A Westerner in Search of "Negro-Ness":
Region and Race in the Writing of Arna Bontemps
In 1917, Paul Bontemps of Watts, California, sent his only son, Arna, to a boarding school in nearby Los Angeles. Arna Bontemps, destined to become one of the most prolific and versatile African American writers of the twentieth century, was not quite fifteen at the time. Before parting, the father advised his son: "`Now don't go up there acting colored.'" These were words Arna Bontemps never forgot and, in a sense, never forgave. Fifty years later he recalled his father's admonition and answered: "How dare anyone—parent, schoolteacher, or merely literary critic—tell me not to act colored. "
What did it mean to act "colored" in the early twentieth-century West? Bontemps's own answer, negotiated during his young adulthood in California and subsequently represented in his literature, suggests the complex relationship between region and racial identity. Bontemps saw his father as a manifestation of the West, as one who had forsaken his Afro-southern roots in an errort to become colorless. He saw his great uncle, Buddy Ward, as a manifestation of the South, as one who had reluctantly migrated West and refused to surrender his Afro-southern folkways. Growing up largely isolated from the small black community in Los Angeles, Arna gradually began to question his father's view and to envy Uncle Buddy's sense of heritage. He developed a longing for what he later called "Negro-ness," which he saw as a southern, not western, quality. Throughout his high-school and college years, he grappled with the conflict between his father and Buddy, ultimately concluding that he must re-establish ties with the African American culture he felt he had lost in the West. That was why, in 1924, at the age of twenty-one, he left Los Angeles for New York's Harlem and the "New Negro" Renaissance, hoping not only to establish himself as a writer but also to discover his own identity as a black American.
Later in life, Bontemps published several autobiographical essays that examined his childhood in California and the tensions between his father and Uncle Buddy. In these self-reflective pieces, Bontemps reduced the complex personalities of Paul and Buddy to their least common denominators; the two men functioned as simple metaphors for complicated realities. The autobiographies themselves were thus something akin to fiction, as Bontemps probably realized. But in the question of identity—Bontemps's identity and everyone else's—personal constructions intersect with empirical context in fascinating and instructive ways. The cultural conflict between Paul and Buddy, and more particularly Arna's understanding and reaction to that conflict, opens a window on a much-neglected topic of Afro-western history—the issue of black identity.
A recent biography of Arna Bontemps by Kirkland C. Jones bears the curious title, Renaissance Man from Louisiana. Bontemps was born in Louisiana, but he was not really from there. The only "Southland" he really knew in the 1920s was southern California; his family brought him to Los Angeles County when he was four years old and, except for his college years in northern California, he remained there until he moved to Harlem in 1924. In a symbolic sense, though, Jones's title hits the mark. It reflects Bontemps's yearning for his Louisiana "home," a longing that profoundly influenced his life and literature.
Arna was born in the small town of Alexandria in 1902, the first child of Paul and Maria (Pembrooke) Bontemps. Both of his parents were from mulatto families with long, mostly free-black histories in the heavily French Creole region of central Louisiana. Maria was a schoolteacher who prized learning, purged her voice of southern accent, and longed for her children to receive good educations outside of the South. Arna's father had received formal vocational training in New Orleans and, like so many Creole men in Louisiana, had become a skilled brick mason. In his youth, Paul Bontemps was also a musician, occasionally blowing horn for Louisiana ragtime bands. Thinking back on his life in a 1965 autobiographical essay, Arna Bontemps reflected that "mine had not been a varmint-infested childhood so often the hallmark of Negro American autobiography. My parents and grandparents had been well-fed, well-clothed, and well-housed."
His parents nonetheless felt compelled to leave the South in 1906, when Arna was only four. The education they wanted for Arna and his sister, Ruby, could not be had in Louisiana. And there were more immediate concerns. The Atlanta race riot of 1906 stirred racial animosities across the South and rippled through Alexandria. Paul Bontemps did not want to leave the South, but his safety and that of his family seemed increasingly imperiled. He therefore moved his own family and Maria's parents to southern Cal-
ifornia, settling just south of Los Angeles city. Paul and Maria bought a house in the small settlement of Watts. "We moved into a house in a neighborhood where we were the only colored family," Arna remembered. "The people next door and up and down the block were friendly and talkative, the weather was perfect, there wasn't a mud puddle anywhere, and my mother seemed to float about on the clean air." Maria's parents, preferring a more rural environment, bought several acres of farmland between Watts and Los Angeles, in what local residents called the "Furlough Track," where they built a substantial house and a barn.
Watts and the Furlough Track were scarcely developed when the Bontemps and Pembrooke families arrived in 1906. What growth there was resulted from Henry E. Huntington's Pacific Electric streetcar line, completed in 1902, which stretched from Los Angeles to Long Beach and ran north-south through the area. Watts became an incorporated municipality not long after the Bontempses arrived, but even by 1910 the population of the town had not reached two thousand, with fewer than forty blacks. Slightly to the north of Watts, the Furlough Track was an eclectic, diverse area. A scattering of black families had settled amidst the Anglo farmers, along with a small community of Mexican families who had moved there to construct the interurban railway and then put down roots.
Los Angeles city boomed in the early twentieth century, and its black population grew rapidly as well—from about 100 in 1880 to nearly 7,600 by 1910. By 1920, African Americans in Los Angeles numbered at least 15,579; ten years later the figure rose to nearly 39,000, which now included the blacks who lived in Watts, which was annexed by Los Angeles in the mid-1920s. Still, the concomitant growth of the European, Japanese, and Mexican-heritage communities meant that blacks made up only a small percentage of the local population, usually between 2 or 3 percent. The African American community in Watts, like that in nearby Pasadena, was a smaller version of the black community in Los Angeles. Throughout the towns and cities of Los Angeles county, black communities represented small minority populations that were predominantly middle class, with high rates of home ownership and political activism. In this regard, they had much in common with other African American communities that emerged in the principal Pacific Coast cities.
As more blacks moved to Los Angeles and surrounding communities, Anglo resistance to blacks in "white" residential districts forced most African Americans to live in certain areas, which amounted to embryonic ghettos. But the key word is embryonic, for the Los Angeles neighborhoods "open" to people of color remained predominantly white through the 1920s, with blacks, Mexicans, Russian Jews, Japanese, and Filipinos occupying loosely defined ethnic enclaves therein. For blacks in southern California during
Arna Bontemps's childhood and young adulthood, the West offered a more open and diverse society than the Jim Crow South, whose viciously discriminatory racial system had driven Paul Bontemps westward.
For Arna's father, the move to California was more than a relocation. It was a conscious break from the past, from the South, and even, to some degree, from his race. He gave up playing jazz and committed himself to masonry and construction work. More important, he gave up the Catholicism of Creole Louisiana and led his entire family into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, a decision that profoundly influenced Arna's life. Shortly after joining the Adventist fold, Paul Bontemps became the first black Adventist minister in the West. Eventually, he would abandon the masonry trade and devote himself full-time to the church.
Paul Bontemps gave himself to the standard American vision of the West—to the idea of starting over, to the creed of a better future. His was not a frivolous undertaking. He made hard, disciplined decisions. He committed himself to his children's future. Reminiscing about Louisiana with relatives, he said: " 'Sometimes I miss all that. If I was just thinking about myself, I might want to go back and try it again. But I've got the children to think about—their education.' " When Maria died of illness in 1914, leaving Arna motherless at twelve, Paul's parental duties weighed heavier and his commitment to the children's education deepened. Arna later recalled that his own education and that of his sister was "one of the things [my father] took pride in and devoted himself to."
For Paul Bontemps education was one means of becoming fully American, or perhaps as he saw it, fully western. In southern California, he strove not to be a successful "black" man, but a successful man. Success, as he saw it, required a certain colorlessness, a conscious abandonment of ethnic culture. Not that he misunderstood the power of race. His masonry work in Los Angeles was curtailed in part by racist white trade unions, and the churches he pastored were all-black (by custom as much as by Adventist polity). But he saw his racial identity as something to rise above. For him, acting "colored" meant a way of thinking and behaving that kept individuals down. For him, "colored" meant aspects of Afro-southern folk culture that he and other middle-class blacks thought of as checks on middle-class respectability and economic success: loud talk, dialect speech, ostentatious dress, belief in superstition. He hoped Arna's integrated upbringing and schooling would shield him from such influences, and he sought to set an example for Arna to follow. Or so Arna perceived his father's views.
But there were other examples for Arna's observation, in particular his great-uncle, John Ward, known to the family as Buddy. In his youth, Buddy had been an urbane ladies' man with style and flash. But it was hard to maintain Creole pride in Jim Crow Louisiana, and Buddy's life eventually sank
deep into a bottle. Ruined and penniless, he was institutionalized in New Orleans until he dried out. Then he moved West, joining the family (his sister was Arna's grandmother) in southern California. His arrival caused a stir. Young Arna, expecting the "young mulatto dandy with an elegant cravat and jeweled stickpin" that he has seen in a family photograph, was shocked when a terribly disheveled Buddy stumbled through the door: "he entered wearing a detachable collar without a tie and did not remove his hat. His clothes did not fit. They had been slept in for nearly a week on the train. His shoes had come unlaced. His face was pocked marked. Nothing in his appearance resembled the picture in the living room."
But Uncle Buddy had an ace up his sleeve, or rather in his suitcase, which contained no clothes at all but was filled with treats and gifts from Louisiana—"jars of syrup, bags of candy my grandmother had said in her letters that she missed, pecans, plus filé for making gumbo." He talked about the South and held the family's rapt attention. As Buddy brought the Californians up-to-date on the news from back home, young Arna "became entranced" with Buddy and the South. It was a feeling he never quite lost, reinforced as it was by Buddy's ongoing presence. From 1908, when Arna's grandfather Pembrooke died, until 1917, when Arna went to boarding school, the Bontempses lived at the Pembrooke farmhouse. Buddy lived there, too, during Arna's most impressionable years.
Living at the Pembrooke house, Buddy turned out to be everything Paul Bontemps sought to avoid. Buddy used the word "nigger" with a casual ease that Paul openly condemned, and he brought loud, drunken friends to the house. In Arna's estimation, "they were not bad people." But they were "what my father described as don't-care folk." And, to make matters worse for Paul, "Buddy was still crazy about the minstrel shows and minstrel talk that had been the joy of his young manhood. He loved dialect stories, preacher stories, ghost stories, slave and master stories. He half-believed in signs and charms and mumbo-jumbo, and he believed whole-heartedly in ghosts." Paul Bontemps had a word for such a person, and that word was "colored." To his distress, Buddy and Arna spent long hours together; his son loved the old man and was fascinated by his stories of the South.
The conflict between Paul Bontemps and Uncle Buddy was nothing less than a struggle for young Arna's soul. It was one man's West against another man's South; it was disciplined practicality against joyful folkways. It was hope for an integrated future versus love of a racial past. And as the years passed, Arna began to understand the dynamics of that struggle. When his father sent him to the Adventist academy in the San Fernando Valley, Arna "took it that my father was still endeavoring to counter Buddy's baneful influence." There was more to it than that: Paul needed to take a well-paying masonry job outside the city, and the San Fernando Academy offered an
excellent academic environment for his smart son. No doubt, though, Paul Bontemps hoped the distance between Arna and Buddy would be advantageous. Hence, his admonition to Arna: " 'don't go up there acting colored.' "
Through high school and college the son respected his father's wishes. Arna thrived in the Adventist schools and followed Paul Bontemps's disciplined, intellectual path. He did not act like Uncle Buddy. He worked hard, watched his manners, and excelled in his studies. Throughout his entire life, Bontemps would remain an efficient, disciplined worker. In actual fact, there was nothing "colorless" about such behavior, but Arna had come to define his world and his race in the diametrically opposed examples of Paul and Buddy. Arna mildly defied his father during his college years (at Pacific Union, an Adventist school some fifty miles northeast of San Francisco), when he abandoned the pre-med studies Paul had recommended, changed his major to English, and announced his intention of becoming a writer. Paul Bontemps voiced his disapproval but nonetheless took pride in Arna's educational achievements.
Ironically, the academic world that Paul Bontemps assumed would keep Arna's Negro-ness at bay had just the opposite effect. With the exception of one colored girl in his second grade class, Arna was always the only black person in his class, from first grade through his college graduation. "I was just a lone wolf," he recalled. Despite his generally positive school experiences, and his friendships with classmates and teachers, color obviously set him apart. "Teachers always assumed that I was going to be at the bottom of the class, and when they found out I wasn't, this sort of shook 'em up a little bit." Arna laughed it off, but deep down those racial assumptions began to grate. So did the absence of black people in his history books. As early as age twelve he was frequenting the public libraries in Watts and Los Angeles looking for books about Negro life. "I was seeking a recognizable reflection of myself and my world in the collections of books available to a boy reader," he recalled. "What I found was cold comfort, to say the least."
Gradually, he concluded that his schoolteachers were shielding him from a proper understanding of the African American past. Some did not know any better, he thought, but others probably did. "I began to suspect," he later wrote, "that the colossal omissions they perpetuated were more than inadvertent. They were deliberate. Many may have been vindictive." Thus, a young and bookish Arna Bontemps, surrounded in school by whites who knew nothing of black history and cared less, developed an intense longing for a meaningful racial heritage and began what his biographer has aptly called a "journey into blackness."
Buddy was more than happy to help Arna make that journey, and, as a result, Arna's definition of Negro-ness would always bear a close resemblance to Buddy and his stories of the South. Buddy had said "I'd a heap rather be down home than [in California], if it wasn't for the conditions. " Even his
father, in more relaxed moments, longingly recalled Louisiana. For Arna, that only underscored the lure of the South and made the West seem increasingly colorless.
One curious point here—and Bontemps himself, introspective and insightful as he was, never quite registered it—was that Los Angeles was in no way devoid of Negro-ness, however it might be defined. The vast majority of blacks in southern California were southern-born and southern-raised, and Arna had relatives from Alexandria living in Los Angeles, including his close friend and cousin, Benny.
Consider, too, Arna's experiences when he came home summers from college (usually staying in the city with cousin Benny). In 1922, while taking summer school courses at UCLA, he discovered a copy of Harlem Shadows, a collection of poems by the Jamaican-born writer Claude McKay. Bontemps devoured it several times over, and "then began telling everybody I knew about it." When he read McKay's poems to his black friends, Bontemps was struck by their reactions. "Nearly all of them stopped to listen," he later wrote. "There was no doubt that their blood came to a boil when they heard 'If We Must Die.' 'Harlem Dancer' brought worldly-wise looks from their eyes. McKay's poems of longing for his home island melted them visibly, and I think these responses told me something about black people and poetry that remains true."
That same summer he discovered Jelly Roll Morton and jazz. Morton, from New Orleans via Chicago, would play in town until the midnight curfew, then move south of the city limits, beyond Watts to Leak's Lake pavilion and play some more. Bontemps and his cousin Benny, who played trumpet with a band at Leak's Lake, would go "and listen closely to the haunting music throughout the night." About that time, too, the messianic Back-to-Africa leader, Marcus Garvey, visited Los Angeles and packed the Trinity Auditorium, Bontemps being one in attendance.
Despite the richness of these experiences and the increasing vitality of the local black community, Arna Bontemps felt that he could not truly find himself or his heritage in Los Angeles. Other observers were more impressed with the black West. Chandler Owen of Harlem, editor of the national black journal The Messenger, visited southern California on a speaking tour in 1922. Owen gazed upon Central Avenue and called it "a veritable little Harlem, in Los Angeles." And yet, for Bontemps, Los Angeles could never be what Harlem was, a Mecca for the black world of the twenties.
"Before I finished college," he wrote, "I had begun to feel that in some large and important areas I was being miseducated, and that perhaps I should have rebelled." The Adventist schools he attended in California were academically excellent, and some of his teachers actively promoted his writing talents; in that sense, his western upbringing had given him permission to dream of being a writer. But at the same time, he felt that the West had
somehow robbed him of his birthright—a personal connection to Negro life. His father's coldness for things "colored" clashed with Arna's love for Buddy and his curiosity about black history.
The result was Arna's sharply bifurcated view of heritage, region, and identity. "In their opposing attitudes toward roots my father and my great uncle made me aware of a conflict in which every educated American Negro, and some who are not educated, must somehow take sides," Arna wrote in the last decade of his life. "By implication at least, one group advocates embracing the riches of the folk heritage; their opposites demand a clean break with the past and all it represents." By the time he graduated from Pacific Union, there was no possibility that he would choose the latter.
"So," asked Arna Bontemps, "what did one do after concluding that for him a break with the past and the shedding of his Negro-ness were not only impossible but unthinkable?" His own answer was to go to Harlem: where the "Negro Art Renaissance," as W. E. B. Du Bois called it, was blooming; where Claude McKay had written his poems; where Langston Hughes (another young heritage-starved westerner) and other black writers were publishing verse and fiction. In 1924 Bontemps left a post-office job in Los Angeles to become a writer in the Harlem Renaissance.
It was a cautious rebellion. His father was at the station to see him off. Arna already had the promise of a teaching job at the Harlem Academy, an Adventist high school. He had also received some affirmation of his talent on a national scale. Early in the summer of 1924 he received word that Crisis would publish one of his poems, appropriately titled "Hope." That was all the incentive he needed. His train pulled into New York in August 1924, he caught the subway to Harlem, got off at 125th Street, and walked up into what was for Arna Bontemps the most beautiful world he had ever seen.
As he later described it, Harlem in 1924 "was like a foretaste of paradise. A blue haze descended at night and with it strings of fairy lights on the broad avenues. From the window of a small room in an apartment on Fifth and 129th Street I looked over the rooftops of Negrodom and tried to believe my eyes. What a city! What a world!" He went to the Harlem public library and found young black women employed at the front desk, a sight unknown back home. Better yet, the young woman who accepted his application for a library card recognized his name from his recently published poem in Crisis. It was a sweet beginning, and things only got better as he quickly became an accepted figure in Renaissance circles. By day, he taught at Harlem Academy. By night, he roamed with the poets. Before long he married and roamed less, but he continued to love Harlem and to write about the heritage of race.
Arna Bontemps went to Harlem to explore the South or, as he might have said it, southern Negro-ness. The irony was that he was a westerner seeking Dixie's soul in a northern ghetto. It would be years, in fact, before he actu-
ally experienced the South first hand. In Harlem, Bontemps became part of a young generation of western writers and artists who were energizing the New Negro Renaissance. Although Harlem attracted blacks from all across the United States and from the Caribbean, most of the young mavericks of the Renaissance's explosive years—from the publication of The New Negro in 1925 to Wallace Thurman's Infants of Spring in 1932—were from the West. Besides Bontemps, blacks from the West included the well-known Langston Hughes (from Lawrence, Kansas), Aaron Douglas (from Topeka, Kansas, with a B.A. in Fine Arts from the University of Nebraska), and Wallace Thurman (from Salt Lake City, Utah, with some time spent at the University of Southern California). Like Bontemps these young people were educated in predominantly white schools. They shared his emotional need to explore black culture (especially the lower-class black culture that seemed to them unquestionably "Negro") and to express that culture in their art.
Bontemps's career in Harlem evolved differently from that of the other black westerners. His work was less dramatic than that of Hughes or Douglas, and it was never explosively controversial, like that of Thurman. But he began producing award-winning poetry and short stories immediately, establishing the disciplined work habits that would mark his astonishingly productive career of nearly fifty years as a writer of novels, short stories, poetry, children's literature, memoirs, and history, and as an editor of historical and literary anthologies. Largely ignored in the standard accounts of the Renaissance, and inaccurately described by one scholar as a poet who was "struggling in Harlem," Bontemps found a comfortable niche in Harlem early on.
A good day job and his marriage in 1926 to one of his students, Alberta Johnson, set him apart as an unusually settled member of the young Renaissance crowd. He was one of the few black artists of the Renaissance to marry, settle down, and have children. Family life curtailed Bontemps's appearances on Harlem's night-club circuit, but he gave no indication that he missed the bohemian scene. If his soul found comfort in Uncle Buddy's world, Arna nonetheless maintained a substantial share of his father's discipline and responsibility.
Bontemps accepted the prevailing worldview of the young generation of New Negro artists and the wealthy whites who underwrote much of their work. The basic goal was to restore "primitivism" to a soulless world. Broadly put, the new ethic ran as follows: the modern world was on the verge of disaster because the European pursuit of civilization had crushed the primitive and natural aspects of life that were critical to humanity's well being; Negroes—African and American alike—had preserved at least some of their primitivism; by presenting that primitivism in their art and letters, New Negroes might save modern civilization from its drought of soul. A resurgence of primitivism (and a romanticization of it) was not Du Bois's idea of
Renaissance, but it was what Hughes, Douglas, and Bontemps had in mind. In giving voice to primitivism—to what they considered the authentic and almost-extinct voice of African Americans—the black westerners sought at last to find their own true selves, to save Negro Americans from their ongoing loss of Negro-ness, and perhaps to save the soul of the nation. "The idea," Bontemps recalled, "intoxicated us."
Acting colored, or rather the self-expression of "color" in literature and art, was largely the aim of Bontemps and the western contingent of the Renaissance crowd. Before long, this trend prompted a struggle between some of the "old guard" Harlem writers (led by Du Bois) and the western newcomers, a struggle that paralleled the rift between Paul Bontemps and Uncle Buddy, and a cultural schism that might best be understood as a regional fault line.
For Du Bois, black art had a specific political purpose. White racist stereotypes of black Americans seized upon promiscuous, dialect-speaking, lower-class caricatures to discredit all blacks. Respectable art by educated blacks, Du Bois reasoned, offered the best way to undermine white racist stereotypes. This dominant assumption among leading black intellectuals rendered some subjects taboo, including black promiscuity, drunkenness, and southern-style primitivism in general.
But the western blacks who dominated the post-1925 Renaissance had no desire to distance their art from the earthier aspects of African American culture. Indeed, they had moved to Harlem to close the gap between themselves and Afro-southern folk culture. Artistically, they loved jungle scenes, jazz rhythms, blues sensibilities, sensuality, thick dialect—all the things Paul Bontemps saw as "colored."
The trend could be seen in a series of works by the black western writers. Langston Hughes's first book of poems, The Weary Blues (1926), set the tone by plunging his verse into the world of the black masses, explicitly linking African jungle moons and tribal dances with Harlem cabarets and jazzfilled nights. That same year, Wallace Thurman's ill-fated journal Fire!! (it lasted only one issue) received the ire of New York's established black intellectuals for showcasing the very subjects considered inappropriate by the old guard. (Subsequently, Thurman's two successes in 1929—the Broadway hit Harlem and his first novel, The Blacker the Berry . . . —would also emphasize the bawdier aspects of black life in Harlem.) The debate over "racial" art boiled up in New York's intellectual circles, but Arna Bontemps never wavered in his belief that "colored" representations (as he and his friends defined them) were much-needed in literature.
Bontemps's first novel God Sends Sunday (1931) underscored his commitment to racial art by presenting as its main theme the Afro-southern misadventures of Uncle Buddy. Bontemps did not care to write about a
westerner who moved to Harlem, as did Wallace Thurman in The Blacker the Berry . . .  Nor did he use the black West as his setting, as Langston Hughes did in his novel, Not Without Laughter (1930). Bontemps wanted to write about the South, the region he once called "that vast everglade of black life."
God Sends Sunday is all about Afro-southern folk culture. The protagonist is Buddy incarnate, thinly veiled as a jockey named Little Augie. Virtually all of the characters in the book are what Bontemps's father would have called "don't-care" folks. They are sporting men and painted women, whose earthy dialect and violent behavior flow like the Mississippi in full flood as they wander up and down between New Orleans and St. Louis. And they do not, in fact, care about anything but good times and immediate gratification. Little Augie races horses, chases women, gambles, and fights, his luck with horses and women running hot and cold until he finally hits rock bottom. Then he goes West to find his sister.
At last Augie arrives in Los Angeles, or rather in Mudtown, "the Negro neighborhood" outside of Watts. Mudtown, he discovers, "was like a tiny section of the deep south literally transplanted." With his sister, Leah, and her grandson Terry (close representations of Arna's grandmother and Arna himself), Augie plans to settle down at last—but he cannot. His restless, volatile personality leads him once again into drunkenness and trouble. In a fight over a young woman, he cuts up a neighbor—perhaps mortally—with a beet knife. Facing nothing but trouble in Mudtown, Augie flees to Mexico, hitching a ride to the border with his only possession—freedom of movement.
The curious thing about God Sends Sunday is that it is not about the black West, which Bontemps knew best, or about the northern ghetto, which surrounded him as he wrote, but about the black South, which he had never seen. Even the part of the novel situated in southern California is really about the South, not the West. The novel's "Mudtown" is obviously based on the Furlough Track where Arna had lived for a time with his grandmother and Buddy; but the real Furlough Track, as later described by Arna himself, was nothing like a transplanted section of the Deep South. Except for the different landscape and a few Mexicans in the background, Little Augie's West proves no different than his South. In an aside in the novel, Bontemps mentions that most blacks in the West live in the large metropolitan areas; but those blacks never appear in Bontemps's book. His story is about a very southernized "Mudtown," a virtually all-black, rural world, filled mostly with "don't-care" Negroes.
The novel received mixed, sometimes heated, reviews. Some critics praised it as an authentic, sensitive portrayal of Afro-southern culture. Others judged it a crude, uninspiring portrayal of the same. Uncle Buddy received a copy
from Arna, celebrated with his friends, and wandered drunk onto a road where a car ran him down. Paul Bontemps, reading his copy in Watts, had less to celebrate and lived to question his son's chosen vocation.
A shocked W. E. B. Du Bois hated the book. The Crisis editor, who had bestowed prizes on Bontemps's early poetry, now turned a sharp pen against the author. "A profound disappointment," he fumed.
There is a certain pathetic touch to the painting of his poor little jockey hero, but nearly all else is sordid crime, drinking, gambling, whore-mongering, and murder. There is not a decent intelligent woman; not a single man with the slightest ambition or real education, scarcely more than one human child in the whole book. . . . In the "Blues" alone Bontemps sees beauty. But in brown skins, frizzled hair and full contoured faces, they are to him nothing but ugly, tawdry, hateful things, which he describes with evident caricature.
Du Bois called Bontemps a race hater, but nothing could be further from the truth. Du Bois mistook Bontemps's joyful representation for hateful misrepresentation. Bontemps later said: "Du Bois did not fail to express pained displeasure—in much the same terms as my own upright father used when he read it—and I, in my exhilaration, was convinced that neither quite understood." In fact they did not understand. Bontemps wrote what he did in God Sends Sunday not because he despised poor southern blacks but because he loved them, even envied them. He felt they still possessed what he had lost growing up out West—a culture linked to primitivism, an enduring tie to an African past, an undeniable sense of self.
But Bontemps soon discovered the South first hand, and the experience affected his work. Shortly after the publication of God Sends Sunday, the Great Depression undercut Bontemps's job at the Harlem Academy, and he accepted a position at Oakwood College, an all-black Adventist school (with a white president) in northern Alabama. Bontemps loved the rural landscape and the ordinary black southerners he found there, but he quickly came to hate the South's suffocating racism and intolerance. "We had fled here to escape our fears in the city," Bontemps wrote, "but the terrors we encountered here were even more upsetting than the ones we had left behind." Bontemps began at last to realize what prompted his father to leave Alexandria for Los Angeles. Now it was Arna's turn to be a young black father with a family's safety and future to consider.
Bontemps's Alabama years gave rise to his second novel, Black Thunder (1936), which offered a fundamentally different vision of Afro-southern culture. Troubled by the racism that surrounded him in northern Alabama, Arna journeyed briefly to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where some of his friends from the Harlem Renaissance had established a haven for black education and art. There, Bontemps found a treasure of slave narratives and
read them "almost frantically" and "began to ponder the stricken slave's will to freedom." He found the slave rebellions—"efforts at self-emancipation," he called them—especially compelling, and he decided to write his next novel on Gabriel Prosser, whose 1800 rebellion ended in failure and his execution. To Bontemps, Prosser's desire for freedom seemed like an "unmistakable equivalent of the yearning I felt and which I imagined to be general."
Back at Oakwood, tensions became unbearable. Bontemps fell under suspicion, and he did not even feel free enough to tell his black colleagues about the Gabriel Prosser project. Meantime, friends from the Renaissance, including the increasingly radical Langston Hughes, kept stopping by Oakwood to visit the Bontemps family, thereby rousing more suspicions about the young black intellectual. Bontemps stayed through spring 1935, when the school's president horrified him by stating that Arna could save his position on the faculty only by publicly burning his books by Renaissance writers.
Arna Bontemps kept his books and returned to the West. At the time, he perceived this move as the great failure of his early manhood. In 1935, driving his family across the Southwest and marveling at the caravans of Okies, he knew his homecoming would be less than pleasant. He was broke, Alberta was expecting their third child, and all five of them would have to live with Paul Bontemps and his second wife in their small house in Watts. Upon arrival Arna sold the Ford "in the hope that what we had received for the car would buy food till I could write my book."
Back in Watts, Bontemps spent half a year writing one of the strongest (yet least-appreciated) novels of the Renaissance era. Circumstances were rather strained. His father accepted the imposition with stiff politeness and once openly criticized his son for arriving at such straits. With no space for a typewriter or even a writing table, Arna "wrote the book in longhand on the top of a folded-down sewing machine." Compared to Alabama, though, southern California seemed tranquil. In the mid-1930s, class and race tensions were actually running high in Great-Depression Los Angeles; but from his writing window, Bontemps looked out on a landscape of peaceful ethnic diversity. "AJapanese truck farmer's asparagus field was just outside our back door," he recalled. And "in the vacant lot across from us on Wiegand [Avenue] a friendly Mexican neighbor grazed his milk goat." Bontemps loved the climate. "We could smell eucalyptus trees when my writing window was open and when we walked outside," he said, "and nearly always the air was like transparent gold in those days." Despite Arna's sense of failure, his family had survived the South and made it safely to the West—just as Paul Bontemps's family had done in 1906.
Having now fled Dixie himself, Arna wrote about the South differently. Black Thunder was not about preserving folk life. It was about getting free, about harnessing the revolutionary potential of Afro-southern culture. In
Black Thunder; the slave Gabriel can no longer abide bondage. He seizes upon Old Testament promises of God's vengeance against evil and rallies his fellow slaves for freedom. They plot to kill the white people in Richmond in hopes of fostering a general black uprising. For Gabriel, the only choice was freedom or death. And in the end a betrayed Gabriel dies calmly on the gallows, "excellent in strength, the first for freedom of the blacks, savage and baffled, perplexed but unafraid, waiting for the dignity of death."
From the vantage point of Little Augie's flippant escape to Mexico in God Sends Sunday, Bontemps had moved a very long way. His early longing for "Negro-ness" in what he perceived to be a "Negro-less " West had led him to Harlem and, by twists of fate, to Alabama. Profoundly disturbed by the Deep South, he returned to the relative safety of the West to write a novel whose basic theme, as Bontemps himself described it, was the "self-assertion by black men whose endurance was strained to the breaking point."
Oddly, Bontemps would ultimately move back to the South and remain there until his death in 1973. With a small advance for Black Thunder, he moved to Chicago and remained there several years, attending graduate school and working for the federal writers program. But the northern ghetto disturbed him. Blacks were confined to the South Side, which Bontemps viewed as a hellish cauldron of poverty and crime. Nor could he return to Harlem, where the Renaissance had been devastated by the Great Depression and the riot of 1935. So, in the early 1940s, when Fisk University asked him to join the faculty and serve as Head Librarian, he accepted.
Arna Bontemps thus returned to the South at the very time that hundreds of thousands of southern blacks were moving to Los Angeles to work in the war industries. The South he moved to was not quite the Alabama he had fled. Fisk University, along with the black middle-class community that surrounded it in the upper-South city of Nashville, offered his family a less threatening form of Jim Crow than they had found in Alabama and a safer middle-class environment than they had found in Chicago. And although Arna occasionally accepted visiting appointments at Yale and other universities, he would remain in Nashville until the end. But in a final testament to the power of region in shaping Bontemps's life and art, his last book of essays, published posthumously and titled The Old South, includes three autobiographical stories. Those stories are not about the Old South, of course, but about his coming-of-age—and his quest for identity—in the twentieth-century West.
The issue of African American identity was a matter of concern and debate among blacks throughout the United States in the first three decades of the twentieth century. The question of "acting colored" was never an exclusively "western" matter. It rattled through black middle-class households ev-
erywhere, as concerned parents pointed out local variants of Uncle Buddy and warned their children that "loud" and "lazy" were tickets to poverty. But for Arna Bontemps in California—and for the other black westerners who made their way to the Harlem Renaissance—the question of "acting colored" would always be a matter of culture that transcended class. And it was a matter of region as well.
Indeed, whenever the issue of "acting colored" arose, it reflected a regional context. In the South, where the vast majority of blacks still lived, a crushing apartheid-like system circumscribed the issue by forcing all blacks into a tightly restricted subservient caste. In northern cities the African American population soared (especially beginning with the Great Black Migration of World War I), prompting a conflict between northern-born blacks and southern-born newcomers and also sparking a white backlash that resulted in the widespread ghettoization of all blacks.
The West, by comparison, had the smallest black population to begin with and received fewer Afro-southerners than the North during the Great Migration. Most black western migrants moved to the growing coastal cities, which, prior to the 1890s, had only the tiniest of black communities. For that reason, it was not clear where blacks would fit into the rapidly changing society of the West Coast. Despite pervasive discrimination by whites against all people of color, black residential patterns in the West were less concentrated than in the South or North. By the 1930s, blacks would find themselves locked into highly restricted residential areas. But in the formative years of the century, there was more flux and uncertainty—all the more so because the West was a decidedly multiracial environment, and it was not clear where blacks would stand in the regional hierarchy of ethnic status and power. African Americans therefore found relatively more openness in the West than elsewhere (at least for a while), and that openness complicated the issue of black identity.
Bontemps understood the power of place in shaping racial identity. For him, the openness of western society felt strangely like a severance of heritage and created in him a longing for the identifiably black aspects of African American culture. He found black culture first in the stories of Uncle Buddy, then in Harlem, and finally in the South itself. But he seems never to have found it in the West. It is not too much to say that the early-twentieth-century West turned Arna Bontemps into a cultural nationalist, albeit a soft-spoken one. A disciplined, religious, hard-working family man, he lived his life much in accordance with his father's example. But his art remained close to the soul of Uncle Buddy.
From the summer of 1922, when he read African American poetry to his young friends in Los Angeles, Arna Bontemps expressed his love for black culture—for "Negro-ness." He never saw any contradiction between
racial appreciation and racial integration. In matters of civil rights, he was staunchly integrationist, citing Charles S. Johnson's injunction to be engaged in "intensive minority living." But Bontemps's idea of integration never included the abandonment of what he saw as black culture. He desired to be a full citizen of society and to celebrate the richness of his racial heritage. Bontemps's cultural journey thus presaged what remains today an important and recurrent tension in the singularly diverse society of the American West.