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  • Ana Savković

Arna Bontemps/Ann Petry: Harlem Renaissance

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

This week we have the birthdays of two writers who, through their works, portrayed the lives and daily struggles and sufferings of African Americans. What connects today’s authors, in addition to the themes they dealt with in their works, is the neighborhood in which a movement began that represented the flourishing culture of Americans of African descent.

Harlem was a central place, a kind of anchor for the Harlem Renaissance; an artistic and cultural movement that emerged in the 1920s and marked a new literary era in America when writers of African-American descent finally got their platform. Magazines such as The Crissis, Opportunity, The Messenger, and Negro World were an integral part of the development and spread of the movement caused by the first Great Migration of African Americans between 1910 and 1930, in which about 1.6 million migrants moved from institutionalized racism in the American South toward a better life in the North and Midwest.

The great achievements of the Harlem Renaissance include creating a new black identity, reducing racial bias, changing the way the world looked at people of different skin color, and adding a new dimension to art forms. The Harlem Renaissance did indeed have profound and far-reaching consequences. It laid the foundations for later African-American literature and for the initial phase of the African-American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance also had a significant impact on the lives and works of our authors today, so let us analyse how an why:

Arna Bontemps (October 13, 1902 - June 4, 1973) was an American writer born in Alexandria, Louisiana. His father moved the family to Los Angeles at the time of the Great Migration, prompted by a series of racial incidents. Arna had a complicated relationship with his father who was a stonemason and who wanted his son to continue the multigenerational family tradition. This demanding relationship was further aggravated by Arna’s attachment to his mother, a former teacher who died when he was twelve and who passed on to Arna her love towards the world of books and imagination.

In 1917, Arna's father sent him to a boarding school that was mostly white and reminded him not to behave "black" when he got there. His father's attitude towards his own roots and belonging to the black race later induced in Arna a strong desire to preserve African-American culture and tradition.

After graduating in 1923 from Pacific Union College, he accepted a teaching job in Harlem and became part of a group of African American writers, artists, and scientists whose innovative work began to attract attention. He found himself at the very center of the artistic and cultural movement, ie the Harlem Renaissance, through friendships with other writers and a series of awards he won for poetry from The Crisis and Opportunity magazines. He also began a lifelong friendship with Langston Hughes; an American writer and a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1926 he married Albert Johnson with whom he had six children, and in 1931, as the Great Depression worsened, he accepted a job at Oakwood Junior College in Huntsville, Alabama. That year he published his first book, God Sends Sunday, a novel about the most successful black jockey in St. Louis. An interesting fact is that W. E. B. Du Bois, American writer, historian, activist, and founder of The Crisis magazine was among those who did not give a positive review of the novel, calling it decadent and disappointing.

In 1946, he became chief librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, where he oversaw the expansion of one of the largest archives of African-American cultural material.

Although Arna began as a poet, his many interests and the needs of his growing family led him to other fields - he even wrote children's books because, frustrated by failed attempts to reach his own generation, he decided to address young readers "not yet hardened or grown insensitive to man's inhumanity to man". In the 1960s he returned to poetry, and in 1963 he published a collection of poetry Personals.

During the remaining forty years of his life, Bontemps wrote various books; biographies, children’s fiction, African-American history, and literary anthologies in which he often collaborated with his close friends, writers Langston Hughes and Jack Conroy. His various fields of interest were united by the common goal of fostering a social and intellectual atmosphere in which African-American history, culture, and a sense of self could flourish.

Ann Petry (October 12, 1908 - April 28, 1997) was an American writer born in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Anna’s father was a pharmacist, and her mother had several jobs; she worked in a hair salon and owned a shop. Just like Arna’s family, Anna’s family wanted their daughter to continue a multigenerational family tradition, so Ann graduated from Connecticut College of Pharmacy and then worked at her father’s pharmacy for a few years. Interestingly, Ann was the niece of Anne Louise James, the first woman of African-American descent to be a pharmacist.

Ann had a stable childhood and her parents managed to protect her from discrimination, but she still experienced several incidents, one of which she mentioned in Negro Digest magazine. In the article, she described how she was not wanted on the beach because of the color of her skin and was chased away. Another incident involved a teacher who, with the intention of humiliating her, assigned her the role of Jupiter, an illiterate former slave in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Gold-Bug”. Her father even wrote a letter to The Crisis magazine complaining about another teacher who refused to teach his daughters and niece because of their skin color.

In 1938, at the age of thirty, Ann married George Petry and the newlyweds moved to Harlem. Urban life opened her eyes and for the first time she truly saw poverty, hardship and segregation in black communities. She began working as a journalist for magazines such as The Amsterdam News and later The People’s Voice and published short stories in The Crisis magazine. Her role as a young journalist pushed her into all walks of life and the collision with the harsh reality of life in Harlem and the inability of its population to get out of unfortunate circumstances strongly influenced Ann and her writing. Over the next few years, she led sociological studies, volunteered with the NAACP, and worked with low-income students in after-school programs.

The experience of living in Harlem inspired her to write The Street, her most famous and best-selling novel that turned her into the first African-American woman whose book sold a million copies. The Street eventually sold a million and a half copies. The painfully realistic story aboutthe life of a single mother who raised her son in Harlem has brought her much praise and little recognition. Ann portrayed life in post-Renaissance Harlem, where the former metropolis of African-American creative energy was transformed into an environment filled with unrest and intolerance. The second wave of the Great Migration brought migrants from other parts of the United States and the Caribbean, leading to overcrowding and racial tensions, and the economic depression made Harlem a largely ghettoized area dominated by crime and racial injustice. Ann found herself at the center of it and decided to speak through her works about the reality that surrounded her. In 1947, she returned to a quieter life in Old Saybrook and wrote two more novels, a collection of short stories and, like Bontemps, several children's books.

In their works, both Ann Petry and Arna Bontemps reflected what W. E. B. Du Bois called the three great gifts of African-American culture and tradition - the gift of storytelling, the gift of music and song, and the gift of spirit. They were not blind to the sufferings and misfortunes of their people and described them in their works which were imbued with tradition. In doing so, they equated themselves with other great writers who similarly drew inspiration from their traditional/folk sources, or to paraphrase Arna Bontemps himself: Writers who utilize folk traditions align themselves with greats such as Aristophanes, Shakespeare and St. Paul. (Ann Petry's Short Fiction: Critical Essays)


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