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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 316

Black Thunder is a novel by Arna Bontemps. The narrative is partially based on an actual slave rebellion that occurred in Richmond, Virginia. In the fictionalized version of the historical event, a 24-year-old slave named Gabriel organizes an insurrection at a plantation.

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The first major theme of the novel that is most evident is the nature of slavery itself. The horrors of slavery and the inhumane treatment of other human beings by slave owners are the root causes of the rebellion, as well as other rebellions. In this regard, the rebellion is not only seen as a reaction to inhumane treatment, but is a political act of rejecting the system of oppression and asserting one's identity and right to freedom through direct action.

The other major theme in the novel is black masculinity. The protagonist is a young, strong black male who is inspired by other black males that accomplished successful revolutions (e.g. Toussaint L’Ouverture). The centuries of oppression and physical enslavement against black people was a way for the slave owners to emasculate African and African-American men. By organizing and implementing an armed rebellion against the oppressors, the black males were able to regain their sense of identity as men. The masculinity regained is not limited to physical traits, but also the intellectual qualities of black men to create strategies. The fact that a large portion of the slaves brought to the Americas belong to warrior clans in West and Central Africa is often overlooked or forgotten. By organizing a rebellion, Gabriel reasserts his lineage as a warrior and thus literally and figuratively break the chains that designated him and his peers as simple "slaves."

The other major theme in the novel is the act of betrayal. Gabriel's organized rebellion falls apart due to internal betrayal. This shows that unity was and still is important in the African American community's strive for progress.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

Bontemps begins the introduction to the 1968 edition of Black Thunder by stating, “Time is not a river. Time is a pendulum.” Bontemps was implying that he saw slave uprisings such as the one described in Black Thunder as harbingers of the protests and uprisings of the civil rights era. That is, when Bontemps wrote Black Thunder in the 1930’s, he was looking backward to slave rebellions as a way of predicting the rebellion that he believed was surely in America’s future. Because Bontemps’s historical novel was thus also about the struggle for equal rights that still lay ahead, and because Bontemps knew that not all the battles yet to be fought would be won, it was important to him to picture an African American from history who faced a more impossible struggle and faced the outcome with courage. Thus, Gabriel emerges not as a saint, nor as a man with a special pipeline to the truth, but as a gifted man who is in most ways an ordinary one, trying to...

(The entire section contains 760 words.)

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