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Arnaud Wendell Bontemps

On October 13, 1902, Harlem Renaissance writer Arnaud (Arna) Wendell Bontemps was born to Paul Bismarck and Maria Carolina (Pembroke) Bontemps in Alexandria, Louisiana.  For three generations, all of the males in his family had been brick masons, and Bontemps' father expected his son to follow suit.  But after the death of his mother when he was only twelve, his father had a change of heart and enrolled him in a private school where he was the only black student. 

Bontemps went on to be the first member of his family to enroll in college and receive a degree, but his father was furious that he chose to study literature instead of medicine or law.  After he was graduated from college, he moved to New York because, he said, he "had watched the Harlem Renaissance from a grandstand seat," and now he was ready to see what all the excitement was about. 

The excitement was about the a new way of looking at life and society through black eyes, and Bontemps soon became friends with writers such as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and James Weldon Johnson.  They encouraged him to publish his poetry and fiction, and his first novel, God Sends Sunday, was published in 1931.  The novel was later adapted by Bontemps and Countee Cullen into the stage play, St. Louis Woman.

Bontemps spent the years of the Great Depression moving around the South, teaching at different colleges, trying to support his family and find time to write.  The family lived in a string of ramshackle houses with tin roofs and poor ventilation.  Many times, it was so hot that he had to write his novels on the front lawn under the shade of a tree.  Money was so tight that he and his wife had to move in with his father, who told him to give up writing and go back to brick masonry. 

The room his father gave him in his house was too small for a writing desk, so Bontemps was forced to write his next novel on top of a sewing machine.  Based on an actual slave uprising, the novel was published in 1936 as Black Thunder, and many people consider it his masterpiece.

In 1931, Bontemps took a teaching position at Oakwood Junior College in Huntsville, Alabama.  He continued writing and, in 1932, successfully competed for and won the Opportunity prize for his shortstory, "A Summer Tragedy."  During the 1930s, in addition to his first novel, Bontemps published four other books, including the historical novel, Drumsat Dusk (1939), along with a children's work entitled Sad Face Boy (1937).  A master at his craft, Bontemps became one of the most successful writers of children's books of his time.

In 1938, he received a Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship for a study tour in the Caribbean.  Three years later, he edited W. C. Handy's book, Father of the Blues: An Autobiography.

In 1943, Bontemps became the head librarian of Fisk University.  He procured early materials and resources on the African-American experience.  His friendship with Langston Hughes made it possible for him to inaugurate a Langston Hughes Renaissance Collection, featuring personalities Jean Toomer, James Weldon Johnson, Charles S. Johnson, and Countee Cullen into the university's library holdings. 

Bontemps, who was a friend of Carl Van Vechten, the New York music critic, author, photographer, and collector, convinced Van Vechten to donate his music collection to Fisk.  Among others who made donations to the library collections was W. C. Handy.  One of the librarian's peerless attainments was the collection commemorating George Gershwin.

Bontemps was a productive writer throughout his career.  Having turned his attention to the writing of biographical works, he published a series of sketches of talented young African-Americans under the title, We Have Tomorrow, in 1945.  During the same year, in collaboration with Jack Conroy, he wrote a compelling study of black migration and urbanization entitled, They Seek A City.  It was revised and expanded in 1966 as Any Place But Here

During the 1950s, Bontemps' biographical works, George Washington Carver (1950), The Story of George Washington Carver (1954), and Frederick Douglass: Slave, Fighter, and Freeman (1959), were published.  Later, his biography, Young Booker T. Washington Early Days (1972) was published. 

In 1956, the two-time recipient of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship for writing and the John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, Bontemps was awarded the Jane Addams Award for his The Story of the Negro.  In 1958, with Langston Hughes, he edited The Book of Negro Folklore, as well as The Poetry of the Negro (1949).

In 1965, Bontemps retired from Fisk University.  For the next year, he served as director of university relations and as acting librarian.  In 1966, he became a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and his Great Slave Narratives was published.  Three years later, he went to Yale University as lecturer and curator of the James Weldon Johnson Collection.  He returned to Nashville and Fisk University in 1971 as writer in residence and began penning his autobiography.  He edited The Harlem Renaissance Remembered in 1972. 

In all, Bontemps wrote and edited over twenty books.  His poetry was collected in more than a dozen anthologies, and his periodical publications numbered more than twenty-five, including two fictional and more than fifteen non-fictional articles.

Arnaud Wendell Bontemps died suddenly on June 4, 1973, of a myocardial infarction and later was interred in Nashville's Greenwood Cemetery.

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