Although he lived and taught in many regions of the United States, Arna Bontemps always identified with the South and set most of his fictional works there. Bontemps greatly valued his African American inheritance and tried to increase both racial pride and interracial understanding through his many books about African American figures, life, and culture.
God Sends Sunday
In God Sends Sunday, set in the 1890’s, Bontemps depicts a diminutive black jockey, Little Augie, who lives on a Red River plantation in Louisiana with his older sister. Because he was born with a caul over his face, he is thought to be lucky. He discovers a talent for riding horses, which serves him well when he escapes to New Orleans on a steamboat and becomes a jockey. With his success, Augie grows rich, arrogant, and ostentatious. He falls in love with a beautiful young mulatto, Florence Desseau, but learns, to his sorrow, that she is the mistress of his rich white patron. Going to St. Louis to find a woman like Florence, Augie falls in with a crowd of prostitutes, gamblers, and “sugar daddies,” one of whom he murders when the man bothers Augie’s woman. When he returns to New Orleans, he at last has Florence as his lover. She deserts him, however, taking his money and possessions. Augie’s luck fades, and he declines rapidly into penury and alcoholism. In California, Augie commits another “passion murder” and escapes to Mexico.
This novel exhibits a remarkable joie de vivre among its black characters, but they are primarily caricatures within a melodramatic plot. Bontemps uses black dialect and folklore effectively, however, especially the blues, for which Augie has a great affection.
Bontemps’s second novel, first published in 1936, was reissued in 1968 with a valuable introduction by Bontemps in which he describes finding a treasured store of slave narratives in the Fisk Library and reading the stories of slave insurrectionists Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Gabriel Prosser. Bontemps identified Prosser as the slave-rebel-hero whose yearning for freedom most greatly resembled his own.
Black Thunder is generally acknowledged by readers and critics alike to be Bontemps’s best novel; it has even been called the best African American historical novel. The French Revolution and the slave rebellion in Santo Domingo provide significant background as the story dramatizes an enslaved people’s long-restrained desire for freedom. Bundy, an old black peasant, longs for the freedom that the legend of Haitian liberator Toussaint-Louverture has inspired in many slaves. When Bundy is viciously flogged to death, Gabriel Prosser, a strong young coachman, feels driven to seek freedom for himself and his people. This feeling is even held by already freed slaves, such as Mingo, a leather worker, who plays a major role in the rebellion effort. The white Virginians, both patricians and common folk, hold Creuzot, a French painter, and Biddenhurst, a British lawyer, responsible for the slaves’ disquiet. Moreover, as they do...
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