Arna Wendell Bontemps (October 13, 1902 - June 4, 1973) was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement that spanned the 1920s and 1930s. His work as a poet, novelist, and librarian played a crucial role in documenting and preserving the history of African American literature.
Bontemps was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, to Creole parents. His father, Paul Bismark Bontemps, was a skilled craftsman, and his mother, Maria Carolina Pembroke, was a schoolteacher. The family moved to Los Angeles when Bontemps was three, prompted by increasing racial tensions in the South. His parents were firm believers in the power of education and instilled this belief in their children. Bontemps excelled in academics, showing an early aptitude for writing.
Bontemps graduated from Pacific Union College in California in 1923. His first job as a teacher at Harlem Academy in New York City brought him to the epicenter of the Harlem Renaissance. Here, he developed friendships with other major figures of the movement, such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, which profoundly influenced his writing.
During this period, Bontemps began to publish his poetry. His first significant poem, "A Black Man Talks of Reaping," was published in 1926 in "Opportunity," a journal of the National Urban League. This poem reflects themes that were common in his works - struggle, perseverance, and the impact of racism on African American life.
In 1931, Bontemps published his first novel, "God Sends Sunday." This work was well received, and its success prompted him to focus on longer works. His subsequent novels, including "Black Thunder" (1936) and "Drums at Dusk" (1939), delved deeper into the history and experiences of African Americans.
While his works were well regarded, Bontemps found it difficult to make a living as a writer during the Great Depression. Therefore, he pursued a Master's degree in Library Science at the University of Chicago. Upon graduation, he began working as a librarian at Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee. This was the beginning of his long career in librarianship, a field that he would influence as much as he had influenced literature.
As a librarian, Bontemps played a pivotal role in preserving African American literature and history. He curated the collection of African American works at Fisk University, turning it into a nationally recognized research collection. He also organized the first Conference on Negro History, bringing together scholars from across the country to discuss the importance of documenting and preserving African American history.
Bontemps continued to write during his time as a librarian, including several children's books. These books were some of the first to feature African American protagonists, filling a significant gap in children's literature. Works such as "The Fast Sooner Hound" (1942) and "Story of the Negro" (1948) were critically acclaimed for their narrative quality and historical accuracy.
In the 1950s, Bontemps collaborated with his longtime friend Langston Hughes on several works, including "Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti" (1932) and "The Book of Negro Folklore" (1958). These collaborations resulted in some of the most influential works in African American literature.
Bontemps retired from Fisk University in 1965 but continued his work as a writer and consultant for several institutions. His final work, "Great Slave Narratives," was published posthumously in 1973. This book is a compilation of narratives by enslaved people, further exemplifying Bontemps's commitment to preserving African American history.
Bontemps passed away in 1973, leaving a lasting legacy. His contributions to African American literature and history were recognized with several posthumous awards. The library at Fisk University was named after him, and his childhood home in Louisiana was turned into the Arna Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center.
Arna Bontemps's life and work are testaments to the power of literature in illuminating the experiences and history of a community. His dedication to preserving African American history ensures that future generations will have access to these vital narratives. His role as a writer and librarian has cemented him as a pivotal figure in African American literature and history.
Poems - 15 in all
God Give to Men
Nocturne of the Wharves
A Black Man Talks of Reaping
Arna Bontemps - 2 ~ New ~
A Tree Design
Here Is the Sea
Length of Moon