It’s the birthday of Harlem Renaissance writer Arnaud “Arna” Wendell Bontemps (books by this author), born in Alexandria, Louisiana (1902). For three generations, all the men in his family had been brick masons, but after his mother’s death when he was 12, his father sent him to a private school where he was the only black student. He went on to be the first member of his family to get a college degree, but his father was furious that he chose to study literature instead of medicine or law. After he graduated from college, he moved to New York City because, he said, he wanted to see what all the excitement was about. The excitement was the Harlem Renaissance, and he quickly became friends with writers like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and James Weldon Johnson. They encouraged him to publish his poetry and fiction, and his first novel, God Sends Sunday, came out in 1931.
His second novel, Black Thunder (1936), was about an actual slave uprising, and many people consider it his masterpiece. After Bontemps’s third novel got terrible reviews, he gave up writing fiction and got a job as the chief librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He used his authority as a librarian to build up one of the best collections of African-American literature anywhere at the time, and he went on to become one of the most important anthologizers of African-American literature, editing books such as The Poetry of the Negro 1746–1949 (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958). Much of the literature that he preserved and anthologized might have been lost without him.