Profile: Arna Bontemps


Arna Bontemps was an award-winning African American author and poet born on October 13, 1902, in Alexandria, Louisiana. Known for his books featuring black characters, he wrote many notable works, including God Sends Sunday (1931), Black Thunder (1936), Story of the Negro (1948) and Great Slave Narratives (1969). He died June 4, 1973, in Nashville, Tennessee, while working on his autobiography.

Early Years

Arna Wendell Bontemps was born October 13, 1902, in Alexandria, Louisiana. He had a middle-class upbringing and was the son of mixed racial heritage. His father, Paul, a stone mason, was descended from French plantation owners in Haiti and their slaves, while his mother, Maria, claimed English and Cherokee Indian bloodlines.

Both parents had a passion for the arts. Maria Bontemps, who taught public school, painted and drew, while her husband enjoyed playing music.

Bontemps grew up in Los Angeles, California, where his family moved when he was 3 years old. While his father pushed for him to follow in his footsteps and become a mason, Bontemps had developed an early love of literature and poetry. In 1920 he enrolled at Pacific Union College (later called UCLA), where he studied English and graduated after just three years.

Career Teacher & Writer

After graduation, Bontemps moved to New York City and took a teaching position at Harlem Academy in 1924. The move and the work quickly immersed the aspiring writer in the blooming world of the Harlem Renaissance. Here, Bontemps thrived.

Magazines such as Opportunity and Crisis—the NAACP monthly—published his poetry and awarded him prizes for his work. Bontemps also became close friends with fellow poet and Renaissance icon, Langston Hughes, with whom he later edited The Poetry of the Negro (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958).

In 1931 Bontemps published his first novel, God Sends Sunday, which tells the story of the rise and fall of a black St. Louis jockey in the 1890s. The book’s tale was inspired by the life of Bontemps’s favorite uncle, Buddy, and it was the first of several novels built around black characters. Five years later he published the historical novel Black Thunder.

In 1931, Bontemps moved to Alabama, where he taught at Oakwood Junior College in Huntsville. It’s there that, in addition to his novels, Bontemps also wrote two children’s books, You Can’t Pet a Possum (1934) and Sad-Faced Boy (1937). His most famous children’s book, Story of the Negro (1948), was named a Newbery Honor Book by the American Library Association in 1949.

Bontemps’s teaching career also included a stint as principal at Shiloh Academy in Chicago.

In 1946 Bontemps accepted a position as head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was put in charge of expanding the world’s largest collection of African American cultural items. It was a job he took tremendous pride in—giving him a rich source of material to draw from for his later work—and one he remained at for 20 years.

Personal Life

Bontemps married Alberta Johnson in 1926. The couple went on to have six children together. He died June 4, 1973, in Nashville, Tennessee, while working on his autobiography. He was eulogized as one of the primary voices in African American literature. His family’s former home is now the Arna Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center.

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