Authors: Arna Bontemps

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist, poet, and biographer

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

God Sends Sunday, 1931

Black Thunder, 1936

Drums at Dusk, 1939

Short Fiction:

The Old South, 1973


St. Louis Woman, pr. 1946 (with Countée Cullen)


Personals, 1963


Father of the Blues, 1941 (biography; with W. C. Handy)

They Seek a City, 1945 (history; with Jack Conroy; revised as Anyplace but Here, 1966)

One Hundred Years of Negro Freedom, 1961 (history)

Free at Last: The Life of Frederick Douglass, 1971

Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters: 1925-1967, 1980

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti, 1932 (with Langston Hughes)

You Can’t Pet a Possum, 1934

Sad-Faced Boy, 1937

The Fast Sooner Hound, 1942 (with Jack Conroy)

We Have Tomorrow, 1945

Slappy Hooper: The Wonderful Sign Painter, 1946 (with Conroy)

The Story of the Negro, 1948

Sam Patch, 1951 (with Conroy)

Chariot in the Sky: A Story of the Jubilee Singers, 1951

The Story of George Washington Carver, 1954

Lonesome Boy, 1955

Frederick Douglass: Slave, Fighter, Freeman, 1959

Famous Negro Athletes, 1964

Young Booker: Booker T. Washington’s Early Days, 1972

The Pasteboard Bandit, 1997 (with Langston Hughes)

Bubber Goes to Heaven, 1998

Edited Texts:

The Poetry of the Negro, 1949, revised 1971 (with Langston Hughes)

The Book of Negro Folklore, 1958 (with Hughes)

American Negro Poetry, 1963

Great Slave Narratives, 1969

Hold Fast to Dreams, 1969

The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, 1972


Arna Wendell Bontemps (bahn-TAHM) began his literary career writing poetry, yet his fame as one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and versatile black writers rests largely on his association with the Harlem Renaissance, on one widely anthologized short story, on his children’s books, and on his novel Black Thunder.{$I[AN]9810001289}{$I[A]Bontemps, Arna}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Bontemps, Arna}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Bontemps, Arna}{$I[tim]1902;Bontemps, Arna}

Arna Bontemps

(Library of Congress)

Born in Alexandria, Louisiana, on October 13, 1902, the son of musician, brickmason, and lay minister Paul Bontemps and teacher Marie Pembroke, Arna Bontemps grew up in Los Angeles, California, attending boarding school and earning his B.A. from Pacific Union College (1923) and his M.A. from the University of Chicago (1943). After his mother died when he was twelve, Bontemps lived with his grandmother and her younger brother. His father’s inclination toward fundamentalist Christianity and his disinterest in African American folk heritage contrasted with his granduncle’s affinity for drink, gambling, music, and spontaneity. Bontemps ultimately sided with his granduncle and chose African folk expression, even though his father’s persistent influence left him ambivalent.

In the 1920’s, Bontemps left his Los Angeles post-office job for New York City, where he quickly achieved poetic success. In 1926, he married schoolteacher Alberta Johnson. He acquainted himself with the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance and began a correspondence and collaboration with Langston Hughes. His Harlem period culminated in the early years of the Great Depression, not with poetry but with prose. His first novel, God Sends Sunday, described the exciting life of a black jockey in the 1880’s. The children’s book he wrote with Hughes (Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti) met an acknowledged need for juvenilia with black characters.

Bontemps moved to Alabama in 1931 to teach. There, he was influenced by the trial of the Scottsboro Boys. He wrote several stories, some unpublished until 1973. The best one, “A Summer Tragedy,” portrays two old sharecroppers who have lost everything. Their dignified joint suicide relieves them from the real tragedy: the plight of the old and poor in an uncaring society. Bontemps left Alabama to return to California to write what has come to be regarded as his single best work, Black Thunder, a romanticized historical account of the Gabriel Prosser slave rebellion near Richmond, Virginia, in 1800.

By 1938, Bontemps had moved to Chicago; shortly afterward, he received his first Rosenwald Fellowship, which allowed him to travel and to enroll in the University of Chicago’s graduate school. His third and final novel, Drums at Dusk, failed critically. He worked for the Illinois Writers Project and began a writing partnership with Jack Conroy that lasted into the 1950’s. During the 1940’s, Bontemps became a librarian at Fisk University, where he stayed until his death, except for stints at Yale University and the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle. He and Countée Cullen adapted God Sends Sunday as the play St. Louis Woman, which was then further adapted into a successful Broadway musical in 1946. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Bontemps developed biographical juvenilia concentrating on the black experience.

Always shining through Bontemps’s works is an unapologetic view of black history and black people at their worst and their best. His biographies of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and George Washington Carver affirmed his early recognition that he could neither shed his “Negroness” nor break with the past. Neither was possible; both were unthinkable.

BibliographyBone, Robert. “Arna Bontemps.” Down Home: A History of Afro-American Short Fiction From Its Beginnings to the End of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1975. 272-287. Brief but incisive analyses of four of the stories from The Old South: “Boy Blue,” “A Summer Tragedy,” “The Cure,” and “Three Pennies for Luck.” Notes the use of nature symbolism and folklore in Bontemps’s short stories.Canaday, Nicholas. “Arna Bontemps: The Louisiana Heritage.” Callaloo 4 (October-February, 1981): 163-169. Canaday traces the significant influence of Bontemps’s great-uncle from Louisiana, Buddy (Joe Ward), on the author’s novel God Sends Sunday.Fleming, Robert E. James Weldon Johnson and Arna Wendell Bontemps: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. Contains a biography of Bontemps, as well as indexes and bibliography.James, Charles L. “Arna Bontemps: Harlem Renaissance Writer, Librarian, and Family Man.” New Crisis 109, no. 5 (September/October, 2002): 22-28. Profile of Bontemps describes his family and educational backgrounds, discusses the reasons his parents left Louisiana, and addresses the author’s experience of racism. Includes photographs.Jones, Kirkland C. “Bontemps and the Old South.” African American Review 27, no. 2 (1993): 179-185. Addresses the fact that the Old South is employed more extensively in Bontemps’s fiction than in that of any other Harlem Renaissance writer. Points out how the South is the setting for several of his novels and argues that his novel about Haiti, Drums at Dusk, is “in some ways his Southernmost piece of fiction.”Jones, Kirkland C. Renaissance Man from Louisiana: A Biography of Arna Wendell Bontemps. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. The first full-scale biography of Bontemps treats the author’s life and career in detail but only cursorily analyzes or evaluates the writings. Includes chronology, photographs, bibliography, and index.Reagan, Daniel. “Voices of Silence: The Representation of Orality in Arna Bontemps’ Black Thunder.” Studies in American Fiction 19 (Spring, 1991): 71-83. Examines the use of African American vernacular traditions in Black Thunder and concludes that the novel’s significant statements of black cultural identity occur in the oral discourse that Bontemps portrays through figurative language.Scott, William.“’To Make up the Hedge and Stand in the Gap’: Arna Bontemps’s Black Thunder.” Callaloo 27, no. 2 (Spring, 2004): 522-541. Analyzes Black Thunder to show how Bontemps’s novel about the Gabriel Prosser slave revolt expresses Prosser’s belief that in order to bridge the gap from the experience of slavery to an experience of freedom it was necessary to promise a passage from slavery to freedom.Stone, Albert. The Return of Nat Turner: History, Literature, and Cultural Politics in Sixties America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992. Examines how the Nat Turner rebellion and other slave revolts have been represented in American literature. A chapter titled “The Thirties and the Sixties: Arna Bontemps’ Black Thunder” analyzes Bontemps’s successful synthesis of history and his own imagination in that novel.Stone, Albert. “The Thirties and the Sixties: Arna Bontemps’ Black Thunder.” In The Return of Nat Turner: History, Literature, and Cultural Politics in Sixties America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992. Examines Bontemps’s successful synthesis of history and his own imagination in Black Thunder.Thompson, Mark Christian. “Voodoo Fascism: Fascist Ideology in Arna Bontemps’s Drums at Dusk.” MELUS 30, no. 3 (Fall, 2005): 155-177. Contends that Bontemps’s novel about a revolt in Haiti, in which he sought to depict the origins of black revolution and political power by creating a strong and charismatic leader, is in actuality an apology for fascism.Yardley, Jonathan. Review of The Old South. New York Times Book Review (December, 1973): 11. Comments on the impression of informality and chattiness the reader gets on a first reading of Bontemps’s stories, but a second reading reveals the author’s concern about race relations while avoiding bitterness.
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