Bontemps and the Old South

Article excerpt

Arna Wendell Bontemps (1902-1973) had a longer, more prolific career in humane letters than did most of the young writers who developed alongside him during the Harlem Renaissance. And the Old South is more prominent in his works than in those of any of his contemporaries, save Zora Neale Hurston. This umbrella theme allows us to see the developing artist whose childhood began in Louisiana, his own birthplace and the birthplace of his parent, and grandparent. Although he was transplanted to California when he was only four, Bontemps never lost his memory of those idyllic days in Louisiana just after the turn of the century.

His memory of Louisiana was kept alive by his closest relatives, who traveled back and forth from California to their native state and who told intriguing stories about the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the rise of the "White Caps," and of natural events on the Red River, the Cane River, and in the "Bayou Country" as a whole. Bontemps' up bringing was decidedly Southern, despite its California location, and it was the Old South that imparted to his life and to his works a characteristic sense of personal decorum and nostalgic reminiscence. In his poetry and his fiction No nostalgic quality produces a literary ambiguity that enriches both tone and texture.

Finishing college in 1923, Bontemps arrived in the Harlem of the "Strolling Twenties" in August of the following year, approximately five months after the famous "March luncheon" of 1924 which launched the careers of most of his contemporaries. He would not return to the South until 1931, when the Great Depression was at its Peak and when he was approximately twenty-nine years of age. Having taught since 1926 at the Harlem Academy, a Seventh-Day Adventist high school, he found, when it went defunct in 1931, that he needed calm and serenity, the kind of restful environment the Deep South could provide. So he moved with his wife and two oldest children (the other four had not yet been born) to Huntsville, Alabama, and began teaching at still another Adventist institution, Oakwood College, which at that time was a junior college. In Huntsville, he found the almost-primitive Southern environment appealing, a milieu that became a rich source of folk materials that would later inform and color his writing. The vestiges of slavery remained, but so did a warm hospitality that the natives provided and that he had not found in California or New York City.

Bontemps was able to benefit from this environment because he had no trouble blending with the surroundings. He liked the region primarily because he had fond memories of his roots in the Deep South, and would never have returned to the North if he could have found suitable conditions for his growing family. He loved the Alabama countryside and the folk-ways he found there, despite the indignities he and his family were made to suffer at the hands of Adventists and white supremacists during his three years at Oakwood.(1)

Bontemps' works reveal a deep, abiding affection for the Old South in general and for his native Louisiana in particular. Even after he left Oakwood College at the close of the 1933-34 school term, he nurtured his contacts with the black colleges of the South. Although he never landed the job in New Orleans he dreamed of, he did secure a position with Fisk University in 1943.

About the time of his arrival at Huntsville, the Scottsboro trials were in session. The event attracted separate visits from two of his colleagues, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, both of whom kindled the ire of officials at Oakwood. It was in this atmosphere that Oakwood officials demanded that Bontemps burn his books, which they considered low-life and anti-uplift. Owning nothing more incendiary than The Souls of Black Folk and the prose writings of James Weldon Johnson, Bontemps categorically refused to comply with this request. Yet despite this kind of demoralizing opposition, Bontemps' stay in Alabama inspired him to write, and saw the beginning of his stories for children and juveniles, the titles of which evoke Southern folklore: "Frizzly Chicken," "Bubber Joins the Band," "The Devil Is a Conjurer," to name a few of the more representative ones. …