Arnaud Wendell Bontemps
On October 13, 1902, Harlem Renaissance writer Arnaud
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.
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
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)
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
Discover Arnaud Wendell Bontemps
Yourself - Check Out Today's Best-Selling