Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Arnaud "Arna" Wendell Bontemps (October 13, 1902 - June 4, 1973) was a well-known American poet and a noted member of the Harlem Renaissance. As the librarian at Fisk University, he established important collections of African-American literature and culture, establishing it as an important goal of scholarly study.
Bontemps was born in the city of Alexandria, Louisiana to the son of Charlie Bontemps and Marie Pembrooke Bontemps. His birthplace at 1327 Third Street has been recently restored and converted for use as the Bontemps African American Museum. It is included on the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail.
Read about Arna Bontemps poetry, free fromthe University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
When he was seven, his family moved to the Watts district of Los Angeles, California in the Great Migration of blacks out of the South to cities of the North, Midwest and West. He graduated from Pacific Union College in California in 1923. After graduation he went to New York to teach at Harlem Academy. In New York he became an important contributor to the Harlem Renaissance where he met many lifelong friends including Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Hughes became a role model, collaborator, and dear friend to Bontemps.
He began writing while a student at Pacific Union College where he majored in English and minored in history, and later became the author of many children's books. His critically most important work, The Story of the Negro (1948), received the Jane Addams Book Award and was also a Newbery Honor Book. He is probably best known for the 1931 novel God Sends Sunday, the 1936 novel Black Thunder, and the 1966 anthology Great Slave Narratives. He also wrote the 1946 play St. Louis Woman with Countee Cullen.
In 1943, after graduating from the University of Chicago with a masters degree in library science, Bontemps was appointed librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, TN. He held that position for 22 years and developed important collections and archives of African-American literature and culture, namely the Langston Hughes Renaissance Collection. After retiring from the Fisk University in 1966, he worked at the University of Illinois (Chicago Circle) and Yale University, where he served as curator to the James Weldon Johnson Collection. Through his librarianship and bibliographic work, Bontemps has become a leading figure in establishing African-American literature as a legitimate object of study and preservation.
Bontemps died June 4, 1973, in Nashville, from a myocardial infarction (heart attack), while working on his autobiography. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Arna Bontemps on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.. Bontemps was a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.