Arna Wendall Bontemps was born in 1902 in Alexandria, Louisiana. He was a graduate of of Pacific Union College in California, where he had moved during childhood. Bontemps also taught at Harlem Academy in New York. He would become a pivotal figure and poet during the African American literary movement, the Harlem Renaissance. He was a widely celebrated writer, publishing 25 books, which included novels, children’s books, biographies, histories, poetry and play collections.
Arna Wendall Bontemps was born October 13 of 1902. His family hailed
from the Deep South, specifically Alexandria, Louisiana, which contributed to
their Creole heritage. His father, Paul, was a bricklayer and his mother,
Carolina, a schoolteacher. His father would play an integral role in shaping
Bontemps life and choices. Paul Bontemps encouraged the family to move to Los
Angeles when just three. Arna was reared in California and attended San
Fernando Academy for his adolescence. It was during this stage of maturation
that Bontemps was advised by his father “not to go up there acting colored.”
“there” meaning school. This is an urging Bontemps will later allude to in many
of his works as an attempt to make his disregard his heritage.
Bontemps attended Pacific Union College and graduated in
1923. Just the next year he accepted an offer to teach in Harlem, New York.
Bontemps articulated that his original plan was to continue his own schooling
until obtaining a Ph.D. in literature; however, this failed to happen. He married
Alberta Johnson, a former student, in 1926. The pair had 6 children, while
Bontemps took continuous teaching jobs to support. His time teaching in Harlem
seemed to work as an inspiration though, and during the years of and following
his marriage he won 3 first place prizes in contests for “New Negro”1 poets.
That was not the only advantage on teaching in New York at this time. Bontemps
would meet and collaborate with a number of other widely talented African
American writers during the mid- 20th century including, most
notably, W.E.B Dubois, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston.
Bontemps first published poems were seen in Crisis and Opportunity, two magazines that promoted the writings of young
blacks. His first full-length book, a work of fiction detailing the exciting
life of a black horse jockey who went by Little Augie, was released in 1931. Reviews
were mixed, most negative critique came from those complaining that the book
focused to heavily on the more promiscuous side of life in the African American
community. The same year Bontemps took a teaching position at Oakwood Junior
College in Huntsville, Alabama. He would be let go just two years later due to
tensions that arose from the clashing his own liberal political views and book
topics, which opposed the conservative outlook of the College. During this time
Bontemps penned a children’s book with the help his friend Langston Hughes,
called Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti.
After leaving Alabama Bontemps pursued farther education,
getting his master’s from the University of Chicago in library science. He was
then appointed to be librarian at Fisk University, an elite black college. This
role was followed by many honorary teaching positions and degrees from
institutions of higher education including the University of Illinois and Yale.
Bontemps returned to be a write in residence at Fisk after serving in these various
Arna Bontemps died in June of 1973 of a heart attack. He had
been working on an autobiography. Many scholars of African American history and
literary history contend to the fact that Bontemps writings have not been paid
the attention they deserve. He does hold a specific reputation among historians
though, not for his works of literature, but for his role as a keen preserver of
African American historical documents and therefore culture. His home now acts as the Arna Bontemps
African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center.