Arna Bontemps was born in the rural community of Alexandria, La. When he was four, Bontemps’s family moved to southern California. Bontemps did well in school there and read voraciously. He attended the San Fernando Academy and majored in English at Pacific Union College. After graduating in 1923 with an AB degree, Bontemps worked at the Los Angeles Post Office and wrote poetry in his spare time. After one of his poems was published in The Crisis in 1924, Bontemps moved to New York City. He btained a teaching job at Harlem Academy and made connections with the writers, artists, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1926 and 1927, his poems won prizes sponsored by Opportunity and The Crisis magazines. Bontemps married in 1926, and the first of his six children was born the following year. His first novel God Sends Sunday was published in 1931. Harlem Academy closed that year, and Bontemps accepted a position at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala. His first children’s books, Popo and Fifina (a collaboration with Langston Hughes) and You Can’t Pet a Possum, were published while he was in Alabama. Bontemps had difficulties with college administrators who thought he was a radical. He resigned in 1934 and moved his family to California where they lived for a year with his father.
In 1935, Bontemps sold his novel Black Thunder (published in 1936) and moved with his family to Chicago. He was principal of Shiloh Academy until 1937, when he obtained a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund to do research in the Caribbean. (His novel Drums at Dusk was published in 1939.) On his return, he worked for the WPA Federal Writer’s Project in Chicago. In 1942, Bontemps enrolled in library school at the University of Chicago, supporting his family with a second Rosenwald Fund fellowship. He accepted a position at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., in 1943. For the next twenty-three years, Bontemps was Head Librarian at Fisk, using his Harlem Renaissance connections to acquire materials by and about black writers, artists, and musicians. He also taught creative writing classes and continued his own writing, publishing nonfiction books for adults and both fiction and nonfiction books for children. Some of these works were collaborations with writers Langston Hughes and Jack Conroy. Bontemps also edited anthologies of black poetry and folklore, often in collaboration with Hughes. He also received Carnegie and Guggenheim research grants. In 1966, the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle recruited Bontemps to teach American literature. In his second year there, he suffered a stroke and had to return to Nashville. After recovering, he taught at Yale University for two years. In 1971, Bontemps returned to Nashville to become Writer-in-Residence at Fisk. He began doing research for an autobiography but never began writing it. He died of a heart attack in Nashville in 1973 and is buried there.
Arna Bontemps wrote poetry, fiction, and nonfiction for both children and adults about the black experience in the United States and the Caribbean. Several of his children’s books (You Can’t Pet a Possum, Sad-Faced Boy, and Mr. Kelso’s Lion) are based on his experiences in Alabama. His short story "A Summer Tragedy" is also set in Alabama.
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Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Carl van Vechten Photographs Collection, LC-USZ62-100856.
Last updated on Oct 10, 2009.