- Pendulum Time, Collective Freedom, and Rethinking the Neo-Slave Narrative in Arna Bontemps’s Black Thunder:Gabriel’s Revolt: Virginia, 1800
When poet-novelist Arna Bontemps moved to Huntsville, Alabama, in 1931 to teach at Oakwood College, he felt the vestiges of slavery and observed how the “intricate patterns of recurrence” between slavery and Jim Crow America were directly affecting his life (Bontemps, Introduction xxi). On a penny postcard, he wrote to poet Countée Cullen that his new home
was originally a slave plantation. I live in the ruined “old mansion” and have found it haunted with ghosts.... In those days Andrew Jackson was a frequent visitor and sat at the fireplace that now warms my toes. There are slave huts on the outskirts of the place, and on the adjoining plantation they say there are still slaves who do not know that they are free.(qtd. in Jones 75)
Here, the past of both the slave and slave master encroached on Bontemps. Haunted, he traveled to Fisk University (where he would later become the first African American head librarian) to research slave revolts and to write his first historical novel, Black Thunder: Gabriel’s Revolt: Virginia, 1800 (1936). This novel reimagines Gabriel Prosser’s attempt to marshal eleven hundred slaves to fight for freedom, not by escaping the slave South to become fugitives in the “free” North, but by living freely in the place they were born. Black Thunder’s fusion of fact and fiction formally incorporates myriad slave perspectives via interior monologues that illustrate how Bontemps participates in the formal and stylistic ferment of the black modernist literary period. Through such subjective accounts of historical events, Bontemps retells the planning of Gabriel’s revolt, the storm that quelled its success, the subsequent capture of the male insurrectionists, and the lynching of Gabriel.1
The overemphasis on the individual’s quest for freedom has diverted critics from considering different approaches and emphases in modern and contemporary black writing about slavery. This essay critically backdates the 1960s and [End Page 140] 1980s neo-slave timelines of earlier critical works to the 1930s and Black Thunder.2 Although Black Thunder received favorable reviews in 1936, it was not a popular novel, perhaps because, as Bontemps notes, “the theme of self-assertion by black men whose endurance was strained to the breaking point was not one that readers of fiction were prepared to contemplate at the time” (Introduction xxix). While Black Thunder may have been ahead of its time, it was republished in 1968 at the height of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements as a counternarrative to William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner (1968). Styron, a white Southern author, reimagines Thomas Gray’s 1831 Confessions, a “transcription” of Nat Turner’s rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. Overridden with Freudian projection, Styron’s Confessions also reinvigorates the black rapist myth, for his Nat Turner is depicted as inspired to revolt by his lust for a white woman rather than by his dream for personal and collective freedom.3 Black Thunder works against Styron’s individualist approach to reveal an earlier engagement in slave revolt and collectivized freedom that exceeds the horizon of Styron’s Nat Turner through what I term pendulum time, a conflation of past, present, and future time in order to acknowledge collective enterprises of freedom in enslaved communities. In Black Thunder, Bontemps’s use of pendulum time revises the slave narrative, giving a more nuanced account of the collective political agency of the enslaved, allowing him to challenge the antebellum slave narrative arc and the idea of individual escape. Escape led to a limited kind of freedom and was appeasing and marketable for the ex-slave’s readership—just one slave escaped, not all slaves were free—to render the slave narrative more palatable to white readers.
Bontemps explains this alternate vision of temporality in Black Thunder’s 1968 introduction when he states that the “element of time” is “crucial to Gabriel’s attempt, and the hero of that action knew well the absolute necessity of a favorable conjunction” (xxii).4 While Bontemps’s explanation of time here is...