Arna Bontemps, Documenting the Harlem Renaissance

Arna Bontemps
Public Domain

In the introduction to the poetry anthology Caroling Dusk, Countee Cullen described the poet Arna Bontemps as being, " all times cool, calm, and intensely religious yet never "takes advantage of the numerous opportunities offered them for rhymed polemics."

Bontemps might have published poetry, children's literature, and plays during the Harlem Renaissance but he never gained the fame of Claude McKay or Cullen.

Yet Bontemps work as an educator and librarian allowed the works of the Harlem Renaissance to be revered for generations to come.

Early Life and Education

Bontemps was born in 1902 in Alexandria, La., to Charlie and Marie Pembrooke Bontemps. When Bontemps was three, his family moved to Los Angeles as part of the Great Migration. Bontemps attended public school in Los Angeles before heading to Pacific Union College. As a student at Pacific Union College, Bontemps majored in English, minored in history and joined the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

The Harlem Renaissance

Following Bontemps' college graduation, he headed to New York City and accepted a teaching position at a school in Harlem.

When Bontemps arrived, the Harlem Renaissance was already in full swing. Bontemps' poem "The Day Breakers" was published in the anthology, The New Negro in 1925. The following year, Bontemps' poem, "Golgatha is a Mountain" won first prize in the Alexander Pushkin contest sponsored by Opportunity.

Bontemps wrote the novel, God Sends Sunday in 1931 about a Black jockey. That same year, Bontemps accepted a teaching position at Oakwood Junior College. The following year, Bontemps was awarded a literary prize for the short story, "A Summer Tragedy."

He also began publishing children's books. The first, Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti, was written with Langston Hughes. In 1934, Bontemps published You Can't Pet a Possum and was fired from Oakwood College for his personal political beliefs and library, which were not aligned with the school's religious beliefs.

Yet, Bontemps continued to write and in 1936's Black Thunder: Gabriel's Revolt: Virginia 1800, was published.

Life After the Harlem Renaissance

In 1943, Bontemps returned to school, earning a master's degree in library science from the University of Chicago.

Following his graduation, Bontemps worked as the head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. For more than twenty years, Bontemps worked at Fisk University, spearheading the development of various collections on Black culture. Through these archives, he was able to coordinate the anthology Great Slave Narratives.

In addition to working as a librarian, Bontemps continued to write. In 1946, he wrote the play, St. Louis Woman with Cullen.

 One of his books, The Story of the Negro was awarded the Jane Addams Children's Book Award and also received the Newberry Honor Book.

Bontemps retired from Fisk University in 1966 and worked for the University of Illinois before serving as curator of the James Weldon Johnson Collection.


Bontemps died on June 4, 1973, from a heart attack.

Selected Works by Arna Bontemps

  • Popo and Fifina, Children of Haiti, by Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes, 1932
  • You Can't Pet a Possum, 1934
  • Black Thunder: Gabriel's Revolt: Virginia 1800, 1936
  • Sad-Faced Boy, 1937
  • Drums at Dusk: A Novel, 1939
  • Golden Slippers: An Anthology of Negro Poetry for Young Readers, 1941
  • The Fast Sooner Hound, 1942
  • They Seek a City, 1945
  • We Have Tomorrow, 1945
  • Slappy Hooper, the Wonderful Sign Painter, 1946
  • The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949: an anthology, edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, 1949
  • George Washington Carver, 1950
  • Chariot in the Sky: a Story of the Jubilee Singers, 1951
  • Famous Negro Athletes, 1964
  • The Harlem Renaissance Remembered: Essays, Edited, With a Memoir, 1972
  • Young Booker: Booker T. Washington's Early Days, 1972
  • The Old South: "A Summer Tragedy" and Other Stories of the Thirties, 1973
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Lewis, Femi. "Arna Bontemps, Documenting the Harlem Renaissance." ThoughtCo, Nov. 7, 2020, Lewis, Femi. (2020, November 7). Arna Bontemps, Documenting the Harlem Renaissance. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "Arna Bontemps, Documenting the Harlem Renaissance." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).