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Arna Bontemps


Arna Wendell Bontemps was born on October 13, 1902, in Alexandria, Louisiana, the son of a Creole bricklayer and schoolteacher. At age three he and his family moved to Los Angeles after his father was threatened by two drunk white men. Bontemps grew up in California and was sent to the San Fernando Academy boarding school with his father's instruction to not "go up there acting colored." This Bontemps later noted as a formative moment, and he would resent what he saw as an effort to make him forget his heritage. He graduated from Pacific Union College in Angwin in 1923 with an AB.

In 1924 he accepted a teaching position in Harlem, New York. He married Alberta Johnson, a former student, in 1926; they would eventually have six children. Though his original plan was to obtain his PhD in English, he accepted teaching positions to support his family. Luckily, it was while teaching in Harlem that he would become closely connected to the Harlem Renaissance and befriend major artists such as Countee Cullen, W. E. B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and especially Langston Hughes, with whom he frequently collaborated.

Bontemps first published his poems in Crisis in 1924, and also later in Opportunity, both literary magazines that supported the work of young African American writers. In 1926 and 1927 Bontemps win three prizes for his poetry from these publications. His first book of fiction was God Sends Sunday (1931), the story of a fast-living black jockey named Little Augie. The book received mixed reviews: praise for its significance as a book by a black author but also criticism for its emphasis on the seamier side of black life.

That same year Bontemps moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where he had accepted a position at Oakwood Junior College. In 1932 he received another prize for the short story "A Summer Tragedy" and published his first two children's book, Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti, with Langston Hughes, and You Can't Pet a Possum in 1934. He began work on Black Thunder: Gabriel's Revolt: Virginia 1800, the story of an aborted slave rebellion led by Gabriel Prosser. The novel, published in 1936, was finished in his father's California house. At the end of the 1934 school year Oakwood dismissed Bontemps, a reaction to the combination of his radical politics, out-of-state visitors, his personal book collection, and the school's own conservative and religious views.

In 1943 Bontemps received a master's degree in library science from the University of Chicago. He was appointed a librarian at Fisk University, a position he held until his retirement in 1965, followed by honorary degrees and professorships at the University of Illinois and Yale University, and a return to Fisk as a writer in residence.

He died June 4, 1973, from a heart attack, while working on his autobiography. Though Sterling A. Brown and Aaron Douglas noted that his writings have not received the critical attention deserved, his work as a librarian and historian point to him as a great chronicler and a preserver of the documents of black cultural heritage. His family's old Louisiana home is now the Arna Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center.

A Selected Bibliography


Personals (1963)


American Negro Poetry (1963)
Golden Slippers: An Anthology of Negro Poetry for Young Reader (1941)
Hold Fast to Dreams (1969)
The Book of Negro Folklore (1959)
The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (1972)
The Poetry of the Negro (1949)


Father of the Blues (1941)


Black Thunder: Gabriel's Revolt: Virginia 1800 (1936)
Chariot in the Cloud (1929)
Drums at Dusk: A Novel (1939)
God Sends Sunday (1931)
Sad-Faced Boy (1937)
The Old South (1973)

For Children

Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti (1932)
The Fast Sooner Hound (1942)
You Can't Pet a Possum (1934)


100 Years of Negro Freedom (1961)
Great Slave Narratives (1969)
The Story of the Negro (1948)
They Seek a City (1945)

Arna Bontemps

By This Poet


Nocturne of the Wharves

All night they whine upon their ropes and boom
against the dock with helpless prows:
these little ships that are too worn for sailing
front the wharf but do not rest at all.
Tugging at the dim gray wharf they think
no doubt of China and of bright Bombay,
and they remember islands of the East,
Formosa and the mountains of Japan.
They think of cities ruined by the sea
and they are restless, sleeping at the wharf.

Tugging at the dim gray wharf they think
no less of Africa. An east wind blows
and salt spray sweeps the unattended decks.
Shouts of dead men break upon the night.
The captain calls his crew and they respond–
the little ships are dreaming–land is near.
But mist comes up to dim the copper coast,
mist dissembles images of the trees.
The captain and his men alike are lost
and their shouts go down in the rising sound of waves.

Ah little ships, I know your weariness!
I know the sea-green shadows of your dream.
For I have loved the cities of the sea,
and desolations of the old days I
have loved: I was a wanderer like you
and I have broken down before the wind.

Southern Mansion

Poplars are standing there still as death
And ghosts of dead men
Meet their ladies walking
Two by two beneath the shade
And standing on the marble steps.

There is a sound of music echoing
Through the open door
And in the field there is
Another sound tinkling in the cotton:
Chains of bondmen dragging on the ground.

The years go back with an iron clank,
A hand is on the gate,
A dry leaf trembles on the wall.
Ghosts are walking.
They have broken roses down
And poplars stand there still as death.

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