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Title: Arna Boutemps [POF 3]
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Title: Arna Boutemps POF 3
Series Title: Arna Boutemps POF 3
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Language: English
Publication Date: 1970
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        Copyright
    Interview
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Arna Bontemps interview/Re: Hurston


I; We can probably start. I'll introduce myself. This is an interview

that's being conducted with Mr. Arna Bontemps in his office in Sterling

Library at Yale University on November 18, 1970. I'm doing this book

on Zora Neale Hurston as I told you.

B: Oh, yes.

I: I would be interested first of all I guess in just your general impres-

sion of Miss Hurston. I gather she was not the usual sort of personality.

B: No, I would describe Zora as a character. By that, I don't really mean

it in any bad sense or anything other than that she was a person that one

remembered, who was sort of an original. I don't know anybody else

just like Zora Neale Hurston. She was very outgoing. In any group she

was the center of attention. I don't know whether she was trying to

be but she just, well, somehow attention focused on her because she was

Very articulate and very... she didn't seem pushy or offensive in any way,

but she somehow drew attention.

I: I know that Richard Bruce I think is under that name. I think it's actually

Richard Bruce Nugent, isn't he?

B: Oh yes, that's right, Richard Bruce. I first knew him as Bruce Nugent.

I: The only issue of which they published has in that novel

an account of Zora at the party and people just surrounding her listening

to her tell stories.

B: It seemed so natural to her. She was really not a showoff.'but she

just drew attention in that way. In appearance, Zora was a pleasant,

ordinary, brown-skinned young woman; not studying, about average, a little

above average in appearance, but she had an ease and she somehow projected


Yale 11/18/70







herself very well orally, and almost before you knew it, she had

gotten into a story. She had a wealth of them. They all resulted in

these books that she did on folklore. Many of those of us who knew

her personally had heard those stories in her conversations so there
ro
was just a wealth, a storehouse of memories of folk, wisdom and

amusing anecdotes.

I: Were alot of them Eatonville stories?

B: A great many were, yes. Those were--at least they stand out in my

memory because I think they were unfailingly interesting, catching.

She was apparently a kind of folklore collector then even before she

came to New York.

I: Even before she began studying with Boas. She was just rich with them.

B: ...Found where the writers were and where it was going on so she came

with all of that material. Now I don't know precisely when she registered

at Columbia, but I suspect it was a little after.

I: Yes.

B: So that I could testify then that her stories and her bundle of folklore

was very much with her when she entered.

I: That's very interesting. I'm sure her subsequent research probably just

enhanced what she had to start with.

B: That's right. That's right. I believe that when she became involved

with her studies, and this was some of her stepping stones toward

her possible degree, then she certainly reflected on it and this drew

out other things.

I: Yeah. I think she actually came to New York when Charles Johnson wrote

her and she was at Howard and had published some things in

And she'd been working with Locke and Charles wrote her and asked her

if she had anything else and she sent him some stories. Then she came

to New York and I guess even sponged off the Johnsons now and then.








B; She sponged off of everybody but she did it in a disarming way

because everybody was glad to have her sponge on them a little because

she was so entertaining.

I: There's correspondence with both Fanny Hurston and Van Vechten indicating

that she did that and no complaints whatsoever.

B: No, I never heard or saw any evidence of complaint. She was such good

fun that that took care of it. It was the sort of thing, however, you

know, that lent itself to a little misinterpretation later on. I

think that as time went on Zora began to depend on this disarming quality.

When the depression became grim, she probably exploited it a little.

I: Well, let me push a point for a moment. I've read, for'instance she

made some very ambiguous sorts of statements to the newspapers in the

thirties and forties. They don't seem to me in keeping-with what her

written words project.

B: Right.

I: Roy Wilkins for one has suggested that these were simply publicity

gimmicks on her part to get notice for her book. Do you think that this


was .

B: There might have been a little of that

complications in her personalities and

the fore. The depression happened and

until after the Reinaissance. She was

came out later. By the time her books

dispersed and were scrounging and were

hit Harlep in a very heavy blow that's

date, how devastating it was.


involved. Zora was not without

the time sort of brought this to

her books didn't get published

very conspicuous, but the books

came out, the writers had been

looking for a place to land. It

so heavy it's hard to realize at this


Langston Hughes talks about that pretty specifically.

Yes, right. I would say that everybody involved there began to search

for a place to land, and Zora went the way that was available to her.








She went back to the South, the DeepSouth, Eatonville, partly because

she was looking forward perhaps to publications because she had a

sponsor, she had a patron -- Mrs. Mason. And Mrs. Mason was sort of

underwriting her expenses at that time. I would say that Harlem had

stopped laughing really. The joy had pretty well gone out of Harlem.

It had risen to a high point during the Renjaissance but it was pretty

well gone, and Zora had gone South. Well, I'm not sure whether Zora had

been invited with that other group to go to Russia or not. You may,

you may . .

I: I haven't run across anything where she has gone.

B: No she did not go. I'm pretty sure, she didn't. I'm sure she did not go.

But the reason that comes to my r~ind is because this appears to have empha-

sized sort of a turning point and a breaking away on her part from most

of her previous associates. Now she had this quarrel with Langston

but it was, I'm pretty sure it was, prior to his going abroad because

I don't think he had any more associations with her afterward. And this

was all tied up too, with the fact that both had the same patron at one

time and the patron tried to sometimes help them both siultaneously.

She provided a secretary, I think, who was doing wrk for both of them.

The secretary being Louise Thompson Patterson. She was--well, at that time,

what was she? Married Wallace Thurman, a very short-lived marriage and she

was free again for awhile. And then later on she remarried. Patterson

took her a different direction politically from, the others had not been

political at all.

I: Is Mrs. Thompson still alive?
so.
B: I think/ Somebody wrote me about her last week to ask if I knew her

present address, and I don't. I do remember seeing her in Harlem

two years ago. I think it was at Langston Hughes' funeral. Around

that time, that's the last . I didn't have her address, I have




-r<


seen her off and on on occasions something like that over the past

years, and had not heard that she was anything different. But I should

think it'd be possible to find her because her husband is a very

prominent, a prominent American Communist, and had been a candidate

for something or other, you know. But I've aerd nothing about him.

And when I have seen her in the last decade she has always been alone.

They had a daughter and I understood that the daughter had probably seemed

to me gone to Russia, but.I'm not sure about that. I've had no

further comments on it.

I: She was the secretary for both Langston and Zora Hurston?

B: That's right. She came to Harlem from Hampton. She was teaching typing

and Commercial Subjects down there, and was just a young teacher.

She had another girl whose name I can't remember. I had the impression

that another teacher in the secretarial typing department came up and

both of them found ways to earn a living I think in New York because

this literary thing had extensions into the magazines and so forth. She

was doing work even before she went to work for Mrs. Mason because I can

remember her typing a manuscript for me, one of my actually the first

novel I wrote.

I: Nonsense Son?

B: Nonsense Son. Well, actually it was a predecessor of that. And she may

have copied that one too. But she was just doing typing on her own at

that time. She wasn't involved with anyone else. Later on when Langston

and Zora started to collaborate, I now feel that it was related to the fact--

well, I now know that it was related to the fact that both of them had the

same patron. They started working on a play called "Mule Bone." And

it resulted in a conflict, to put it mildly. And I saw Zora Afterwards.

I was traveling, I was speaking at North Carolina College in Durham years







later. And Zora, she taught there, did you know? She was there, yes,

she was doing something and she had the president hypnotized just like

she had everybody in Harlem because he was . .I remember she took me

and introduced me to him. His name was Sheppard. When she came in he

started laughing and just settled back, you know, and dropped all his

cares to listen to Zora as usual.

I: Wouldn't that be about '38 or .39 or . .?

B: It would have to be. Yes, it was during the depression. And I

don't know what her status was with her patron at the time. I think it

was still amicable, because I don't know whether this would be open or

not, but Zora prevailed on me to write Langston a letter and try to

patch up their quarrel. And I wrote it. And to my great embarrassment,

it's over there in the I wrote to him. I told him exactly what

she had begged me to say to him. But it develops that she was . .

I: You were talking about Langston and . -

B: And Zora's, yes, the quarrel. Zora blamed it on Louise Thompson.

She thought that, I mean it wasn't that she thought that Langston was in

love with her or anything like that. I think that she just felt that

probably, well, now this is speculation. Probably she thought that in her

job working for Mrs. Mason and doing secretarial work for both of them

probably, Louise Thompson had access to the patron or might have been

somehow in between her and the person whom they were virtually employed

by. She told me in so many words that she blamed her quarrelling with

Langston on Louise Thompson.

I: Mrs. Mason was a patron not only to Hughes and Hurston, but also to

Aaron Douglas and people like that.

B: Yes. To a lesser degree Aaron Douglas. Prior to this Miguel Corquvias

and probably many others because she was quite elderly at the time and

apparently had a long background or history of patronizing the arts.




-8-


very much Carl Van echter whom she thought as being a pernicious

influence on Black artists. Of course he was interested in Black

artists too. I don't know what she thought of Alain Locke. Sometimes

I wonder if she went out on his side, but she was independent. She had

worked this all out in her own mind about something which really, if

followed to its natural conclusion, leans you to this "cult of

primitivism."

I: Right. That's what I was about to say.

B: Right.

I: She apparently had been interested in Indians, and had actually lived

with some Indians.

B: Yes.

I: And I think that that may have been why Hurston appealed to her--not

only the kind of spontaneous quality of Zora herself, but also the

folk stories and the books that Zora wanted to do.

B: If there's ever a natural mind, you know, she does admit she was a

natural woman. She was really the child of nature. That was Zora.

Now she differed in some ways, of course. Zora did some things that

were very Zora was . I never saw, well, I saw Zora

dance but that wasn't her, that wasn't her medium. Speech and storytell-

ing was her thing. She was not--well, yes I heard her sing too, in

little groups, you know, I remember she tried to lead a group of us

while Fire was being put together in a song called "Come On . .

Children, Let's Go Around the Wall," or something. It was a spiritual

that she knew that none of us had ever heard before. She was trying to

teach us a different spiritual, although it was not really based on my

real Lord. Singing was not her thing, but the stories were; all

kinds of them. The jokes, the exaggeration, what she would call "the


i








lies" and so on. She was rich with them and she always had some ready.

I think that your writing a book about her is a wonderful thing.

I think she is a superb, a superbly complicated person; one which

serves a very good purpose. The part that apparently you have been

doing, which I think is very necessary and the reason why . well,

without it you couldn't do a very good book on Zora and that is, filling

the role of Mrs. Mason. If you can sort of get her background and fill

in on her, then you really have a major factor in her career as a

writer.

I: Mrs. Mason supported her, I think, from about 1927 to about 1931. I

don't have the precise dates but . .

B: Right.

I: All the research she did after she left Columbia .

B: Yes.

I: I'm going to have to check with the people at Barnard, but apparently

she completed her work at Barnard and then left and went to the South

for her folklore research.

B: Yes, for the Mules and Men.

--I: Then she stayed there for about four years, about 1931.

f- B: Right.

I: But then for some reason as nearly as I can determine, her relationship

with Mrs. Mason if not terminated, it at least went into some sort of
7
a different phose after 1931.

B: Well, '31, that makes sense. After leaving Harlem, '31, when we all

left, I didn't see her again 'till .at least I didn't see her to

spend any time with her until I went to North Carolina. As I think of it

now, I believe she did come to Chica--I was in Chicago for . .at

one time and now I don't know . .




-13-


But actually she was, no, she was not writing for the Eagle though,

she was writing for a rival paper there. She could have worked for

The Eagle at first and it could have come from her. And it could have

come from Faye Jackson although she .

I: Wait, now I can't remember the exact name.

B: Oh yeah.

I: See, as long as we're talking about the politics, you mentioned Zora

not going with a group to Russia. Could you elaborate on that a little

bit? I'm not quite sure that I understand.

B: Well, you know that that trip was to become sort of significant historically

because this absorbed quite a bunch of the old Harlem group. Practically

everybody that they could lay hands on who didn't have a place to land,

you know, when the dispersal occurred, caught a ride on this trip to

Russia. They went to make a film, you know. A documentary was going to

be made about the Negro experience. So it was announced. And Langston

was in it. Louise Thompson was in it. Louise Thompson, by that time the

break had occurred. Henty Lee Moon was in the group and Ted Poston

who's for years been at the New York Post and many others. There are

some pictures, I think, over in the of the group that went.

Some of them identified, some of them not. I suppose that the first,

most reasonable assumption is the reason that Zora didn't go,

the reason taht I wouldn't have gone, is because I had something

lese that I found that I could do, which was a job. I had a wife

and a couple of youngsters and that was not, that's the sort of thing

that would have appealed to me if I had been unmarried as Langston was,

and as these other fellows that I named--Loren Miller, by the way,

went too. He later acquired the Los Angeles Eagle. But they went

because it was sort of an adventure and because it was something to do

at a time when it was very hard to find things to do. And most of them








came back strongly anti-communist as a result of it. Langston stayed

longer than the r-ewt because when he got there he found that his first

beek had been translated into Russian and he had a lot of rubles

in the bank which he could .

I: Well, she was invited then but she chose .

B: Oh, I feel sure that most of those who were free were. I really don't

think, I think that probably in Zora's case, as with me, she probably

had found something else that she could do. But probably her break

with Mrs. Mason Hadn't been complete because this had to happen at the

end of '31 or in the fall of '31 because I remember Langston went

to California and on the way stopped at the school where I had

gotten a job and gave a reading and presently continued on to-California

in a car.

I: Was this in Alabama?

B: This was in Alabama, right.

I: I remember seeing a letter from you to Langston at Fisk. The thing

that struck me about it was that you were talking about Nella Larson and

that her, your phrase was: "I think that her ofay novel will get

accepted",I

B: Yes.

I: Which I can't remember exactly which one it was involving.

B: Yes. Well, I don't precisely remember the letter but I was corresponding

with him at the time. And I do know that it was from this same trip

but after he'd been to California and completed his tour, that he was

on his way back . he came back to New York and actually he had

listed a number of stops on the way and got about halfway there in

the car and then he disposed of the car and went on and joined the

group in New York. Well, now I have a feeling that Zora, too, may have

sort of known something else that she could do, so that it probably was not


i







that she was going to somehow parlay this into a doctoral degree.

I,; ,e&, at Fisk in the Rosenwald archives there is a fascinating bit of corres-

pondance between Hurston and the Rosenwald people.

B: Oh, yes.

I: I think she was dealt very poorly by them.

B: .

I: Because Mr. Embry, you know, . .

B: Yes.

I: He made a grant of for two years, this was in the end. of '34 and

December of '34 he\ made her a grant for two years and said, "You can

pursue your Ph.D. at Col mbia, if BOAS and the Anthrology Department there

will accept you for study." And she went to Colombia. She talked to

Franz Boas. He wrote Embry and said, "Here is the course of study she

is taking, etc." And then in a very short period of time, about a couple

of months, Embry wrote Hurston saying, "I don't feel htat your program

plan will lead to a Ph.D. and consequently we are terminating it at the

end of seven months.

B: Seven months?

I: Yes. And she was never particularly bitter toward the Rosenwald Fund

about this, which leads me to think that maybe the correspondence

doesn't fell everything.

B: Yeah.

I: But on the basis of the correspondence, it seems to me very clear that

Embry was being very patronizing with her. And was in effect saying

"Well, massa's gonna tell you what you're supposed to do."

B: Right. See, that's very interesting. I don't see her during that

period and I was very close . well, I became very close to the




-17-


Rosenwald Fund and to Embry after . .. I came back in '35; actually

about '36 I began to know the people at the Rosenwald and to be associated

with them. But by that time, this was all history. Prior to it, I

Had been perhaps a year in Chicago and the year before that in California

and before that, a short sojourn in North Alabama. That is rather aston-

ishing to me, now it may have been too, you know, Zora got--I don't

remember the dates on it--but she got some very bad publicity as you

know.

I: That was in '48.

B: That was '48? That was not related to it. No, I don't remember what

it was..

I: Oh, she was . .

B: Oh, no. She was horrified by it.

I: Yes, I think told you about the letter that she found in the

to Van Vechten about that.

B: Yes, it was addressed from Zora to Van Vechten. I never saw the article

and actually, I don't know anybody who took it seriously. I think the

people who had known her during the Rennaissance pretty well assumed

that she was telling the truth about that. But Zora sort of left

herself open to anybody who was mischievous enough to project such a

tale, because she was so very outgoing and so very, well, almost playful

about things, about some serious things that could conceiveably be

misconstrued. Like this story she tells I think herself about how she

went up to, in print. She went to a fellow, a beggar, and took a dime

out of the thing he was begging with and said: "look here, I'll pay you

back because I need this more than you do."

I: Yeh'







B; But that's kind of . .

I; That's street subway station ..

B: Yeah, that was right in character. She would have done a foolish

thing like that but it really wouldn't be mean, now would it have been

what seens on the surface. It was just being a little bit devilish,

you know.

I: Did you ever know her husband, Herbert Sheen? They were married from

'24 to '27, I think.

B: No, let me see, I did not know her husband. He was certainly not

in evidence in Harlem. Let's see, I didn't meet Zora before '25

or '26. I vaguely remember hearing that Zora had been married, but

I never saw him. She was never with a husband during those days.

Neither on the other hand, did I see her with any other man, you know,

on any level of close association.

I: In Dust Tracks on a Road she talks about the real love of her life and

then she doesn't identify him. She gives you the initials and they're

A.W.P. And apparently this began sometime during the thirties. And

I know it was still current at least during 1932 when Dust Tracks

was published.

B: Oh, yes. A.W.P. This probably would relate to Florida I suppose. There

was nothing in her that I saw that suggested a love affair in Harlem.

She was, and she certainly seemed self-sufficient.

I: Yes. It's pretty clear from the correspondence, and even with the

correspondence with Van Vechten, that she didn't particularly abstain

in anything but .

B: No.

I: But as far as having a steady lover, apparently this was A.W.P. . .







B: Yes, well, that sounds very creditable to me, but he was not anybody

that I knew. Now I didn't hear in Haiti . I happened to follow

her to Haiti, she had been to Haiti I remember when I went in '38.

When did she go?

I: She went in '36. She got a Guggenheim in '36. She was throughout the whole

area in '36 and '37.

B: Yes, they said that she, the rumor was out there that she was going

with a fellow there whose name I didn't catch, I didn't know, but that . .




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