Late in 1932 Bontemps started writing Black Thunder: Gabriels Revolt: Virginia 1800 (1936), his singular and inspired representation of an actual slave insurrection that failed because of weather and treachery.
The venture was bright with promise because the city and the university had attracted a young and savvy coterie of social radicals including Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and Jack Conroy.
Favorable critical reception of Black Thunder assured Bontemps's celebrity among the group, and his application to the Julian Rosenwald Fund to research and write a third novel met with success.
In Sad-Faced Boy (1937), he relates the travels to Harlem of three quaint Alabama boys who in time nostalgically discover the charm of their own birthplace.
orn in Alexandria, Louisiana, the first child of a Roman Catholic bricklayer and a Methodist schoolteacher, Arna Wendell Bontemps grew up in California and graduated from Pacific Union College.
After college he accepted a teaching position in Harlem at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and in 19 won first prizes on three separate occasions in contests with other "New Negro" poets.
The same years marked his marriage to Alberta Johnson and the start of a family of six children.
Bontemps's first effort at a novel (Chariot in the Cloud, 1929), a bildungsroman set in southern California, never found a publisher, but by mid-1931, as his teaching position in New York City ended, Harcourt accepted God Sends Sunday (1931), his novel about the rise and notoriety of Little Augie.
This tiny black jockey of the 1890s, whose period of great luck went sour, was inspired by Bontemps's favorite uncle, Buddy.
While teaching at Oakwood Junior College, Bontemps began the first of several collaborations with Langston Hughes, Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti (1932), a colorful travel book for juveniles that portrays two black children who migrate with their parents from an inland farm to a busy fishing village.
The success of this new genre encouraged him to make juvenile fiction an ongoing part of his repertoire.
Residence in the Deep South proved fruitful for his career, for in quick succession he published his best-known short story, "A Summer Tragedy" (1932), the compelling narrative of a simple yet dignified couple worn weary by a lifetime of sharecropping on a southern plantation, wrote a dozen other tales of the South that were compiled years later under the title The Old South (1973); completed yet another profitable juvenile book, You Can't Pet a Possum (1934), for its time a charming rural Alabama story about an eight-year-old named Shine Boy and his yellow hound, Butch; initiated contact with composer and musician W. Handy to ghostwrite Handy's autobiography; and, in a visit to Fisk University in Nashville, "discovered" its rich and seemingly forgotten repository of narratives by former slaves.