Arna Wendell Bontemps was born on October 13, 1902, in Alexandria, Louisiana, the son of a Creole bricklayer and schoolteacher. At age three he and his family moved to Los Angeles after his father was 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." This Bontemps later noted as a formative moment, and he would resent what he saw as an effort to make him forget his heritage. He graduated from Pacific Union College in Angwin in 1923 with an AB.
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. Luckily, it was while teaching in Harlem that he would become closely connected to the Harlem Renaissance and befriend 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 win three prizes for his poetry from these publications. His first book of fiction was God Sends Sunday (1931), the story of a fast-living black jockey named Little Augie. The book received mixed reviews: praise for its significance as a book by a black author but also criticism for its emphasis on the seamier side of black life.
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, with Langston Hughes, and You Can't Pet a Possum in 1934. He began work on Black Thunder: Gabriel's Revolt: Virginia 1800, the story of an aborted slave rebellion 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 the combination of his radical politics, out-of-state visitors, his personal book collection, 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.
He died June 4, 1973, from a heart attack, while working on his autobiography. Though Sterling A. Brown and Aaron Douglas noted that his writings have not received the critical attention deserved, his work as a librarian and historian point to him as a great chronicler and a preserver of the documents of black cultural heritage. His family's old Louisiana home is now the Arna Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center.