Arna Wendell Bontemps was born on October 13, 1902 in Alexandria, Louisiana, the son of a Creole bricklayer and a schoolteacher. At age three, he and his family moved to Los Angeles after his father was mortally threatened by two drunk white men. Bontemps grew up in California and was sent to the San Fernando Academy boarding school with his father’s instruction to not “go up there acting colored.” Bontemps later noted this as a formative moment, and he would resent what he saw as an effort to make him forget his African American heritage. He graduated from Pacific Union College in Angwin in 1923 with a bachelor of arts degree.
In 1924 he accepted a teaching position in Harlem, New York. He married Alberta Johnson, a former student, in 1926; they would eventually have six children. Though his original plan was to obtain his PhD in English, he accepted teaching positions to support his family. While teaching in Harlem, he became closely associated to figures from the Harlem Renaissance, befriending major artists such as Countee Cullen, W. E. B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and especially Langston Hughes, with whom he frequently collaborated.
Bontemps first published his poems in Crisis in 1924, and also later in Opportunity, both literary magazines that supported the work of young African American writers. In 1926 and 1927, Bontemps won three prizes for his poetry from these publications. His first book of fiction was God Sends Sunday (Washington Square Press, 1931).
That same year, Bontemps moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where he had accepted a position at Oakwood Junior College. In 1932 he received another prize for the short story “A Summer Tragedy” and published his first two children’s book, Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti (The Macmillan Company, 1932) with Langston Hughes, and You Can’t Pet a Possum (Morrow) in 1934. He began work on Black Thunder: Gabriel’s Revolt: Virginia 1800 (Beacon Press), the story of an aborted rebellion by enslaved individuals led by Gabriel Prosser. The novel, published in 1936, was finished in his father's California house. At the end of the 1934 school year, Oakwood dismissed Bontemps—a reaction to both his radical politics and the school’s own conservative and religious views.
In 1943, Bontemps received a master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago. He was appointed a librarian at Fisk University, a position he held until his retirement in 1965, followed by honorary degrees and professorships at the University of Illinois and Yale University, and a return to Fisk as a writer in residence.
Bontemps died June 4, 1973 from a heart attack, while working on his autobiography. Though poet Sterling A. Brown and artist Aaron Douglas noted that his writings have not received the critical attention they deserved, Bontemps’s work as a librarian and historian indicate that he was a great chronicler and preserver of African American cultural history. His family’s old Louisiana home is now the Arna Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center.