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.)