On the blank side of a July 1960 calendar page, Arna Bontemps wrote a message to himself for an autobiography he never finished. Its planned title was A Man's Name. The note read: "I speak for the tormented souls who are doomed to struggle through life with unusual or difficult names." Arna Bontemps was nearly 60 years old when he cited this mission for his life's story. He was already well established among the most distinguished African American authors of the 20th century, and like his long-time friend Langston Hughes, his career was launched with the publication of a poem in The Crisis.
This fall marks the centennial anniversary of Arna Bontemps's birth. He was born 100 years ago in October. Few who knew him when he was growing up in the early 20th century would have guessed that the shy, soft-spoken youngster would become the acknowledged chronicler of his culture and conscience of his age. Fewer still would have imagined that the city of Chicago would honor him with a public middle school bearing his name or that a novel written by him would reach Broadway as a hit musical. His parents surely would have been astonished by all of this and stunned to learn that the very house in Alexandria, La., in which their first child was born would be preserved as the first African American museum in the state and that the centennial of his birth would be celebrated by the parish from which the family fled.
It is not as if distinction lay beyond Bontemps' youthful reach. Family and teachers considered him an exceptional youngster. "I had a rather precocious memory; I've never lost it. All during my childhood I continually amazed my parents and my many relatives by the things that I remembered," he told me in a 1971 interview in Nashville. It would have been the nature of his career that would have surprised others rather than the fact of it. With his parents' conversion to Seventh-Day Adventism, he seemed well on his way to a career in the ministry. The conversion contributed to Bontemps' deepening need to decipher his personal heritage.
Years of self-probing and rendering led to Bontemps' legacy of some 40 published works, including poetry, fiction, history, folklore and biography. He authored and co-authored writings expressly for children and adolescents; he edited and co-edited anthologies intended to inform the American public about African American life and culture; and he produced dozens of reviews of new books for syndicated newspapers and for The Crisis. His friend Langston Hughes spoke of him as "the scholar, a man of learning and sound judgment" - and turned again and again to Bontemps for his insights and advice.
The Area Wendell Bontemps papers housed at Syracuse University spanning 1888 to 1997 (the collection includes early family materials and posthumous analysis and criticism of his work) are testament to a long and energetic career. The list of correspondents reads like a who's who in 20th-century African American history and letters: W.C. Handy, Countee Cullen, Mary Church Terrell, Walter White, Alain Locke, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Roy Wilkins, Richard Wright, Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks and on and on. Previously unpublished works from this collection still discover publishers decades later. For example, Oxford University Press recently published two of Bontemps' books for children written during the 1930s: The Pasteboard Bandit (1997), co-written with Langston Hughes, and Bubber Goes to Heaven (1998), titles over which his estate retains ownership.
For nearly half a century, Bontemps sustained a richly versatile career combining the roles of husband and father with those of teacher, scholar, author, critic, librarian, archivist and lecturer. Among his New Negro or Harlem Renaissance peers, none matched this breadwinner's simultaneous commitments to family and art. Few in the 20th century, for that matter, could lay claim to such distinction.
Legacy aside, at the later stages of his life Bontemps still troubled over identity. …