Arna Bontemps: A Voice in History

By Rylie Horiuchi

external image Bontemps.jpg

Arna Bontemps ("Wikipedia")

Born on October 13th, 1902, Arna Wendell Bontemps was born in Alexandria, Louisiana and grew up in California. He was sent to the San Fernando Academy boarding school with his father's instruction to not "go up there acting colored." He graduated from Pacific Union College in Angwin in 1923 with an A.B and started accepting teaching positions to support his family, including one in Harlem. Luckily, it was while teaching in Harlem that he would become closely connected to the Harlem Renaissance and befriend major artists such as Courtnee Cullen, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Jonhnson, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and especially Langston Hughes, with whom he frequently collaborated (" Arna Bontemps").

In 1924 he had written poems that were featured in Crisis magazine and later in Opportunity. During the height of the Harlem Renaissance he had won first prizes on three separate occasions along with other African American poets. In 1926, he also married Alberta Johnson, whom he later had six children with ("Arna Bontemps- Life and Career.") In 1931 he published his first fiction book God Sends Sunday, a novel about a St. Louis jockey. More permanent and gratifying employment came in 1946, when he was named Head Librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee; here he oversaw the expansion of one of the greatest archives of African-American cultural material, meanwhile writing books on everything from slave rebellions to the college’s famous Jubilee singers ("Hayden, Robert")

He died June 4, 1973 from a heart attack, while working on his autobiography. Arna Bontemps explored African-American experience in a wide variety of genres. As a poet, novelist, historian, anthologist and archivist, he enriched and preserved black cultural heritage. Bontemp’s poems are marked by a concern for the values of endurance and dignity— themes he treats in conservative forms even as he expresses his rage at injustice. They also reflect his immersion in the musical and oral traditions of African Americans ("Hayden, Robert").

Poem Analysis

"God Give to Men"

God give the yellow man
an easy breeze at blossom time.
Grant his eager, slanting eyes to cover
every land and dream
of afterwhile.

Give blue-eyed men their swivel chairs
to whirl in tall buildings.
Allow them many ships at sea,
and on land, soldiers
and policemen.

For black man, God,
no need to bother more
but only fill afresh his meed
of laughter,
his cup of tears.

God suffer little men
the taste of soul's desire.


This poem uses a lot of imagery more than anything. It also inclueds metaphors, connotative meaning, and symbolism, but imagery more than anything. Every line, every word in this poem is so descriptive that one can't help but picture what Arna Bontemps is talking about. Like when he talks about the different races in this poem. When he's talking about Asian men he uses words like "yellow" (1) and phrases like "eager, slanting eyes" (3) to let the reader figure out what he is talking about without ever actually saying the word "Asian". When Bontemps is talking about white men, he uses symbolism. In the second stanza, Bontemps talks about the "blue-eyed men" (6) and "their swivel chairs/to whirl in tall buildings" (6/7) and their "many ships at sea,/and on land, solders/and policemen" (8-10). When Bontemps says this he's talking about how white men are always on top and how they don't really do anything to be the ones in charge, only whirling in their swivel chairs.

It isn't surprising that Arna Bontemps, a very influential poet during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, would write a poem with this tone. The first reaction this poem brings is that Bontemps feels that God is unfair when it comes to different races, that he likes to see them "suffer the taste of soul's desire" (16/17). This poem describes how easy other races have it when African Americans have had such hard lives, such as the first stanza when it's talking about Asians and how they have "an easy breeze at blossom time" (2). Also when the poem talks about whites and "their swivel chairs/to whirl in tall buildings" (6/7). When Bontemps moves onto black men, he basically says that God didn't care about them: "For black man, God,/no need to bother more" (11/12). This poem defines all of the hardships Bontemps and his family had because of their race, like when they had to move from Louisiana to California after his father was threatened by two drunk white men (" Arna Bontemps").

Works Cited

"About Arna Bontemps' Poetry." Welcome to English « Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <>.
"Arna Bontemps - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <>.
"Arna Bontemps' Life and Career." Welcome to English « Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <>.
Hayden, Robert. "Arna Bontemps : The Poetry Foundation." Poetry Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2012. <>.
" Arna Bontemps." N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <>.

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