by Redi Degefa
In summer of 2014, Stauffer Hall (the English department
at PUC) renovated a seminar room into a cozy study room.
This study room, the center of many jovial activities, was named after Arna Bontemps (‘23), as his name suitably means “good times.”
Arna Bontemps (1902-1973) was an African American
poet and novelist during the Harlem Renaissance of the
early 1900s. Along with his close friend, Langston Hughes(a poet and novelist), Bontemps contributed enormously to the preservation of African-American culture and heritage through literature
Bontemps was born in Alexandria, Louisiana to Paul Bismark Bontemps and Maria Carolina Pembroke. Bontemps
had an artistic upbringing, as his mother and father both enjoyed painting and playing musical instruments respectively. At the age of three, Bontemps and his family moved to Los Angeles, California where he spent most of his childhood. Bontemps developed a love for poetry and literature at an early age. In 1920, he enrolled at Pacific Union College where he studied English and wrote for the Campus Chronicle. Unfortunately, the library archives do not contain any
Bontemps clippings as those editions of the newspaper are no longer around.
After his graduation in 1923, Bontemps moved to New
York City and became a teacher at Harlem Academy. In
New York, Bontemps become a part of a group of African-American writers and scholars whose work had inspired the Harlem Renaissance. Bontemps also developed a lifelong friendship with Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois.
Bontemps published his poems in magazines, such as The
Crisis and Opportunity, that supported the literary works of African-Americans. He also received the Alexander Pushkin prize, and his poem “Golgotha is a Mountain” had won him a trip to Europe.
In 1931, Bontemps moved to Huntsville, Alabama where
he received a teaching position at Oakwood Junior college, which is currently Oakwood University. That year, Bontemps published his first novel, God Sends Sunday.
The book narrates the life of a black St. Louis jockey in the 1890s. Five years later, Bontemps published his most famous novel, Black Thunder, which tells the story of a slave rebellion in the 1800s. The Nelson Memorial Library at PUC owns a signed copy of this book.
Although Bontemps had begun his work with poetry, he
also wrote popular children’s books, including You Can’t Pet a Possum and Sad-Faced Boy. In addition, Bontemps received a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago in Library Science in 1934. Three years later, he became the head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. As a librarian, he further expanded the preservation of African-American cultural documents.
In 1965, Bontemps retired from his position as a librarian and received honorary professorships from Yale University and University of Illinois. On June of 1973, Bontemps passed away in Nashville, Tennessee, from a heart attack before the completion of his autobiography.