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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 325

Black Thunder is a 1936 historical fiction novel by the Harlem Renaissance poet, novelist, and librarian Arna Bontemps. The novel is a fictionalized retelling of one of the first recorded slave rebellions in America. The plot revolves around Gabriel Prosser—a literate but uneducated blacksmith and field worker who planned and led a large, organized slave insurrection near Richmond, Virginia, in the summer of 1800.

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According to Bontemps’s research, Prosser was a very dedicated man who was determined to complete his mission, which is why he decided to send a group of slaves to raid an armory and get enough weapons to defend themselves against attackers. In the end, however, Prosser was betrayed by another slave, he was captured and killed, and the rebellion was over.

Essentially, Bontemps manages to paint an accurate and detailed portrayal of the fight for freedom and civil rights by the brave black men and women who were forced into free labor and who decided to annihilate the unjust system that treated them like animals. Thus, Bontemps incorporates themes like slavery, racism, oppression, politics, freedom, pain, hope, determination, and heroism. Aside from the uprising, the author vividly describes the emotional and mental state of the slave community as well, and their hopes and dreams for a better tomorrow; he also gives a voice to those who refused to be a part of the revolt, as they didn’t want any blood on their hands.

Upon publication, Black Thunder didn’t really attract the attention of readers or critics and received poor commercial success. However, the second printing of the novel in 1968 received numerous positive reviews and great critical acclaim. Many praised Bontemps’s honest, thought-provoking, straightforward, and unapologetic narrative; his multidimensional characters; and his masterful and selective use of anachronistic elements and dialect. Black Thunder is considered as one of Bontemps’s best novels, as well as one of the most authentic books about the slave community in America ever written.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564


*Richmond. Capital city of Virginia, located in plantation country on the James River. At the time in which this novel is set, Richmond has a population of around six thousand people, with scattered shops, a notary’s office, a jail, a public watering trough, hitching bars for horses, and huge oak trees for shade. Horses, coaches, and slaves on errands for their owners travel the unpaved streets, while barefoot women with baskets on their heads stride along the footpaths. The town has a dancing school for white children and a printer’s shop, both run by Frenchmen, in which political liberty is a frequent topic of conversation. The surrounding peninsula between the James and York Rivers consists of swamps and meandering creeks that rainstorms can suddenly transform into raging, impassable torrents.

Creuzot’s printshop

Creuzot’s printshop. Richmond gathering place for supporters of the French Revolution. Its owner, Monsieur Creuzot, a French Jacobin, is labeled as a radical, along with Alexander Biddenhurst of Philadelphia, who advocates a classless society. Overhearing the “strange music” of their conversation about “liberty, equality and fraternity,” the slave Gabriel, who is the coachman for a man named Prosser, becomes bewitched by the idea of freedom. He rallies the slaves who are angry about their fellow slave Bundy’s death at Prosser’s hands, and takes charge as “general” of an army of slaves to attack Richmond and kill all its white people—“except the French.”

Prosser plantation

Prosser plantation. Gabriel’s home, located on the outskirts of Richmond. In the low cornfields of his plantation,...

(The entire section contains 1344 words.)

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