Arna Bontemps: Harlem Renaissance Writer, Librarian and Family Man

By James, Charles L. | The New Crisis, September/October 2002 | Go to article overview

Arna Bontemps: Harlem Renaissance Writer, Librarian and Family Man


James, Charles L., The New Crisis


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Arna Bontemps: Harlem Renaissance Writer, Librarian and Family Man
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.