Originally published in 1965, Bontemps' essay focuses on a major debate regarding African American literature that raged during the Harlem Renaissance regarding whether or not "art" should maintain its link to "folk heritage" or whether it should link itself to more Eurocentric forms of artistic expression. From the outset, it is clear which position Bontemps sided with. He applauds and quotes from Langston Hughes' "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain":
We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves. (958)Bontemps' struggle to determine whether or not he should break with the "folk heritage" manifests itself in his father's and great-uncle's (Buddy) differing views on what to do with the South once they start their lives in California. Bontemps recalls dinner conversations where Buddy and his father brought up the South. When reminiscing about Louisiana, Bontemps' father would say, "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" (8). For Buddy, he would simply reply by saying, "Folks talk a lot about California . . . but I'd a heap rather be down home than here, if it wasn't for the conditions" (8-9). In some ways, both men miss their home in Louisiana, but due to differing circumstances both do not wish to return.
Bontemps' father had to think about his children. He continually approved of Buddy's ability to read and write well, but he disparaged Buddy for his "casual and frequent use of the word nigger;" for his love of "dialect stories, preacher stories, ghost stories, slave and master stories;" and for his belief "in signs and charms and mumbo jumbo" (9). Not wanting his son to look at Buddy for an example and to better his education, Bontemps' father sent him to a white boarding school for high school. He told his son, "Now don't go up there acting colored" (10). The tension between hanging on to the "folk heritage" of Louisiana and the South manifests itself in Bontemps' father and great-uncle. As Bontemps says, "In their opposing attitudes towards 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" (11).
|Portrait by Weinold Reiss|
Bontemps, Arna. The Old South: "A Summer Tragedy" and Other Stories of the Thirties. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1973. Print.
Hughes, Langston. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." The Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Literature. Eds. Rochelle Smith and Sharon L. Jones. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2000. 955-958. Print.