Forgotten African-American Novel Back in Print

The book came out 70 years ago as the world was sliding into war and, amid the spreading bloodshed and chaos, "Drums at Dusk," an impassioned work by African American writer Arna Bontemps, was soon forgotten.

Bontemps was a noted novelist, poet and academic who immersed himself in the Harlem Renaissance and collaborated on several projects with Langston Hughes. "Drums at Dusk" was unusual because it focused on a slave revolt outside the United States - the Haitian uprising of 1791 - and because it was one of the few novels by an African American writer to feature a white hero. Bontemps's most successful novel, "Black Thunder," a tale of a slave insurrection in Virginia published three years before "Drums at Dusk," was more accessible to readers and academics.

So "Drums at Dusk" languished out-of-print until now. The 1939 novel has been republished by Louisiana State University Press under the guidance of Michael P. Bibler of the University of Manchester in Great Britain and Jessica Adams, author of "Wounds of Returning: Race, Memory, and Property on the Postslavery Plantation."

"There has been a tendency to pay less attention to African American works set outside the United States, and to African American works that focus on white protagonists," Bibler wrote in an email. "And so, with less scholarly interest, there has been less pressure to reprint the novel. But, as more scholars begin to pay more attention to questions of transnationalism and multiracialism, the time is right to bring this unique novel back into wider circulation."

Bontemps, who died in 1973 at age 71, was born in Alexandria, La., where his birth home has been preserved as a museum to his legacy. Now there's one more chapter to his story.

By Steven E. Levingston |  August 3, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
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