Critical Context

Although Black Thunder was well received when it first came out, it never, as Bontemps notes in his 1968 introduction, earned him more than the advance he had received upon first publication, and the book was allowed to go out of print. The publication of the 1968 edition temporarily rekindled critical interest in the novel, but again, such interest seemed to wane shortly thereafter. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, in the wake of the success of a number of historically based novels of slave life (including Alex Haley’s 1976 Roots: The Saga of an American Family and Toni Morrison’s 1987 Beloved), interest in the novel was rekindled once again.

At no point, however, has Black Thunder been completely ignored, and it has in fact long been considered Bontemps’s best novel. Richard Wright praised the novel when it first appeared, and it has often been cited as an influence on Wright’s novel Native Son (1940), in part because both novels frankly explore the topic of black rage.

Haley’s Roots is often cited as having revived interest in the telling of stories of slavery in novel form. Black Thunder anticipated this movement by about forty years. If the book was not as widely read at the time of its publication as it deserved to be, that may be because the Depression-era audience was not ready for the work’s often bitter message. Black Thunder, however, is a powerful novel about the courage and cost—and inevitability—of the fight against racism.