Arna Bontemps Biography

Arna Bontemps

PrintArnaud “Arna” Wendell Bontemps born in Alexandria, Louisiana on October 13, 1902 was an African-American novelist, librarian, poet, and a noted member of the Harlem Renaissance. At the age of three, his family moved to Los Angeles, California where he later attended San Fernando Academy. He graduated from Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, in 1923 a major in English and minor in history. Bontemps was attracted to New York during the Harlem Renaissance and moved there to take a teaching job at Harlem Academy. Bontemps began publishing poetry during his teaching career, and in 1924 he published his first poems in Crisis and later in Opportunity, literary magazines that supported young African American writers.

During the late 1920s, Bontemps won three prizes for his poetry and eventually wrote his first fiction book, God Sends Sunday, about a fast-living black jockey named Augie. In 1932, Bontemps received another prize for the short story “A Summer Tragedy” and published his first children books Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti and You Can’t Pet a Possum. Bontemps briefly taught in Chicago at the Shiloh Academy but later took a job with the WPA Illinois Writer’s Project. In 1939 he received a Rosenwald fellowship to work on his novel, Drums at Dusk, which was based on the Toussaint L’Ouvertures Haitian rebellion. Bontemps met Jack Conroy another writer, on the Illinois Writer’s Project and in collaboration they wrote The Fast Sooner Hound in 1942.

Bontemps graduated from the University of Chicago with a master’s degree in library science in 1942 and was appointed as head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. While Bontemps worked at Fisk University, he developed collections and archives of African-American literature and culture, including the Langston Hughes Renaissance Collection. After he retired from Fisk University, Bontemps worked at the University of Chicago and later he served as curator of the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale University. Bontemps died on July 4, 1973 from a heart attack while working on his autobiography. In honor of Bontemps, one of Chicago’s public elementary school was named after him; Arna W. Bontemps Public School located on 58th street.



Works Consulted

“Bontemps, Arna Wendell.” Encyclopedia of African-american Writing. Amenia: Grey House Publishing, 2009. Credo Reference. Web. 30 July 2014

James, Charles L. “Arna Bontemps’ Life and Career.” Arna Bontemps’ Life and Career. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 June 2014. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 28 June 2014.

Trice, Dawn Turner. “Trice: Tracking Chicago’s Black Renaissance.” Chicago Tribune. Chicago Tribune, 27 Aug. 2012. Web. 28 June 2014.


–Dawn Xiong

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