Places: Black Thunder

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1936

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism

Time of work: 1800

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Richmond

*Richmond. Black ThunderCapital 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, Thomas Prosser beats to death an old broken-down, drunken slave named Bundy. This act of cruelty ignites the simmering rebellion, with Prosser’s giant coachman Gabriel as its self-proclaimed general.

Sheppard plantation

Sheppard plantation. Plantation of Moseley Sheppard that is home to Old Ben, a trusted slave who presides over the great house with its broad staircase and “cavernous” rooms that are “dark as death” at night. The morning mists stream over the house and the vast fields where “gleaming birds” crow up the sun. Old Ben keeps the household running and also keeps secret the meetings of the planter’s son Robin with a mulatto girl.

Mingo’s house

Mingo’s house. Home of a black freedman and saddlemaker who knows how to read. There, on Sundays some black men, Gabriel among them, gather to hear Mingo read from the “good book” about how the Lord proclaims liberty for the strangers in Egypt that were oppressed by their masters. Mingo’s words persuade others, like Old Ben and Pharaoh, to take part in the slave uprising.

Brook Swamp

Brook Swamp. Gathering place outside Richmond for the slaves. There eleven hundred men and one woman are to begin their assault on Richmond. Gabriel directs three columns to approach the town from different directions and quickly kill all white people. However, a sudden storm of wind and heavy rain makes creeks and pathways impassable, so that only four hundred reach the gathering place. Rising stream and low fields make the region a sea of islands and bays with reefs and currents. Many of the slaves interpret the storm as a sign of God’s displeasure and stay away from the rising. After the rising fails, many say that the stars were not right–an opinion with which Gabriel agrees shortly before he is executed.

BibliographyBishop, Rudine Sims. Free Within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007. Discusses Bontemps’s seminal role in the history of African American children’s literature and his influence on his contemporaries.Bontemps, Arna. Introduction to Black Thunder. Beacon Press: Boston, 1968. In the introduction to this reprinted edition, Bontemps tried to place Black Thunder not only in the context of his own life but also in the context of the years of the Civil Rights movement, up to and including the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. An unusually frank and enlightening author’s introduction.Carlton-Alexander, Sandra. “Arna Bontemps: The Novelist Revisited.” CLA Journal 34 (March, 1991): 317-330. Attempts to refocus critical attention on Black Thunder. Carlton-Alexander particularly examines some of the negative comments that have been made about the novel.Davis, Arthur P. From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900-1960. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974. This survey of African American fiction includes a chapter on Bontemps. Particularly focuses on recurring themes in Bontemps’s collection of poetry, Personals (1963), and his novels, Black Thunder, God Sends Sunday (1931), and Drums at Dusk (1939). Davis considers Black Thunder to have been Bontemps’s outstanding work.Flamming, Douglas. “A Westerner in Search of ’Negro-ness’: Region and Race in the Writing of Arna Bontemps.” In Over the Edge: Remapping the American West, edited by Valerie J. Matsumoto and Blake Allmendinger. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Discusses the relationship between racial and regional marking in Bontemps’s ficton.Jones, Kirkland C. Renaissance Man from Louisiana: A Biography of Arna Wendell Bontemps. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. The first full-length biography of Arna Bontemps. An excellent source for information not only about the man himself but also the background of his works, including Black Thunder. Includes a bibliographic essay that serves as a handy guide to primary and secondary material about Bontemps.Sundquist, Eric J. The Hammers of Creation: Folk Culture in Modern African-American Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992. Originally presented as a series of lectures, the three chapters in this book are more informally and more accessibly written than much modern literary criticism. The chapter on Black Thunder specifically focuses on Bontemps’s use of folk culture and sources in his novel.Weil, Dorothy. “Folklore Motifs in Arna Bontemps’ Black Thunder.” Southern Folklore Quarterly 35 (March, 1971): 1-14. Examination of how Bontemps’s use of folklore helps to deepen readers’ understanding of characters and events in Black Thunder.Wright, Richard. “A Tale of Courage.” Review of Black Thunder, by Arna Bontemps. Partisan Review and Anvil 3 (February, 1936): 31. Very favorable review of Black Thunder. Wright argues that Bontemps’s novel marked a turning point in the African American novel. Of equal interest to those interested in either Bontemps or Wright.
Categories: Places