Arna Bontemps

Arna Bontemps


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Arna Bontemps was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, on 13th October, 1902. Raised in California, Bontemps received his B.A. from Union Pacific College (1923) and his M.A. from the University of Chicago (1943).

Bontemps taught at Fisk University (1943-1965) and Yale University (1969-1972) and wrote a large number of books and plays. Bontemps was a successful novelist, poet, historian and biographer and much of his writing was dedicated to portraying the life of African Americans. Two of his novels, Black Thunder (1936) and Drums at Dusk (1939), dealt with slave revolts and led to accusations that he was encouraging African Americans to resort to violence.

Other books by Bontemps include God Sends Sunday (1931), You Can't Pet a Possum (1934), The Story of the Negro (1948), George Washington Carver (1950), Frederick Douglass: Slave, Fighter, Freeman (1959), 100 Years of Negro Freedom (1961), Famous Negro Athletes (1964) and The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (1972). Arna Bontemps died in Nashville, Tennessee on 4th June, 1973.


African-American Literary History

Arna Wendell Bontemps was not simply a great African American author, but he was a historian, poet, children’s writer, editor, and librarian as well. He played a great role in shaping modern African American literature. He bridged genres and had a variety of works that were not always given as much attention as they should have been. He lived all across the country and raised a family while continuously writing all of his great works.

Arna Bontemps was born on October 13, 1902 in Alexandria, Louisiana. His father was a bricklayer and his mother was a school teacher. When Arna was three his family moved because his father, Paul, had been threatened by two white men simply because he was black. Paul decided that he wanted to move out of the south and took his family to Los Angeles. Arna grew up in California and eventually attended San Fernando Academy, which was a religious, primarily white boarding school. It was during this time that his father told him, “Now don’t go up there acting colored.” Later in life, Arna resented this comment and thought his father was trying to make him forget his heritage and his roots. In 1923, Arna graduated from Pacific Union College with an A.B. The next year he accepted a teaching position in Harlem. On August 16, 1926 he married Alberta Johnson the couple went on to have six children together.

Bontemps’ first poems were published in Crisis and Opportunity, two literary magazines that were supportive of young African American writers of the time. In 1926, and 1927, he won three awards for these poems. In 1931, his first fiction novel, Gods Sends Sunday , was published. That same year he and his family moved to Huntsville, Alabama and he began teaching at Oakwood Junior College. In 1932, his short story “A Summer Tragedy” won the Opportunity Short Story Prize. Arna also wrote the first of his many children’s stories during that year. The Bontemps new location was not very welcoming or friendly during the early 1930’s it was no surprise when Arna resigned from the college and moved his family to California briefly and then later to Chicago.

In Chicago, Arna taught at Shiloh Academy and then accepted a job with WPA Illinois Writers Project. In 1936, he published Black Thunder which was based on historical research. Drums at Dusk was published in 1939 and it received poor reviews. Arna was disappointed and decided that maybe it was too difficult for any black author to write serious books in the United States during this time and began to write more books for younger audiences. In 1943, he received his master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago and then became head librarian at Fisk University. He remained there until 1964 and then became curator of the James Weldon Johnson Collection of Negro Arts and Letters.

He died on June 4, 1973 from a heart attack while working on his autobiography. Arna was not given the credit that he deserved. He was a great author, curator, poet, historian, editor, and librarian as well.


Arna Wendell Bontemps

At this site lived Arna W. Bontemps, one of the most prolific contributors to the Harlem or Negro Renaissance. From 1943 to 1965, Bontemps, an award-winning poet, playwright, novelist, biographer, historian, editor, and author of children's books, was head librarian of Fisk University. During his tenure, the Fisk University Library became a rich repository for the study of African-American culture and history.

Erected by Tennessee Historical Commission. (Marker Number 3A 153.)

Topics and series. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: African Americans &bull Arts, Letters, Music &bull Communications &bull Education. In addition, it is included in the Historically Black Colleges and Universities 🎓, and the Tennessee Historical Commission series lists. A significant historical year for this entry is 1943.

Location. 36° 9.911′ N, 86° 48.293′ W. Marker is in Nashville, Tennessee, in Davidson County. Marker is at the intersection of Dr DB Todd Jr Blvd and Morena Street, on the left when traveling north on Dr DB Todd Jr Blvd. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: 919 Dr DB Todd Jr Blvd, Nashville TN 37208, United States of America. Touch for directions.

Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. William J. Faulkner (a few steps from this marker) Fisk University (within shouting


Literary Works

A year after his graduation, Arna Bontemps' first work entitled Hope, was a poem published in the Crisis Magazine in 1924. Shortly after, he relocated to New York along with many others during the Harlem Renaissance. In New York, he made the acquaintance with a number of other literary writers such as Langston Hughes who not only became his collaborator but a lifelong friend and role model as well.

He came to media attention in 1931 when he released his first novel entitled God Sends Sunday that revolves around the story of Little Augie who spends money as quickly as he earns them. After his first publication, he worked with Hughes and produced the children's book entitled Popo and Fifina in 1932 which intends to educate young children the language of Haiti. 2 years later, he published another children's book entitled You Can't Pet a Possum in 1934.

However, it was in 1936 when Arna Bontemps received critical acclaim for his work on the novel Black Thunder. It is considered one of his best works, and the story tells of a field worker named Gabriel Prosser who led a rebellion in 1800 near Virginia. After this novel, he followed it up with another children's story called Sad-Faced Boy in 1937.


Arna Wendell Bontemps Home

Bontemps, noted black author-poet, scholar and pioneer in children's literature, was born in Alexandria, Louisiana on October 13, 1902. he was baptized February 22, 1903 at St. Francis Xavier Caathedral. Arna, son of Paul Bismark and Marie Pembrooke Bontemps, lived in this house originally located on the corner of Ninth and Winn Streets. As a youth, he moved with his family to California. Bontemps received his B.A. degree from Pacific Union College in 1923 and his Master's Degree in library science from the University of Chicago in 1943. In 1969, he accepted a distinguished visiting professorship at Yale University. After two years, Bontemps returned to Fisk University as writer-inresidence where he served previously as chief librarian. Awards and honors: Crisis Poetry prize, 1926: Zlesander Pushkin Poetry Prize, 1926, 1927 Opportunity short story prize, 1932 Julius Rosenwald Fellow, 1938-39, 1943-43 Gugenheim Fellowship for creative writing, 1949-50 Newberry Honor Book, 1949 Jane Addams Children's Book Award, 1956 Dow Award, Society of Midland Authors, 1967 L.H.D. Morgan State College, 1969 Louisiana Black Hall of Fame, LSU-A, 1987. Bontemps died June 4, 1973 in his home in Nashville, TN

Erected by Rapides Bank & Trust Company.

Topics and series. This historical marker is

Location. 31° 18.57′ N, 92° 26.539′ W. Marker is in Alexandria, Louisiana, in Rapides Parish. Marker is at the intersection of Third Street and St. James Street, on the right when traveling south on Third Street. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: 1327 3rd Street, Alexandria LA 71301, United States of America. Touch for directions.

Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. The James Wade Bolton House (within shouting distance of this marker) Alexandria Daily Town Talk / Old Courthouse Square (about 400 feet away, measured in a direct line) Huie Dellmon House (about 500 feet away) Commercial Building (about 700 feet away) Alexandria Library (about 800 feet away) Alexander Fulton Park (approx. 0.2 miles away) Post-Civil War Alexandria (approx. 0.2 miles away) Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback (approx. 0.2 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Alexandria.

Also see . . .
1. Wiki Article on Arna Bontemps. (Submitted on May 27, 2018, by Cajun Scrambler of Assumption, Louisiana.)
2. Arna Bontemps Home Museum


Black History Month: Arna Bontemps was literary light

Arnaud (Arna) W. Bontemps, an author, poet, playwright and educator, was one of the great literary figures of the pre-civil rights era.

Bontemps emerged to prominence during the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance in New York City during the 1920s. As a critic, he helped dismantle the segregated cultural narrative of the early 20th century and emphasized the many contributions of black authors.

In describing the literary hegemony of the time, Bontemps said, "The authors of the books treated me as if I didn't exist."

His life's work was to bring black culture into the literary mainstream.

He was Fisk University's chief librarian from 1943 to 1965 and helped build the university's collections of literature by and about black authors and artists, including his friend Langston Hughes. Bontemps taught at the University of Illinois in Chicago until 1969. In 1972 he was named an honorary consultant in American cultural history at the Library of Congress.

Before his death in 1973, he became a visiting professor of English literature at Yale University.

His works include the novels "God Sends Sunday" and "Chariot in the Sky" and the biography "Free at Last: The Life of Frederick Douglass."


Arna Bontemps Biography

Arnaud “Arna” Wendell Bontemps born in Alexandria, Louisiana on October 13, 1902 was an African-American novelist, librarian, poet, and a noted member of the Harlem Renaissance. At the age of three, his family moved to Los Angeles, California where he later attended San Fernando Academy. He graduated from Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, in 1923 a major in English and minor in history. Bontemps was attracted to New York during the Harlem Renaissance and moved there to take a teaching job at Harlem Academy. Bontemps began publishing poetry during his teaching career, and in 1924 he published his first poems in Crisis and later in Opportunity, literary magazines that supported young African American writers.

During the late 1920s, Bontemps won three prizes for his poetry and eventually wrote his first fiction book, God Sends Sunday, about a fast-living black jockey named Augie. In 1932, Bontemps received another prize for the short story “A Summer Tragedy” and published his first children books Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti and You Can’t Pet a Possum. Bontemps briefly taught in Chicago at the Shiloh Academy but later took a job with the WPA Illinois Writer’s Project. In 1939 he received a Rosenwald fellowship to work on his novel, Drums at Dusk, which was based on the Toussaint L’Ouvertures Haitian rebellion. Bontemps met Jack Conroy another writer, on the Illinois Writer’s Project and in collaboration they wrote The Fast Sooner Hound in 1942.

Bontemps graduated from the University of Chicago with a master’s degree in library science in 1942 and was appointed as head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. While Bontemps worked at Fisk University, he developed collections and archives of African-American literature and culture, including the Langston Hughes Renaissance Collection. After he retired from Fisk University, Bontemps worked at the University of Chicago and later he served as curator of the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale University. Bontemps died on July 4, 1973 from a heart attack while working on his autobiography. In honor of Bontemps, one of Chicago’s public elementary school was named after him Arna W. Bontemps Public School located on 58 th street.

“Bontemps, Arna Wendell.” Encyclopedia of African-american Writing. Amenia: Grey House Publishing, 2009. Credo Reference. Web. 30 July 2014

James, Charles L. “Arna Bontemps’ Life and Career.” Arna Bontemps’ Life and Career. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 June 2014.

Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 28 June 2014.

Trice, Dawn Turner. “Trice: Tracking Chicago’s Black Renaissance.” Chicago Tribune. Chicago Tribune, 27 Aug. 2012. Web. 28 June 2014.


Arna Bontemps - History

Sources: "The Negro Writer in the United States: University of California at Berkley Plays Host to Five-Day Seminar on Negro Literature." Ebony 20.1 (1964): 126, 131-132, 134. Print. Jordan, Casper Leroy, and Josey, E.J. "A Chronology of Events in Black Librarianship." Handbook of Black Librarianship. Ed. E.J. Josey and Marva L. DeLoach. 2nd ed. Lanham: Scarecrow, 2000. 7. Print. "Arna Bontemps Named to Library Board." Jet 4.9 (1953): 51. Print. "Fisk's Famed Librarian, Bontemps, Moves Out of Post." Jet 28.13 (1965): 25. Print. "Author Arna Bontemps Dies Reading Rosary at Wake of Meharry Physician's Wife." Jet 44.13 (1973): 44. Print. Campbell, Dorothy Wilson. "Curators of African American Collections." The Black Librarian in the Southeast: Reminiscences, Activities, Challenges. Ed. Annette L. Phinazee. Durham: NCCU School of Library Science, 1980. 191. Print. Shockley, Ann Allen. "Special Collections, Fisk University Library." Library Quarterly 58.2 (1988): 151, 154. Print. Sinnette, Elinor D. V. Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, Black Bibliophile & Collector: A Biography. New York: New York Public Library, 1989. 115, 129. Print. Jones, Kirkland C. Renaissance Man from Louisiana: A Biography of Arna Wendell Bontemps. Westport: Greenwood, 1992. Print. Jefferson, Julius C. “The Black Male Librarian: An Endangered Species.” The National Diversity in Libraries Conference. Louisville Marriott Downtown, Louisville, KY. 3 Oct. 2008. Pdf.


Update 09/13/2012:

An additional article on Arna Wendell Bontemps:

Thompson, John Downing. "African Americans and Education: A Study of Arna Bontemps." Syracuse University Library Associates Courier 33, [paper 342] (2001): 77-99. Print .

Update 11/17/2015:

Arna Wendell Bontemps is mentioned in a piece I wrote on Fisk University:

Fenton, Michele. "Fisk University." African American Leadership: A Concise Reference Guide . Ed. Tyson King-Meadows. [Santa Barbara, CA]: Mission Bell Media, 2015. 93-94. Print.


--> Bontemps, Arna, 1902-1973

Teacher in New York, N.Y., and Huntsville, Ala. head librarian, Fisk University professor, University of Chicago curator of James Weldon Johnson Collection and visiting professor of English, Yale University writer in residence, Fisk University and author.

From the description of Arna Wendell Bontemps records, 1934-1965. (Fisk University). WorldCat record id: 70970115

Arna Bontemps was born in 1902 in Alexandria, LA. When he was still a boy, the family moved to California. He received a BA from Pacific Union College in 1923. As a young man he moved to New York City and participated in the Harlem Renaissance. He received his MA from the Unisversity of Chicago in 1943. He had a long career as a teacher, librarian and writer of books for both children and adults. He died in 1973. Biographical Source: Something About the Author, v. 44, pp. 45-53.

From the guide to the Arna Bontemps Papers, 1951, (University of Minnesota Libraries Children's Literature Research Collections [clrc])

Arna Bontemps was a teacher and writer whose novel, God Sends Sunday, appeared at the end of the Harlem Renaissance. He served as librarian at Fisk University for many years.

From the description of Arna Bontemps letters to William Grant Still and Verna Arvey, 1939-1947. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 702163252

From the description of Arna Bontemps Collection 1934-1857. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 78060778

From the description of Arna Bontemps letters to William Grant Still and Verna Arvey, 1939-1947. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 78467453

From the description of Arna Bontemps Collection 1934-1857. (Yale University). WorldCat record id: 233522730

From the description of Arna Bontemps Collection 1934-1857. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 702148302

Arna Bontemps was a teacher and writer whose novel God Sends Sunday appeared at the end of the Harlem Renaissance in 1931. He continued writing and editing anthologies and served as librarian at Fisk University.

From the guide to the Arna Bontemps Collection, 1934-1857, (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Arna Wendell Bontemps was an African-American author and scholar. He embraced his heritage early in his life, and produced volumes of poetry, history, and stories, as well as making important contributions as a librarian, editor, and critic. He was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and an advocate of freedom and dignity for all mankind.

From the description of Arna Bontemps letters, ca. 1936-1963. (Pennsylvania State University Libraries). WorldCat record id: 53917416


Arna Bontemps - History

Selected Bibliography 1980-Present

Abney, Lisa. "Dualism and the Quest for Wholeness in Arna Bontemps's God Sends Sunday." in Cocchiarale, Michael and Scott D. Emmert. eds. Upon Further Review: Sports in American Literature. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.

- - -. "Cakewalks, Cauls, and Conjure: Folk Practices in Arna Bontemps's God Sends Sunday and 'A Summer Tragedy.'" in Disheroon-Green, Suzanne and Lisa Abney. eds, Songs of Reconstructing South: Building Literary Louisiana, 1865-1945. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002.

Gray-Rosendale, Laura. "Geographies of Resistance: Rhetorics of Race and Mobility in Arna Bontemps' Sad-Faced Boy (1937)." in Gray-Rosendale, Laura and Sibylle Gruber. eds. Alternative Rhetorics: Challenges to the Rhetorical Tradition. Albany: State U of New York P, 2001.

Harris, Trudier and Thadious M. Davis, Thadious M. eds. Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940. Detroit: 7Letras, 1987.

Jones, Jacqueline C. "Arna Bontemps (1902-1973)." in Nelson, Emmanuel S. ed. African American Authors, 1745-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.

Matsumoto, Valerie J. and Blake Allmendinger. eds. Over the Edge: Remapping the American West. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.

Quartermain, Peter. ed. American Poets, 1880-1945: Second Series. Detroit: Gale, 1985.

Smith, Katharine C. Children's Literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2004.

Wintz, Cary D. ed. Remembering the Harlem Renaissance. NY: Garland, 1996.

Witalec, Janet. ed. Harlem Renaissance: A Gale Critical Companion. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2002.

A Student Project by Melanie Harris

Arna Bontemps was a pioneering figure in the Afro-American literary world. He was one of the first to write for white and black audiences and at the same time wrote on a wide variety of subjects. He was a novelist, playwright, poet, librarian, and writer of children's books (Jones, 12). His success grew near the end of the Harlem Renaissance and he was influenced by the primary figures of the Renaissance including Langston Hughes , his close friend, Jean Toomer , Claude Mckay , James W. Johnson , and Countee Cullen . But Arna Bontemps would not be confined to just literary figures of color, but would also make friends with Ernest Hemingway , Willa Cather , Katherine Porter , and Carl Van Vechten . Although Bontemps might have been overshadowed by other literary figures such as Hughes, there is no denying the contribution he gave to the Afro-American literary world and culture (Jones, 15).

Arnaud Wendell Bontemps was born in Alexandria, Louisiana on October 13, 1902 to Paul Bismark and Maria Carolina Bontemps. When Arnaud was only three years old his family moved to Los Angeles. At twelve, Arna's mother died but still managed to instill the love of books into her son. He later attended San Fernando Academy and Pacific Union College. From 1924 to 1938, he taught at the Harlem Academy in New York and resigned from Shiloh Academy to take a Rosenwald Fellowship. After his trip to the Caribbean which was financed from the fellowship, he went to work in Chicago for the Illinois Writer's Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration. In 1943 he received his master's degree in library science from the University of Chicago and became librarian at Fisk University. In the late 1960s, he was invited to teach at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle Campus. Near the end of his life from 1971 to his death in 1973 he went back to Fisk University as a writer in residence (Fleming, 71-79).

Chronology (from Nicholas, listed below)

1902 October 13, born: Arna Wendell Bontemps in Alexandria, Louisiana

1923 Attends Pacific Union College

1926 Marries Alberta Johnson on August 26 th . Receives Alexander Pushkin Poetry prize

1931 Published God Sends Sunday (novel)

1932 Collaborates with Langston Hughes to write Popo and Fifina: children of Haiti (juvenile)

1934 Published You Can't Pet a Possum

1936 Arna Bontemps Fellowship Award Studies at Graduate Library School, University of Chicago

1937 Published Sad-Faced Boy

1938 Rosenwald Fellowship for creative writing and traveling in the Caribbean

1939 Published Drums at Dusk

1941 Published Chariot in the Sky (juvenile)

1942 Published Golden Slippers (poetry)

1943 Bontemps becomes Librarian at Fisk

1945 Published They Seek a City (history) with James Conroy

1948 Published Story of the Negro (history)

1949 Published Free and Easy (play)

1950 Bontemps receives Guggenheim Foundation Award

1954 Published Story of George Washington Carver (bio)

1955 Published Lonesome Boy (juvenile)

1958 Published and collaborated with Langston Hughes on Book of Negro Folklore

1959 Published Frederick Douglass: Slave, Fighter, Freeman

1960 Bontemps at Makerere College, Uganda, Africa

1961 Published 100 Years of Negro Freedom (history)

1963 Published American Negro Poetry and Personals (poetry)

1964 Published Famous Negro Athletes

1966 Bontemps Professor of English, University of Illinois

1969 Published Hold Fast to Dreams: Poems Old and New and Great Slave Narratives Professor and Curator of James W. Johnson collection at Yale

1971 Published Free at Last: Life of Frederick Douglass (biography)

1972 Published Harlem Renaissance Remembered: Essays

1973 Arna Bontemps dies June 4 th Nashville, Tennessee

Fleming, Robert E. James Weldon Johnson and Arna Wendell Bontemps: A Reference Guide. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1978. 71-136.

Jones, Kirkland C. "Arna Bontemps." Ed. Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis. Dictionary of Literary Biography: Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940. 51 Detroit: Gale Research Company,1987. 10 - 21.

Nichols, Charles H. Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters: 1925-1967. NY: Mead & Company, 1980. 493-494.


Watch the video: Arna Bontemps: Dark Girl