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Centennial Celebration

The Arna Bontemps Centennial Celebration took place October 11-13, 2002.

The multidisciplinary festival commemorated the 100th birthday of our organization’s namesake, the late
Arna Wendell Bontemps, the noted novelist, poet, anthologist, librarian and children’s book author who was born in Alexandria, LA, October 13, 1902. The Arna Bontemps Centennial Celebration featured a wide range
of cultural activities including a book fair, a visual arts exhibit, a film screening, musical performances, theatrical presentations, readings by celebrated contemporary African-American writers, and an insightful address and panel discussion assessing the legacy of Arna Bontemps (1902-1973) and other New Negro writers of the 20th century.

Among the creative writers featured in the celebration were Lalita Tademy, author of Cane River, an Oprah Book Club selection and a New York Times bestseller for 17 weeks. Tademy was selected as a replacement
for Maya Angelou and Ernest Gaines, both of whom opted to decline invitations to participate in the Centennial Celebration before we were able to formally contract them. In many respects, Tademy proved to be a more than adequate replacement, financially as well as aesthetically. She brought a best-selling, well-known African-American woman writer to the proceedings as well as a novelist who uses Louisiana settings, histories and characters in her work. Also participating in the Centennial Celebration were such noted Louisiana writers as American Book Award-winning poet Brenda Marie Osbey, former Louisiana Poet Laureate Dr. Pinkie Gordon Lane, and Kalamu ya Salaam, winner of several major poetry slams as well as ASCAP/Deems Taylor Awards for his writings about American music.

Among the scholars featured at the Arna Bontemps Centennial Celebration was Dr. Arnold Rampersad -- Stanford University professor, MacArthur "genius" grant recipient, and the leading biographer of Langston Hughes, Bontemps' lifelong friend and writing partner. Rampersad provided a keynote address on Bontemps career at the opening session on Friday, October 11, and participated in a panel discussion the following morning with Charles L. James, a leading Bontemps biographer whose article on the Bontemps centenary
was the cover story of the September/October 2002 issue of ‘The New Crisis’ magazine. Also participating
on that panel was the noted historian Dr. Arna Alexander Bontemps, the youngest child of Arna Wendell Bontemps and author of The Punished Self: Surviving Slavery in the Colonial South.

Other events included a creative writing workshop with Lalita Tademy and 50 members of the Arna Bontemps Junior Writers Guild; a screening and discussion of the Academy-Award nominated film, A Tuesday Morning Ride, based on Bontemps’ short story, “A Summer Tragedy?; musical excerpts from St. Louis Woman, the Broadway musical Bontemps co-wrote with poet Countee Cullen, performed by Dr. and Mrs. Randy Bernhard;
a performance by The Bontempians Big Band at the opening ceremony; readings by the Arna Bontemps Junior Writers Guild; an exhibit of the art work from the Pasteboard Bandit, based on the images and text of a popular children’s book co-authored by Bontemps and Langston Hughes; a small book fair hosted by Waldenbooks; a performance of Lonesome Boy by Alexandria storyteller Sylvia Davis; “Presenting Arna Bontemps,? a theatrical performance by Frank Jackson of Pineville High; an open microphone poetry reading hosted by Kalamu ya Salaam and featuring Reed Dorty; and a commemorative mass at St. Francis Xavier Church.

In addition to Dr. Alex Bontemps, the Bontemps Family was represented by Wendy Williams, the writer’s granddaughter. Other notables attending the event included literary scholar Dr. John Lowe of LSU (Baton Rouge) and Dr. Charles Rowell, editor of Callaloo, the leading journal on literature of the African Diaspora, published by Johns Hopkins Press and based at Texas A&M University.

In addition to our staff and board members, the Arna Bontemps Centennial Celebration Committee included such community representatives as Dr. Bernard Gallagher, Karen Dunn, Sylvia Martin, Linda Burgess, Lenna Mouton, Amy Robertson, Robert L. Smith, and Dr. Philip Tapley.
Five area schools sent 425 students to the Centennial Celebration Opening Ceremony, including Alexandria Senior High (140 students), Arthur F. Smith Middle Magnet (160), Carter C. Raymond Middle Magnet (20), Northwood High (80), and Plainview High (25).
Sixty students attended a writing workshop with Lalita Tademy on Saturday morning and
approximately 20 joined in a luncheon with all the visiting writers and an afternoon
screening and discussion of A Tuesday Morning Ride.

Arna Bontemps Centennial Celebration events drew total audiences in excess of 900 people. These figures would have been even higher had the local area and the southern part of the state, especially the literary communities in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, not been adversely affected by tropical storms and hurricanes in the weeks preceding the celebration.

 

Arna Bontemps African American Museum
1327 3rd Street
Alexandria, Louisiana 71301

Admission is FREE (Donations Welcome)