Themes and Meanings

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 win his freedom by any means necessary.

Gabriel and the other characters in the novel are created so as to be readily understandable to a twentieth century reader. While Bontemps does not use self-conscious anachronism—as Charles Johnson, for example, would many years later in his novel Middle Passage (1990)—the characters are presented in such a way as to be clear and recognizable to an audience of Bontemps’s own time. Furthermore, Bontemps has also made no...

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