In "Nocturne at Bethesda" and in other poems as well, Bontemps joins McKay, Cullen, Hughes, Hurston, and others in creating the archetypal black consciousness as a suffering but indomitable self. This black self becomes a symbol of endurance in the face of the dark despair of the slavery years, which is so graphically described in Bontemps's "Southern mansion" as echoing the "chains of bondmen dragging on the ground." It is this black self, the self that Bontemps and other black artists of the Harlem awakening were artistically growing toward, which gives many of Bontemps's poems their strength and resonance and makes Personals a significant reflection of the growth of black American literature during the 1920s. In much of his poetry, Bontemps links the black self to the cycle of the seasons and a closeness to natural rhythms. "A black man talks of reaping," the last poem in this collection, moves slowly and powerfully to the conclusion that it is unnatural and disastrous for human beings not to reap what they themselves sow. The persona of the poem represents the black race forever planting but never reaping. Just as Cullen's "From the Dark Tower" advises the white world that blacks "shall not always plant while others reap," and Hughes threatens that continual deferral of dreams may result in explosion, Bontemps ends "A black man talks of reaping" with an implied threat:
Yet what I sowed and what the orchard yields my brother's sons are gathering stalk and root; small wonder then my children glean in fields they have not sown, and feed on bitter fruit.
Yet, on the whole, Bontemps's poems speak more about the persistent will of blacks to endure to a better day. "The day-breakers" reflects black strength and determination not "to waste the life" yet also an insistence upon acknowledgment: "Yet would we die as some have done:/beating a way for the rising sun."
From Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 48: American Poets 1880-1945, Second Series. Ed. Peter Quartermain. Copyright © 1986 by the Gale Group.