Study Guide

Black Thunder

by Arna Bontemps

Black Thunder Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Black Thunder, Arna Bontemps’s second novel, tells the fictionalized story of a historical slave revolt that occurred near Richmond, Virginia. The revolt is led by a twenty-four-year-old slave named Gabriel, who is sometimes assigned the surname of his owner and referred to as Gabriel Prosser. Inspired by Toussaint L’Ouverture’s slave revolt in Haiti, Gabriel develops a simple plan that falls apart as the result of bad weather and betrayal.

The novel begins by telling of the murder of a slave known as Old Bundy, whom Thomas Prosser, in possession of a newly inherited estate, tramples to death with his horse. The senseless brutality of Bundy’s murder incites many local slaves to join Gabriel’s efforts to organize a revolt. One of these recruits is Ben, an older house servant who might otherwise not be attracted to a violent revolt.

Bontemps tells his story from multiple points of view, so that in the beginning, readers share with many of the characters the expectation that something is about to happen. By presenting the discussions between many people, including the slaveholders as well as those who, such as M. Creuzot, oppose slavery, Bontemps puts Gabriel’s attempt at revolution into the larger historical perspective of the international debate over personal liberty and the rights of man during a period when the French Revolution had made many wealthy landowners and aristocrats fearful of social uprisings.

Gabriel’s basic plan is simple. An army of slaves will mass in the woods, sneak into Richmond to arm themselves with weapons from the arsenal there, and take control of the city. On the crucial night, however, an unexpected tempest—the worst in recent memory—intervenes and floods the rivers, preventing the slave army from crossing a river. The storm forces Gabriel to delay his plans. A second...

(The entire section is 760 words.)

Black Thunder Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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.

Black Thunder Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In 1800, in Henrico County, Virginia, a slave rebellion grows out of Thomas Prosser’s beating of his aging slave Bundy, whom he considers to be more of a liability than an asset. Bundy’s main wish was to die free, but the beating results in his death. He dreamed of a rebellion like the Toussaint L’Ouverture uprising in Santo Domingo, which drew enough public support to succeed.

A group of French liberals in Richmond, espousing the ideals of the recent French Revolution, opposes slavery. Its members think that slave owners oppress both blacks and poor whites. These liberals, labeled Jacobins and revolutionaries, seek to enlighten Americans and bring about greater equality for oppressed groups throughout the world. Despite their high ideals, the Jacobins are too small a group to be effective in protecting the blacks, who are considered chattel, in their rebellion against involuntary servitude. The Jacobins do, however, circulate abolitionist ideas and ideals, as did Alexander Biddenhurst, a Philadelphia abolitionist who is making plans to smuggle black slaves to Canada and to freedom.

Following Bundy’s death and funeral, Gabriel, another slave, solidifies plans for a rebellion to protest this senseless killing. Gabriel is a man of singular leadership and organizational ability, but he is limited in what he can do for the cause he espouses. Obsessed with a bedeviling dream of freedom, he always understands the odds against his succeeding. Despite these odds, he...

(The entire section is 612 words.)