While teaching in Harlem, Bontemps became acquainted with many Harlem Renaissance figures: Du Bois, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and especially Langston Hughes. Bontemps and Hughes would collaborate on a poetry collection, a play, two books for children, and two benchmark anthologies, The Poetry of the Negro, 1746–1949 (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958). As Bontemps would later write: “there was a happening in black America in those days . . . suddenly stars began to fall on a part of Manhattan that white residents had begun abandoning.”
Bontemps’s first novel, God Sends Sunday, about a black jockey in the 1890s, was published in 1931. Although Du Bois criticized it for depicting the seamy side of black life, others hailed it for its unique depiction of black people’s interest in the sporting life and its use of Creole language. That same year, Bontemps left New York for a teaching position at the conservative Oakwood Academy in Alabama. “The golden days were gone,” he later wrote, “or was it just the bloom of youth that had been lost?” Unfortunately, a confrontation with the Oakwood administration led to Bontemps moving his wife and five children back to his father’s small home in California. Reportedly written on top of a sewing machine, his second novel, Black Thunder: Gabriel’s Revolt: Virginia 1800 (1936), about Gabriel Prosser's aborted slave rebellion, is often acclaimed as his masterpiece.
When his third novel Drums at Dusk (1939), about a slave revolt in Santo Domingo, received a mixed response, Bontemps stopped writing fiction. He instead sought a degree in library science from the University of Chicago. During his subsequent twenty-two-year career at Fisk University, Bontemps substantially expanded its holdings, acquiring the papers of such prominent African Americans of letters as Du Bois, Hughes, Charles W. Chesnutt, W. C. Handy, and Jean Toomer, among others.
In 1946 Bontemps collaborated with Countee Cullen to turn God Sends Sunday into the musical St. Louis Woman with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Johnny Mercer and featuring the song “Come Rain or Come Shine.” The show ran 113 performances and is noteworthy for the Broadway debut of Pearl Bailey as Butterfly.
Author or editor of more than fifty books, Bontemps is considered one of the foremost historians, chroniclers, and preservers of black cultural heritage. His works include a stream of biographies, histories, and fiction for children, including the 1949 Newbery Honor Book Story of the Negro. Among the other significant anthologies Bontemps edited are The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (1972), a collected of essays of notable figures of the period and including Bontemps’s own reflections, and Personals (1963), a collection of his own poetry and his thoughts on Harlem Renaissance writers.
Of related interest:
- The CenLamar blog on Life in Louisiana recently posted an appreciation of the Arna Bontemps African American Museum.
- The Arna Wendell Bontemps Papers are housed at Syracuse University
- The We Too Were Children blog recently celebrated Popo and Fifino: Children of Haiti, one of the children’s books Bontemps and Hughes co-wrote.