Arna Wendell Bontemps was an award winning author born in 1902 in Alexandria, Louisiana. When he was four, his family moved to southern California. He loved books and read everything even if his minister father didn’t approve. Entering and winning a poetry contest after graduating from Pacific Union College in 1923, inspired him to move to New York. New York was in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance and Arna felt a connection with the writers, artists, and musicians who were making their presence known. One of those writers was Langston Hughes. Arna and Langston became lifelong friends and literary collaborators. Langston described Arna as:
“one of America’s simplest yet most eloquent writers dealing in historical materials, as his historical novels and his “The Story of the Negro” prove. His prose is…readable, …yet rich in poetic overtones and the magic of word music…. I have known Arna Bontemps for more than twenty years and have collaborated with him on children’s books, plays, and the editorship of a recent anthology, The Poetry of the Negro. I know him to be a very thorough and conscientious worker, methodical, giving a certain number of hours every day to his writing, and a fine literary craftsman. His factual prose is not dry, but full of warmth and poetry. And he has both tolerance and humor.”
Vanguard Middle Grade Author Arna Bontemps’ books were filled with the “magic of word music”. He won many awards including a Newbery Honor for The Story of the Negro in 1949. It also won the Jane Addams Children’s Book award.
Arna married in 1926 and had six children. Undoubtedly, they served as inspiration for his many children’s books. He continued to write books, poetry, and edit anthologies throughout his life. He also worked at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. Then he became Head Librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He also taught creative writing classes.
In 1966, Arna left for the University of Illinois to teach American Literature. But a stroke forced him to return to Nashville. After he regained his health, he taught at Yale University for two years. He became Writer-In-Residence at Fisk in 1971 and began an autobiographic research project. Sadly, he never wrote it before his death of a heart attack in 1973.
Arna and Langston Hughes were literary collaborators as well as close friends. One collaboration was Boy of the Border, a coming of age story about a young boy’s horse-drive journey from Mexico to Los Angeles. The adventure story, filled with compassion and curiosity about life is just as relevant today as it was when first published.
Arna wrote Bubba Goes to Heaven in the 1930s, but it wasn’t published until after his death.
Of Lonesome Boy Arna wrote to his friend Langston, “This is the book I enjoyed writing, perhaps because I did it impulsively for myself, while editors hounded me for my misdeeds and threatened me if I did not deliver manuscripts I contracted for. So I closed the door for two days and had myself a time.” Upon publication Langston replied, “It is a perfectly charming and unusual book.”
During his teaching and writing carrer, Arna recieved Carnegie and Guggenheim research grants and a brilliant list of awards. More impressive than that, in each of his literary works, Arna Bontemps has left us with ”the magic of word music”.
More Literary Awards
- Alexander Pushkin Poetry Prize, Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, 1926, for “Golgotha Is a Mountain”
- Alexander Pushkin Poetry Prize, Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, 1927, for “The Return”
- First Prize, Poetry, The Crisis, 1927, for “Nocturne at Bethesda”
- First Prize, Fiction, Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, 1933, for “A Summer Tragedy”
- Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and Jane Addams Peace Association, 1956, for The Story of the Negro, 1955 edition
Samples of Arna’s poetry are available on his Facebook page.
Watch this You Tube video to learn more about Arna Bontemps and his role in the Harlem Renaissance.
His Birthplace home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a museum.
Kirkland C. Westport wrote his biography, Renaissance Man From Llouisiana: A Biography of Arna Wendell Bontemps (Greenwood Press, 1992).