Arna Bontemps (1902-1973)
Contributing Editor: Charles H. Nichols
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Bontemps is a lucid, sophisticated writer whose use of tone, irony, and symbol achieves subtle and interesting effects. Students need help in interpreting these kinds of figurative language.
In teaching Bontemps it is helpful to read his works aloud and to supply the background information that helps in interpretation. You may want to refer to poems not included in this anthology. "Miracles" is a poem with allusions to the life of Christ. "Let the Church Roll On" uses the familiar setting of the black church. The stark stories from The Old South evoke the race relations of the 1930s.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The major themes in Bontemps are historical as in 100 Years of Negro Freedom (1961) and Black Thunder (1936). Bontemps wrote historical novels on slave revolts and the stunning play St. Louis Woman.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
In form and style, Bontemps is deeply influenced by the folk traditions-- the spirituals, blues, and jazz. Yet he is also steeped in the finest traditions of English poetry and writes with dignity and a sense of beauty.
Bontemps wrote several works in collaboration with Langston Hughes. He prepared important anthologies and children's books. There have always been audiences for his writing.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Bontemps might be compared with Jack Conroy or Langston Hughes, writers with whom he collaborated. The basis of each comparison might be their relative concern for historical events or the use of folklore.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. In the poem "A Black Man Talks of Reaping," the poet presents the bitterness of the black man's experience, yet achieves a universal quality. How does the metaphor of planting and reaping remove the poem from the level of polemics?
2. (a) "Miracles" is essentially transcendental. Describe the theme of the poem.
(b) What use does Bontemps make of biblical allusion and religious imagery? How does he use the religious tradition of black people?