Known as one of the rising voices of the Harlem Renaissance, Arna Bontemps was not only influenced by the movement but simultaneously helped to define the new black culture that was spreading in the urban communities. His contributions to the literary world spanned generations through his acclaimed children’s books and adult fiction and poetry, as well as through his efforts in preserving documents of black culture.
Arna Wendell Bontemps was born to a middle class family in Alexandria, Louisiana, on October 13, 1902. He was encouraged at an early age to follow in his father’s footsteps as a stone mason, but through his own preference and aptitude he seemed to be drawn more strongly toward his schoolteacher mother’s path to education.
Middle class status did not withhold from him the realities of being born black in the early 1900’s. After his father was threatened by two drunk white men, the family moved west to California. Growing up in Los Angeles, he attended the San Fernando Academy boarding school. Bontemps would later remember it as a turning point in his life when his father told him not to “go up there acting colored.” After high school he studied English at Pacific Union College, graduating in 1923. The following year he accepted a teaching position at the Harlem Academy in New York.
No other place had such a profound impact on the emerging writer. Moving to the city at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, it was as if he had found the place his young soul longed to be, and the Renaissance itself had found a kindred spirit in Bontemps. He would befriend many of the faces of the Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, with whom he would continue working throughout his life. During his first year in Harlem, the first of his poems were published in Crisis, a publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and later in Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. Both publications awarded him for his work.
In 1926 he married a former student, Alberta Johnson, with whom he raised six children. As a married man and supporter of his family, Bontemps left behind Harlem in 1931 to accept a position at Oakwood Junior College in Huntsville. That same year he published his first fiction novel, God Sends Sunday, the story of a black jockey in 1890’s St. Louis, influenced by the life of his uncle. He continued his writing in Huntsville, delving into children’s literature with Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti, published in 1932. A later children’s book, Story of the Negro, was named a Newbery Honor Book in 1949.
After receiving a master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago in 1943, Bontemps accepted a position as a librarian with Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He remained at Fisk until his retirement in 1965, after many years spent preserving and expanding the university’s rich collection of historical black culture. No doubt that work impacted his writing throughout the remainder of his life.
During his career Bontemps wrote many acclaimed books and poetry on black history and society, while preserving his own heritage that he felt others would have him suppress. He continued writing until his death in 1973. Working on his autobiography at the time, his last piece remained incomplete by his own hands—perhaps appropriately so, as his legacy as one of the most influential black writers to come out of the Harlem Renaissance spans far beyond his life.
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