Black Thunder

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Arna Bontemps's novel Black Thunder: Gabriel's Revolt: Virginia 1800 was published in 1936. This conflation of history and imagination is based on an actual slave rebellion reported in contemporary newspapers and recorded in the Calendar of Virginia State Papers (vol. 9, 1890). The chronicle begins in the great house of old Moseley Sheppard whose dependence on old Ben Woodfolk, his faithful house servant, has developed over the years into veiled companionship. Old Bundy, Ben's work-worn counterpart, once a fieldhand on the neighboring plantation but now reduced to scavenging throughout the neighborhood, intrudes on Ben's peace to beg for rum and surreptitiously to invite him to join the slave Gabriel's scheme for insurrection. It is old Bundy's misfortune to be observed with his jug of rum by Thomas Prosser, his merciless master, who uses the excuse to beat him to death.

Bundy's murder adds fresh resolve to Gabriel's plans and subverts the comfort of reluctant individuals like old Ben. Indeed, Gabriel had chosen the occasion of Bundy's funeral to elaborate his strategy to amass some eleven hundred men and one woman to take the city of Richmond in their first step toward freedom. The remarkable funeral seems to emerge from a collective preliterate tradition whose origins are African and whose inspiration to freedom arises from the natural world. Under these conditions, old Ben swears allegiance to the conspiracy in the presence of the principal plotters, at first with apprehension and then with deep trepidation.

Gabriel, the strapping six-foot two-inch coachman for Thomas Prosser, had earned the respect of slaves and “free” blacks throughout Henrico County, Virginia, about a year earlier by winning a titan's battle with Ditcher, the brutal driver of slaves from another plantation. Gabriel wins fealty for his resoluteness and a generosity of spirit, which appeals to persons as diverse as Mingo, the literate freeman, and the tempestuous Juba, Gabriel's woman; he finds personal inspiration in the proclamation of General Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian liberator, who still lived, and in biblical text read aloud by Mingo.

At the appointed hour of insurrection, a relentless, unprecedented downpour transforms Henrico County into a flood plain; Gabriel's insurgents find it impossible to execute their grand design and are forced to pull back in favor of a more propitious time. The delay, however, is sufficient to uncover the treachery of Pharoah, who immediately snatches the opportunity to turn informant. Out of loyalty to Moseley Sheppard, old Ben confesses his role and names leaders.

Across the nation amazement accompanies alarm, for it is inconceivable that illiterate chattel are capable of conceiving such a scheme on their own. Every literate white person who is not native to the region is suspect, as Scotsman John Callender, friend of Thomas Jefferson, rudely learns. Frenchman M. Creuzot, printer, is particularly imperiled and flees north for his safety. Before long all the major figures in the conspiracy, including Gabriel, are captured and hung. Pharoah, meanwhile, literally loses his mind, but perfidious old Ben endures, however uneasily.

Richard Wright generously noted in his 1936 review that Black Thunder broke new ground in African American fiction by addressing concerns not previously touched upon in African American novels. Most critics readily concur that given its myriad voices and many points of view, the controlling idea of the novel is its universal determination toward freedom, a principle that warrants their generous attention to its political purpose. Others, however, noting its contribution to the vernacular tradition, cite meaningful distinctions between literacy and orality as racial and cultural markers.


Subjects: Literature.

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