BLACK THUNDER SUMMARY
Black Thunder, Arna Bontemps’ defining novel, is a fictionalized account of the early nineteenth century Gabriel Insurrection, in Virginia. The novel, which chronicles the Gabriel Prosser-led rebellion against the slave owners of Henrico County, was generally lauded by critics as one of the most significant black American works of fiction. Richard Wright praised the work for dealing forthrightly with the historical and revolutionary traditions of African Americans. Gabriel, a slave convinced that anything “equal to a grey squirrel wants to be free,” urges other slaves to revolt against their owners. The rebellion is hastened when a tyrannical slave owner whips another slave, Bundy, to death. Although the insurrection ultimately fails, Prosser nonetheless emerges a hero. The “power of black folk” credo is important to this novel. Bontemps’ treatment of Bundy’s funeral is faithful in detail to the customs of the time. Bontemps’ use of signs and portents pushes the story to its heroic ending. Stunning characterizations of Pharaoh, Drucilla, Ben, and Gabriel become multileveled, believably universal personalities through Bontemps’ skillful use of folk material. Elements of magic appear in Black Thunder just as they appear in folktales and beliefs as recorded by collectors. Bundy’s spirit returns to haunt Pharaoh, the slave who betrays the rebellion and whose death is foreshadowed. Use of charms and countercharms is rampant, conjure-poisoning looms at all times, and rebellious slaves debate omens in the stars. The tapestry that Bontemps weaves shows the intricate beliefs of slaves to be colorful and compelling. Bontemps’ narrative techniques have origins in black folklore about death, ghosts, and spirits. Black Thunder’s strength, largely, is in its depiction of an alternate worldview, which, while retaining the power to sanctify or punish, is painfully adapting to a new land and people. Critics note that Bontemps situates his story in the politics of the times: Readers see blame for slave unrest placed at the feet of Thomas Jefferson during John Quincy Adams’ bitter reelection campaign. Bontemps depicts the Virginia legislature debate considering sectional segregation of blacks, slaves and free, and chronicles the press. Black Thunder was written during the 1930’s; some critics believe it reflects the mood of the Depression. Bibliography
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Black Literature in America. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971. Places Bontemps within the broad context of twentieth century black literature. Asserts that Bontemps is more skilled as a poet than as a fiction writer. Clearly identifies significant symbols and images Bontemps used in his fiction. Bone, Robert A. The Negro Novel in America. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965. Argues that Bontemps is a transitional black writer whose work is rooted in the Harlem Renaissance and in the Depression era. Good discussion of the structure of Black Thunder, which Bone considers Bontemps’ finest novel. Bontemps, Arna. Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters, 1925-1967. Selected and edited by Charles H. Nichols. New York: Paragon House, 1990. Extensive collection of letters between Bontemps and his friend and sometime collaborator, Langston Hughes, reveals a great deal about both artists’ aesthetics. The 1935-1937 letters are particularly relevant. Bontemps, Arna. Introduction to Black Thunder. Beacon Press: Boston, 1968. In the introduction to this reprinted edition, Bontemps tried to place Black Thunder not only in the context of his own life but also in the context of the years of the Civil Rights movement, up to and including the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. An unusually frank and enlightening author’s introduction. Carlton-Alexander, Sandra. “Arna Bontemps: The Novelist Revisited.” College Language Association Journal 34 (March, 1991): 317–330. An attempt to refocus critical attention onBlack Thunder. Carlton-Alexander...
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