- Virginia Johnson
A Solid Beginning
Arnaud “Arna” Wendell Bontemps was born on October 13, 1902, in Alexandria, Louisiana, a child of middle class parents of mixed racial heritage—what is sometimes called Creole. His father, Paul Bismark Bontemps, was descended from French plantation owners living in Haiti and their slaves. After coming to the United States, the Bontemps family lived free in Louisiana for decades, and the many of the men worked as skilled brick and stone masons for generations. In addition to working his trade, Arna’s father also played music with a popular band. Arna’s mother, Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-ah) Carolina Pembrooke was descended from an English planter and his Cherokee wife. Maria taught public school and enjoyed creating visual art.
A Change of State
After the Civil War, more opportunities arose for the Bontemps family. During Reconstruction, new schools sprang up for students of African-American descent who previously would not have been allowed formal education. Paul Bismark Bontemps attended Straight University, a preparatory school in New Orleans in the 1890s. There, besides a basic education he also learned newer techniques in his trade. The rise of the “White Caps”—a name for a group similar to the Ku Klux Klan, in Louisiana made life difficult for the Bontemps and Pembrookes, who eventually decided to settle in California.
Proud of His Heritage
Young Arna worked to contribute money to his family as a gardener and a newsboy while growing up in a Los Angeles neighborhood known as Watts. By 1914, his mother Maria had died. At the age of 15, Arna attended an otherwise all-white boarding school in San Francisco. His father told him when he set off for school that he was “not to act colored.” (“colored” being an older term for people of African-American descent). In a later essay, Arna Bontemps recorded his heated reaction: “How dare anyone, parent, schoolteacher, or merely literary critic, tell me not to act colored… Why should I be ashamed of such influence?”
A Break with the Past
His father wished him to go into masonry work—the family business. But Arna Bontemps had other plans. He attended Pacific Union College, which later was called UCLA. While there, he developed an interest in writing. He graduated college in 1923, after only three years of studies, having accepted an offer to teach at Harlem Academy in New York City and was soon plunged into the midst of what became known as the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry was published in Opportunity and Crisis magazines and won awards.
The Writing—and Teaching—Life
In 1926, he married Alberta Johnson, a former student, and during the course of their lives they went on to have six children. Meanwhile, Arna Bontemps supported his family with teaching jobs, and his writing continued to win him recognition. During his time in New York, he became close friends with poet Langston Hughes, and the two co-authored several books including Popo and Fifina, about two Haitian farm children. Later collaborations included The Book of Negro Folklore (1959) and American Negro Poetry (1963).
Bontemps often reached into his childhood memories for source material. His first children’s book, God Sends Sunday, was a tale inspired by a favorite uncle who rode race horses at the St. Louis track. It was published in 1931, the same year he moved to Alabama to work at Oakwood Junior College in Huntsville, Alabama. Other children’s books included You Can’t Pet a Possum (1934), and Sad Faced Boy (1937) followed.
He later became principal at Shiloh Academy in Chicago, and, while there, earned his master’s degree in library science at the University of Chicago (1943). He put his new credentials to immediate use and accepted a job offer in yet another city—Nashville, Tennessee, where he became head librarian at Fisk University. He worked there for many years, writing his own books as well as nurturing the Langston Hughes Renaissance Collection, which included the writings of Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, and Charles Johnson. After twenty years in this position—during which time he won two Guggenheim fellowships (1948 and 1954)—he “retired” and accepted a professorship at the University of Chicago in 1966. In 1971, he returned to Fisk as writer in residence. He also served as curator of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters at Yale University. Arna Bontemps died of a heart attack in 1973, having had his literary mark well-established.
A Rich Legacy
One of Arna Bontemps best-known works is The Story of the Negro, a children’s history book, which he wrote partially because when he was young he had longed for such a recounting and wanted to create something meaningful for the next generations. It was well-received and was named a Newbery Honor Book by the American Library Association in 1949. Some of his other significant works include his autobiography, The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, and Black Thunder: Gabriel’s Revolt: Virginia 1800, as well as the W.C. Handy ghost-written biography, Father of the Blues. His poetry and writing can be found in many collections, including: I, Too, Sing America; The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader; and Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like Rivers—Black Poets Read Their Work.
For further reading:
"Arna Bontemps" in The Oxford Companion to African American Literature
Extraordinary People of the Harlem Renaissance, by P. Stephen Hardy & Sheila Jackson Hardy
Modern American Poetry: Arna Bontemps’ Life and Career
Photo: Arna Bontemps, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1938. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID van.5a51737. Additional image rights information available here. Also see Commons:Licensing for more information.