Arna Bontemps

Arna Bontemps photographed by Carl Van Vechten 1938 

Arna Bontemps, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1938

 The Quiet One

ARNAUD WENDELL BONTEMPS “Arna Bontemps”(October 13, 1902 – June 4, 1973) was an African American poet and a noted member of the Harlem Renaissance.  Bontemps was born in the city of AlexandriaLouisiana on October 13, 1902 to Charlie Bontemps and Marie Pembrooke Bontemps, a Louisiana Creole family.  When he was three, his family moved to Los Angeles, California in the Great Migration of blacks out of the South to cities in the North, Midwest and West.  They settled in what became known as the Watts district. Bontemps graduated from Pacific Union College in California in 1923, where he majored in English and minored in history.  Bontemps was a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity. 

After graduation, he went to New York to teach at Harlem Academy.  In New York Bontemps became an important contributor to the Harlem Renaissance.  His move to New York was also an important one because of the lifelong friends he met there including Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes.  Hughes and Bomteps became especially close. Hughes became a role model, collaborator, and dear friend to Bontemps.

Etta Moten Barnett  Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes 

Etta Moten Barnett, Arna Bontemps, and Langston Hughes

He returned to graduate school and earned a master's degree in library science from the University of Chicago in 1943.  Bontemps was appointed as head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.  In that position for nearly a quarter of a century, he developed important collections and archives of African-American literature and culture, namely the Langston Hughes Renaissance Collection.

Literary career

In addition to being a librarian, Bontemps was a very talented writer. He received a lot of attention for his first novel, “God Sends Sunday” (1931), and “Black Thunder” (1936).  He wrote the play “St. Louis Woman” (1946) with Countee Cullen. His anthology “Great Slave Narratives” also earned him some attention when it was published in 1969.  Bontemps was a man of many talents, and he wrote several children's books.  Among these, “The Story of the Negro” (1948) received critical praise. It received the Jane Addams Book Award and was a Newbery Honor Book.

Later years

After retiring from Fisk University in 1966, Bontemps worked at the University of Illinois (Chicago Circle).  He later moved to Yale University, where he served as curator of the James Weldon Johnson Collection.  Through his librarianship and bibliographic work, Bontemps became a leading figure in establishing African-American literature as a legitimate object of study and preservation. 

Arna Bontemps Courtesy of Arna Bontemps Museum 

Arna Bontemps Courtesy of Arna Bontemps Museum

Bontemps died June 4, 1973, in Nashville, from a myocardial infarction (heart attack), while working on his autobiography.

Legacy and honors

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Arna Bontemps on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.


  • (Unless noted otherwise, Bontemps is the main author of the work)
  • God Sends Sunday, (New York, Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1931)
  • Popo and Fifina, Children of Haiti, by Arna Bontemps andLangston Hughes, (New York: Macmillan, 1932)
  • You Can’t Pet a Possum, (New York: W. Morrow, 1934)
  • Black Thunder: Gabriel's Revolt: Virginia 1800, (New York: Macmillan, 1936)
  • Sad-faced Boy, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937)
  • Drums at Dusk: a Novel, (New York: Macmillan, 1939/ reprinted Baton Rouge, Louisiana:Louisiana State University Press, 2009ISBN 978-0-8071-3439-9)
  • Golden Slippers: an Anthology of Negro Poetry for Young Readers, compiled by Arna Bontemps, (New York: Harper & Row, 1941)
  • The Fast Sooner Hound, by Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942)
  • They Seek a City, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1945)
  • We Have Tomorrow, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1945)
  • Slappy Hooper, the Wonderful Sign Painter, by Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946)
  • Story of the Negro, (New York: Knopf, 1948)
  • The Poetry of the Negro, 1746–1949: an anthology, edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1949)
  • George Washington Carver, (Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, 1950)
  • W.C. HandyFather of the Blues: an Autobiography, edited by Arna Bontemps, (New York: Macmillan, 1957)
  • Chariot in the Sky: a Story of theJubilee Singers, (Philadelphia, (London: P. Breman, 1963)
  • Famous Negro Athletes, (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1964)
  • Great Slave Narratives, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969)
  • Hold Fast to Dreams: Poems Old and New Selected by Arna Bontemps, (Chicago: Follett, 1969)
  • Mr. Kelso’s Lion, (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970)
  • Free at Last: the Life of Frederick Douglass, (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1971)
  • The Harlem Renaissance Remembered: Essays, Edited, With a Memoir, (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972)
  • Young Booker: Booker T. Washington’s Early Days, (New York, Dodd, Mead, 1972)
  • The Old South: "A Summer Tragedy" and Other Stories of the Thirties, (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1973)

Recorded Works

  • In the Beginning: Bible Stories for Children by Sholem Asch, (Folkways Records, 1955)
  • Joseph and His Brothers: From In the Beginning by Sholem Asch, (Folkways Records, 1955)
  • Anthology of Negro Poets in the U.S.A. - 200 Years, (Folkways Records, 1955)
  • An Anthology of African American Poetry for Young People, (Folkways Records, 1990)


Brought to you by Paris-based African American artist Ealy Mays




  • Wynn, Linda T. (1996)."Arnaud Wendell Bontemps (1902-1973)".Profiles of African Americans in Tennessee. Annual Local Conference on Afro-American Culture and History, Tennessee State University.Archivedfrom the original on 2 June 2010. Retrieved May 24, 2010.
  • Jones, Jacqueline C. "Arna Bontemps,"African American Authors, 1745-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000. 36–43.
  • Drew, Bernard A. "Arna Bontemps,"100 Most Popular African American Authors: Biographical Sketches and Bibliographies, Ed. Bernard A. Drew. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2007. 33–36. Popular Authors Series.
  • Fleming, Robert E. "Bontemps, Arna Wendell",American National Biography OnlineFeb. 2000, Access Date: Sun Jun 03 2007 00:04:41 GMT-0600
  • Asante, Molefi Kete (2002).100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  • Kirkland C. Jones,Renaissance Man from Louisiana: A Biography of Arna Wendell Bontemps, (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1992).ISBN 0-313-28013-4
  • Charles Harold Nichols, editor, Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters, 1925–1967, (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980). ISBN 0-396-07687-4

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