The Characters

In his 1974 work From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900-1960, Arthur Davis makes the claim that Gabriel is so compellingly drawn that readers tend to overlook the book’s minor characters. Many readers may indeed find that to be true. Gabriel certainly is the most fully and compellingly drawn character. Nevertheless, critic Sandra Carlton-Alexander has argued convincingly that “short but rounded characterization was imperative given the demands of the unusual narrative technique” of Black Thunder, in which multiple points of view are used to tell the story.

Although Bontemps employs numerous characters, his characterizations are both clear and, when they have to be, succinct. For example, Pharaoh, the first slave to inform on Gabriel, is presented as jealous and untrustworthy. It is also clear that Gabriel sees him as such and so avoids giving Pharaoh any real responsibility in the rebellion.

By contrast, the people whom Gabriel does invest with some authority are shown to be trustworthy, useful men. Mingo, besides having the relative mobility freedom allows him, brings a priceless ability to the rebellion through his ability to read, which allows him to keep lists and records. General John is presented as being a crafty strategist, although he gets caught after the rebellion while trying to escape to Philadelphia to find Alexander Biddenhurst. Of Gabriel’s close friends, however, Ditcher is presented most...

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Characters Discussed

Gabriel Prosser

Gabriel Prosser, a slave who leads a slave rebellion. He is the coachman on the Prosser plantation, located near Richmond, Virginia. He is twenty-four years old and the tallest of three uncommonly tall brothers. He is considered by the other slaves to be a “man of destiny” because of the reputation he acquired after defeating Ditcher, a black slave driver, in a fight. After the death of Bundy, a slave, he changes from a silent, dreamy person to one who speaks with quiet dignity and excitement about his revolutionary plans. His rebellion fails because of the treachery of two fellow slaves, and the slaves are impeded by a devastating storm. Gabriel escapes capture for some time but is finally captured and taken to Richmond for trial. He refuses to give any significant information about the conspiracy before his execution.


Ben, an old, gray-headed house slave, the servant to the elderly slave master Mossely Sheppard. He is one of the traitors of the slave rebellion. Ben does not share the other slaves’ love and desire for freedom, and he is distrusted by the other slaves, who do not share their plans for the rebellion with him. At the end of the novel, he is the target of the wrath of the remaining slaves on the plantation after the execution of Gabriel and the conspirators.


Pharaoh (FAY-roh), a slave and the second traitor of the slave rebellion. He wishes to lead a fighting line during the rebellion, but because Gabriel does not trust Pharaoh, Gabriel will not permit this. Pharaoh’s anger and resentment turn him into a traitor. After...

(The entire section is 687 words.)