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.
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,...
(The entire section is 877 words.)