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Bontemps and the Old South.

Arna Wendell Bontemps (1902-1973) had a longer, more prolific career in humane letters than did most of the young writers who developed alongside him during the Harlem Renaissance. And the Old South is more prominent in his works than in those of any of his contemporaries, save Zora Neale Hurston. This umbrella theme allows us to see the developing artist whose childhood began in Louisiana, his own birthplace and the birthplace of his parent, and grandparent. Although he was transplanted to California when he was only four, Bontemps never lost his memory of those idyllic days in Louisiana just after the turn of the century.

His memory of Louisiana was kept alive by his closest relatives, who traveled back and forth from California to their native state and who told intriguing stories about the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the rise of the "White Caps," and of natural events on the Red River, the Cane River, and in the "Bayou Country" as a whole. Bontemps' up bringing was decidedly Southern, despite its California location, and it was the Old South that imparted to his life and to his works a characteristic sense of personal decorum and nostalgic reminiscence. In his poetry and his fiction No nostalgic quality produces a literary ambiguity that enriches both tone and texture.

Finishing college in 1923, Bontemps arrived in the Harlem of the "Strolling Twenties" in August of the following year, approximately five months after the famous "March luncheon" of 1924 which launched the careers of most of his contemporaries. He would not return to the South until 1931, when the Great Depression was at its Peak and when he was approximately twenty-nine years of age. Having taught since 1926 at the Harlem Academy, a Seventh-Day Adventist high school, he found, when it went defunct in 1931, that he needed calm and serenity, the kind of restful environment the Deep South could provide. So he moved with his wife and two oldest children (the other four had not yet been born) to Huntsville, Alabama, and began teaching at still another Adventist institution, Oakwood College, which at that time was a junior college. In Huntsville, he found the almost-primitive Southern environment appealing, a milieu that became a rich source of folk materials that would later inform and color his writing. The vestiges of slavery remained, but so did a warm hospitality that the natives provided and that he had not found in California or New York City.

Bontemps was able to benefit from this environment because he had no trouble blending with the surroundings. He liked the region primarily because he had fond memories of his roots in the Deep South, and would never have returned to the North if he could have found suitable conditions for his growing family. He loved the Alabama countryside and the folk-ways he found there, despite the indignities he and his family were made to suffer at the hands of Adventists and white supremacists during his three years at Oakwood.(1)

Bontemps' works reveal a deep, abiding affection for the Old South in general and for his native Louisiana in particular. Even after he left Oakwood College at the close of the 1933-34 school term, he nurtured his contacts with the black colleges of the South. Although he never landed the job in New Orleans he dreamed of, he did secure a position with Fisk University in 1943.

About the time of his arrival at Huntsville, the Scottsboro trials were in session. The event attracted separate visits from two of his colleagues, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, both of whom kindled the ire of officials at Oakwood. It was in this atmosphere that Oakwood officials demanded that Bontemps burn his books, which they considered low-life and anti-uplift. Owning nothing more incendiary than The Souls of Black Folk and the prose writings of James Weldon Johnson, Bontemps categorically refused to comply with this request. Yet despite this kind of demoralizing opposition, Bontemps' stay in Alabama inspired him to write, and saw the beginning of his stories for children and juveniles, the titles of which evoke Southern folklore: "Frizzly Chicken," "Bubber Joins the Band," "The Devil Is a Conjurer," to name a few of the more representative ones.

Decades after leaving Huntsville, Bontemps composed at least two auto-biographical essays that document his first return to the South and explain why he stayed in the South after his second return in 1943 to become head librarian at Fisk University. All things considered, the Huntsville experience proved to be good for his career as a novelist and a writer of books for children and teenagers.

Bontemps' first published novel, God Sends Sunday (1931) - Chariot in the Clouds, his first attempt to write a novel was never published - has a Southern setting, as do his second and third novels, Black Thunder (1936) and Drums at Dusk (1939). And his Great Slave Narratives (1969) also drew on the Old South for its narratives and their settings. Finished during the spring of 1935, Thunder is an historical novel which presents the fictionalized story of the "Gabriel Insurrection" that occurred in Henrico County, Virginia, in 1800. The novel's hero is Gabriel Prosser, an insurrectionist, modeled after the traditional "bad nigger" stereotype seen so often in Southern literature, a type Bontemps would return to in Drums at Dusk.

Although inspired by the author's visits to Haiti, Drums at Dusk is in some ways his Southernmost piece of fiction. Drums, in treating the decade prior to the span of years depicted in Black Thunder, deals with the participation of French Colonialists under d'Etaing in the siege of Savannah near the dose of the eighteenth century. It portrays a colonial society of white planters and their white wives and black concubines. This theme of "love across the color line" is blended with the topics of "escape and revolt" to produce an exciting plot in which half a million black slaves get revenge on their cruel white owners. Bontemps was successful in handling these complex social and racial materials, but Dusk did not fare so well with critics as did Thunder.

In rural Alabama the writer was able to immerse himself in African-American folk culture for the first time since his boyhood, when he had vicariously experienced the culture through the stories of his "Uncle Buddy." In Alabama the exposure was firsthand. He mingled with the natives, qiuckly making friends with them, and they began to invite him to church services and other public gatherings where he was able to amass a wealth of folk materials that would become the raw ingredients of his fiction from that time until his sudden death in 1973. The most memorable of these experiences occurred on his first visit to a Primitive Baptist church in Huntsville, where he witnessed both footwashing and benchwalking in a single service. And he never tired of talking about the worship practice of the storefront churches he visited during the Harlem era and how close these religious practices were to those of fundamentalist groups in the Deep South.

Ecstacy in worship was one of the phenomena that most intrigued Bontemps, epecially glossolalia, which he called "tongue talking." He liked to describe the "savage" dancing of the worshippers, the sheer ecstacy of the benchwalkers. These motifs appeared as artistically woven episodes in the fabric of several of his short stories created during the Depression (although, in many cases, not published until much later).

Typical of these Alabama-inspired stories is "Rock, Churck Rock," first published in 1942 and first anthologized in 1944 (Towner), and "Let the Church Roll On," published posthumously in 1973 (Bontemps, The Old South). "Let the Churry depicts a celebration of the ordinance of footwashing in a building at Mount Pleasant that is as hot as an oven. There is much fanning and perspiration coming from the crowded pews, and the elders of the congregation file down the center aisle dressed more like participants in a lodge "turnout" than worshippers. During the washing, one gorilla-looking brother, his dirt-colored underwear showing, enters the aisle to perform a thudding tribal dance; his bare feet pound the floor like African drum beats. The service, full of farcical elements, turns into a finale of barefoot dancers, while the children on the mourners bench share a roasted sweet potato that one of the brats has sneaked into his pocket. Both fictionalized folk tales, "Rock, Church, Rock" and "Let the Church Roll On," come straight out of the Huntsville years. Both are decidedly Southern, as is nearly everything else that came from Bontemps' pen.

Even when Bontemps wrote during his Chicago period, 1935-1943, of the Negro migration from the South to the Northern cities, sometimes jointly with Jack Conroy whom he worked with on the Illinois Writers' Project, the flavoring and the content of the work are clearly Southern. Bontemps was fascinated with the manner in which these migrants brought with them their Southern speeck Southern manners, and Southern values. Conroy, a native of Missouri, also drew on folk language and lore. Their joint effort, with its blending of Missouri and Louisiana, culiminated in They Seek a City (1945), which was reissued in 1967 as Anyplace But Here. And more than a decade after Bontemps joined the faculty at Fisk, he would collaborate with Hughes to produce The Book of Negro Folklore (1958).

Bontemps begins his "Prologue" to City by discussing the first blacks who came to the North, that "green Eden" where they were fugitives and wanderers. He goes on to report that the first migrants were runaway slaves and that blacks continued to go north after slavery ended. Next comes a discussion, under the generic title "Mudtown," of the little communities these migrants formed. Until his death, Bontemps remained proud of what he had done with this prologue.

St. Louis Woman, a play Bontemps wrote jointly with Countee Cullen shortly before the latter's death in 1946, was adapted from Bontemps' first novel God Sends Sunday. The play remains one of the author's most colorful works on the Old South theme, even though it was not a box-office hit and despite the fact that it went through many revisions and title changes. The plot of St. Louis Woman gathers around the passion of Little Augie, a "colored" jockey, for a sinful brown-skinned girl he wins away from "bad" Biglow Brown, a saloon keeper. When Biglow fights to keep his woman, Augie clumsily shoots and kills him.

The first version of the play, starring Ruby Hill as Della and a young Pearl Bailey in a supporting role, was significant because of its all-black cast. Harold and Fayard Nicholas also performed in the drama when it opened at New York's Martin Beck Theater on West 45th Street, as did Rex Ingraham, who had portrayed both the Emperor Jones and De Lawd in Green Pastures. The play and its cast received mixed reviews, however, with most critics arguing that, though the work was in the same genre as Porgy and Bess, it was neither a Porgy nor a Bess. Yet the dancing and singing of Pearl Bailey, then a new discovery, drew raves, and the play's songs and lyrics, provided by Arlen and Mercer, were all hits. The most succesful, a sultry number titled "Come Rain or Come Shine," had just enough of the lugubrious to place it alongside many of the boggie-woogie blues songs of the era.

Among Bontemp's papers at Syracuse University is an undated letter to Jean Toomer - written around 1958 from Nashville - in which Bontemps reveals his fascination with the Old South as a literary theme. Bontemps had finished reading Toomer's The Flavor of Men, a copy of which had been given to Arna by his Nashville neighbors Marian and Nelson Fuson. Deeply moved by the work, he wrote Toomer that the experience of reading the book reminded him of the experience he had reading Cane some thirty-five years before.

What had prompted Bontemps to write the letter, which he did with some hesitancy, was another coincidence. His own maternal grandmother, Sarah Ward Pembrooke, used to tell him during his boyhood of the honor she and her husband Joseph Pembrooke had during the early days of their marriage in entertaining Louisiana's Governor Pinchback in their home. Sarah Pembrooke had enjoyed a panoramic view of history. Not only had she lived through the whole of the Civil War and remembered her community's involvement in the struggle, but she had also lived through Reconstruction and the Spanish-American War. Moreover, she would watch as her sons and grandsons were sent to fight in both World Wars. Her stories allowed Bontemps to enjoy her experiences and those of his other older relatives vicariously.

Almost fifty years had passed since Arna had first heard her stories in early childhood and the time he set out to document his grandmother's memory of a stormy period in the life of his forebears. He could not quite fathom why Toomer had not written about his knowledge of this exciting period of Louisiana's history. "How a writer of genius could keep such a story locked in his heart," Bontemps exclaimed, "is one of the things that both fascinate and mystify me." The letter reveals not only Arna's fondness for the silent Jean Toomer, but it also reveals, espedary in passages not quoted here, that Bontemps was at the height of his thinking about Louisiana.

Bontemps, like Melvin Tolson and others of their contemporaries, never stopped drawing on the fertile topic of the Old South and the Southern Negro. In fact, by the time of his return to the South in 1943, his most popular and most frequently anthologized pieces were all on this theme - the poems "Southern Mansion" and "A Black Man Talks of Reaping," the short story" A Summer Tragedy." These were also among the works of which Bontemps was most proud.

"A Summer Tragedy" remains one of Bontemps' finest accomplishments in its genre. It unfolds the story of Jeff and Jennie Patton, who are reminiscent of the frail old couple who slept in the abandoned tree house of the author's boyhood in Furlough Track after the family's move to California. Deprived by the dead-end structure of the sharecropping system, Bontemps' aged husband and wife are eventually driven to the joint suicide that constitutes the effective surprise ending to the story. This excellent testimonial to Bontemps ability to deal with emotional subject matter without descending into mere melodrama is a touching requiem to its protagonists, who together have made forty-five cotton crops for Major Stevenson on Greenbriar Plantation. Jeff has had one paralytic stroke and fears another; Jennie is blind and in poor health and is dependent on her spouse's care. Their children have all died. Having concluded that some of life's situations are worse than death, the couple climb into their wheezing old Ford for the last time in order to carry out a meticulously engineered joint suicide.

My favorite story in the anthology The Old South is "The Cure," which offers one of the best examples of family affection in Bontemps' fiction. "The Cure" is based on Uncle Buddy's problem with alcoholism and the folk remedy his grandmother uses to "fix" the liquor bottle she has conspicuously left in a kitchen cabinet. The motif of prophetic dreams, one of Bontemps' favorite topics during his boyhood, appears early in the story." Maw came back to me last night," Buddy ex-claims. "She was standing on the piazza with a long stick in her hand" (27). Although the story is set on Arna's grandparents' farm in Furlough Track, California, it is actually a tale from Louisiana, as the piazza of its setting indicates - the term has been transplanted, along with the migrants, to California. Throughout, dialogue and setting are superbly blended with narrative description, as the author/narrator explores the concept of manhood, and the theme and topic of the Civil War, which his grandmother calls "The Rebellion." The cure or "fix" motif is reminiscent of such Southern remedies as standing a child asthma sufferer against the trunk of a fully grown tree and driving a nail through the bark. When the child grows past the nail - a rusty one is better - the ailment will suddenly leave.

"The Cure" chronicles the tender love of a sister for her younger brother, whose life has been ruined by the disease of a white man's claiming a black woman for his own with no regard for the black man in her life, or for her right to choose her mate. Mr. Silas Boatman, a Southern" gentleman," has taken Buddy's mulatto sweetheart Elvira. Bontemps associates Buddy's sensitive, intellectual bent with this tragedy in his life and that of his sister, who has reared him, and who tenderly explains to her young grandson why his Uncle Buddy is so consumed by sorrow.

In "Talk to the Music," Bontemps explores a topic his father had related to him about his own youthful days in Central Louisiana and in Orleans Parish while attending Straight University. The story relates how Mayme DuPree and Jelly Roll Morton worked together on "gigs" in Storyville, a red-light district at the "Mouth of the Mississippi." There white men and their black concubines consorted; the only black males allowed were employees of the establishment. There are sexual overtones of the male who carries with him his instrument, a mandolin and mandolin case - a topic that Rita Dove develops in her Pulitzer-Prize-winning genealogical poem Thomas and Beulah. Norman Taylor, the young protagonist, is a student at Straight. Mayme, sadder and more tragically lonely than her successor Billie Holiday, has as haunting and profound a desire to be loved by strangers as does Tennessee Williams' Blanche DuBois of A Street-car Named Desire. Mayme lives above a club that features "fancy women as bright as flamingos," sitting languidly at the "family tables." Visiting from Rapides Parish, Taylor is determined to find out what it is that makes this female blues singer sing the way she does.

In "Boy Blue," Bontemps returns to the "bad nigger" topic. John Jason Blue, the protagonist, is strongly reminiscent of Josh Green in Chestnut's Marrow of Tradition, and in "Woman with a Mission," Bontemps features Zora Neale Hurston as Lottie and Langston Hughes as Leander Holly, a budding opera singer. Both are cultivated by a wealthy godmother, Mrs. Eulalie Rainwater, who resides in a mansion at Larchmont. Godmother lavishes all of her attention on the primitiveness of Negroes, who could most profit from the kind of cultivation by hand that only she could provide. Her nemesis is Tisdale (Carl Van Vechten), whom she regards as a "degraded dilettante." The story treats the enormity of the belief that the African American has no soul along with a related opic, the "studied guile" of black mask-wearing.

These stories of the Old South contain all of the concerns that Bontemps broaches in his essay "Why I Returned." The tales comment on the "bold expurgation? of the fact of the Negro's mixed ancestry from the South's history; they tell of dark people whose genealogies comprise an "unwritten history." The themes of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the violent disorders that followed both, suggest another large topic: that these settings tended to restrict the "quaint companionship" that later became known as a fatal malady - miscegenation. Affectionate parents and grand-parents, and the serenity that this affection imparts, the belligerent voices of saloon-keepers, the threats; the stifled fury of African Americans; the "dim rumor" of intertacial romance - all find their places in these stories. Bontemps is concerned, as he was during his childhood, with what it was that made "conditions" in the South simultaneously so appalling and so appealing. He examines the topic of roots and the problern of Negro leadersydp in a hostile social environment in which white men were content to blame all of the South's problems on blacks instead of on swindlers and carpetbaggers, where it should have rested. Because it is "Negroness" that devalues property and threatens white womanhood, African Americans are the ones who are to be displaced. Yet Bontemps' discussion of these topics is never so blenk and pessimistic as the portrait that emerges in Richard Wright's fiction, and in Bontemps one finds little of the rancor that marked the writings of Chestnut and Dunbar.

On June 4, 1973, Arna Bontemps died suddenly in Nashville of a heart attack. One week earlier he had returned to Allen T. Klotts, executive editor of Dodd, Mead, the galleys for the publication of The Old South, fourteen short stories evoking African-American life in the rural South of the 1930s. Bontemps had chosen the book's title, one of the few of his original titles that a publisher left intact. These stories, some of which had been published separately in anthologies and journals, appear alongside "A Summer Tragedy" and reflect both the author's experience and the experience of his ancestors. They reveal a powerful nostalgia for the South that shaped Bontemps' life and the lives of his parents and grandparents. They are tales told simply, and because of their simplicity they are moving, full of a growing boy's awakening to the environment that shaped him and his family. The stories in The Old South are full of the love that sustained Bontemps during his entire lifetime, and several of them have Central Louisiana settings. The collection also contains an absorbing essay about his 1972 return to his childhood home in Louisiana.

By the time of his death, Arna Bontemps had established Louisiana as his favorite and most productive topic. Using autobiographical and genealogical themes and devices, he achieved a level of variety that keeps his reader enthralled. Old Louisiana and the Old South became the most profound sources of meaning in his works, and nostalgia, a concomitant theme, he handled equally well.


(1) explore this subject fully in my recently published biography of Bontemps.

Works Cited

Bontemps, Arna. Black Thunder. New YorK: Beacon, 1936. --. Drum at Dusk. New York: Beacon, 1939. --. God Sods Sunday. New York: Harcourt, 1931. --. The Old South. New York: Dodd, 1973. --. "Why I Returned." Harper's, "The South Today" supplement, Apr. 1965: 176-82. --. "Why I Stayed." Bontemps Papers. George Arendts Research Library, Syracuse U. Bontemps, Arna, and Jack Conroy. They Seek a City. Garden City. Doublesday, 1945. Jones, Kirkland C. Renaissance Man from Louisiana: A Biography of Arna Wendell Bontemps. Westport: Greenwood, 1992. Towner, Frederick John. Out of the Midwest: A Collection of Prosent-Day Writing. New York: McGraw, 1944.
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Title Annotation:Black South Fiction, Art, Culture; Arna Wendell Bontemps
Author:Jones, Kirkland C.
Publication:African American Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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