Arna Bontemps was born October 13, 1902 in Alexandria, Louisiana, to Charlie and Marie Pembrooke Bontemps. When Bontemps was just a young boy, his family moved to Los Angeles as part of the Great Migration. Bontemps attended public school in Los Angeles before attending Pacific Union College. As a undergraduate student, he majored in English, minored in history, and joined the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
After college, he accepted a teaching position in Harlem, New York, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. In the early 1920s, he won first prizes on three separate occasions in contests with other “New Negro” poets. Eventually, Bontemps started writing children’s books. In 1932, he collaborated with Langston Hughes and wrote Popo and Fifina, which was an easy-to-understand introduction to Haitian life for children. In 1936, Bontemps most praised work, Black Thunder, was published. The novel, which recounts the tale of a 17th-century rebellion near Richmond, Virginia, received outstanding reviews by highly-educated African Americans and conventional journals.
Bontemps later acquired a Rosenwald fellowship to work on his novel, Drums at Dusk, which was based on the Haitian rebellion, Toussaint L’Ouverture. Despite his determination, Bontemps struggled to earn enough to support his family as a writer. Discouraged, he decided to focus on writing children’s books to make a living.
In 1943, he returned to graduate school and earned a master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago. Bontemps was appointed as head librarian at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. During his time at Fisk, he developed important collections and archives of African American literature and culture, namely the Langston Hughes Renaissance Collection. After his retirement from Fisk in 1965, Bontemps received honorary degrees and professorships at the University of Illinois and Yale University, and later returned to Fisk as a writer in residence. Bontemps died on June 4, 1973.