Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877

Arna Bontemps’s Black Thunder is often compared to William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), which focuses on a similar rebellion in Virginia. Black Thunder, which was called the best novel by an African American writer in its time, possesses a verity that is not consistently present in Styron’s celebrated book, excellent though it is in its own right. Perhaps Bontemps succeeds more completely because, like his characters, he is an African American. He understands subtleties relating to the black experience to which persons of other races may not fully relate.

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A notable characteristic of this novel is the dispassion of Bontemps’s presentation. He never suggests that all slave owners are bogeymen or that all slaves or free blacks are saints. He writes with detachment, restraint, and balance, always permitting the facts to speak for themselves. This approach adds force to the topic that concerns Bontemps centrally. The telling of his tale, unbiased as it is, strikes with incredible force.

Bontemps presents his story in small segments, each dominated by a central character or event. This technique provides differing points of view and adds to the detachment with which the story unfolds. Segmenting the narrative also gives the reader a sense of immediacy as it is recounted.

Bontemps places slavery in an interesting social and historical perspective by including a report of the Virginia legislature that called for its members of Congress to promote federal legislation calling for the resettlement of all slaves in Louisiana as a means of ameliorating the racial problems that threatened the social structure of their state and of the South. He also writes about the Federalist press, which used the rebellion on which this story is based as a means of supporting a second term for President John Quincy Adams, citing the rebellion as something related to the radical social ideas of his opponent, Thomas Jefferson. By including this material, Bontemps conceptualizes the rebellion to an arena larger than the area in which it occurred, larger than Henrico County and its environs, larger, indeed, than Virginia or the South.

Bontemps’s understanding of black folkways, many of them harking back to Africa, is apparent in Black Thunder. Bundy’s funeral is pervaded with folkways relating to death and burial, such as roasting a pig and putting it on the grave. Still more telling is the fact that Bundy’s spirit invades the being of one of his fellow slaves, which is in keeping with folklore conventions relating to one’s departure from life.

In several instances, the rebels have long discussions about the stars and their meaning. Such an acceptance of signs and portents is well established in the traditions of African folklore. The rebels also attribute the success of the Toussaint rebellion in Santo Domingo to the fact that a hog was killed and its blood drunk before the uprising. Gabriel takes no part in this superstition, for which some of his followers later blame him.

A prediction of the death of one of the slaves is strengthened when the female house slaves shoo from the house a bird that has flown in. Birds are common harbingers of death in folk literature. In the course of the uprising, several of the slaves use charms as forms of protection, and countercharms against their oppressors.

A striking example of Bontemps’s use of folklore has to do with...

(The entire section contains 877 words.)

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