifina about children in Haiti, and in 1934 You Can’t Pet a Possum, set in rural Alabama, was published.
Bontemps had a hard time living life as a black academic in Alabama and left in 1934 to return to California. One of his best-known works, Black Thunder, a novel about a slave rebellion in Virginia, was published in 1936. Although the book received promising reviews, Bontemps did not make enough to support his family. The family moved again, to Chicago, and Bontemps went to work for the Works Progress Administration Illinois Writer’s Project (along with other authors like Richard Wright. Margaret Walker and Frank Yerby). His 1939 novel Drums at Dusk, about Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution, was also highly regarded, but did not sell well enough to solely support his family.
In 1943 he earned his master’s degree in Library Science from the University of Chicago and was appointed as the head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville. He worked there for over twenty years and developed important collections and archives of African-American literature and culture, helping to establish African-American literature as a legitimate object of study and preservation.
His Story of the Negro, published by Knopf in 1948, received the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award and was a Newbery Honor Book. It was the first African-American authored book to be recognized with a Newbery Honor award.
Bontemps was an incredibly prolific writer, writing for children and adults, collaborating with multiple authors, and editing essential collections of works, including The Poetry of the Negro (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958) with Langston Hughes. He also wrote a history of African-American migration They Seek a City (1945) with John Welsley Conroy. In all, he wrote over 20 books.
Bontemps died of a heart attack on June 4th, 1973, in Nashville.
After his death, his personal collection of papers was sent to the Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University. In Alexandria, Louisiana, where Bontemps was born, his legacy is honored with the Arna Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Center.
Lesson from Bontemps:
I get frustrated when I’m researching authors who were so talented and incredibly tenacious despite every obstacle thrown their way, like Arna Bontemps, an African-American author growing up in Jim Crow America. But, I also get incredibly inspired. Bontemps could have thrown in the towel and given up. He could have let bitterness eat at his soul that he couldn’t support his family with his writing when he was turning out book after book, but instead, he kept going: He kept creating, kept recording, kept bringing truth and sending it to the press. He became a librarian – and paved the way for the preservation and celebration of African-American literature for others.