The power of the written word to express political or social oppression has been witnessed since the dawn of recorded thought. For centuries language in the form of narratives, essays, and tracts have been used to invoke a particular response to an historical situation. One especially notable example in American literature has been the genre of the slave narrative. In such texts the combination of strong language and a compelling story is typical and in Black Thunder, the same two elements are present, but without the immediacy of the historical situation. In response to the genre of the traditional slave narrative, Arna Bontemps, the author of Black Thunder commented, “The Negro’s suffering in his private hell of oppression was the point at which the narrative invariably began.
Enduring this ordeal until he became desperate or until he was otherwise engaging the reader’s interest or sympathy, the slave was eventually impelled to attempt the perils of escape" (Bontemps 6). Clearly, Arna Bontemps had some idea of the complex range of emotions that inspired slaves narratives such as those by Harriet Jacobs or Frederick Douglass and understanding that he comes from such an academic understanding of such works, it is interesting how he complicates the modern slave narrative by turning it into a work of fiction, albeit one with a summary of the actual historical details combined with elements of sheer epic fantasy. What the Arna Bontemps has done in Black Thunder in essence, is created an African American slave epic, which is most visible in the way he constructs the hero, Gabriel. The central character feels and expresses all of the emotions that are explicit in the traditional slave narrative, but he is given a fantastical heroic quality through the use of literary devices such as dialogue, for instance. Gabriel is passionate and incredibly prone to the power of language and this, coupled with his intensity and drive to become a truly free man, makes him on par with the heroes of ancient literature as well as those of more contemporary fame such as Douglass or Jacobs. In crafting this narrative Black Thunder, however, there is complex interplay between actual history, language, and fiction that makes this an enigmatic story worthy of deep questioning, analysis, and even open criticism.
Before granting a closer inspection to the themes of Black Thunder by Arna Bontmeps, it is important to first recognize the delicate interaction between the historical slave narrative and more contemporary fiction. In Black Thunder, both are meant to be present simultaneously, but the reader is encouraged to connect with the hero on the level of language far more than he is in terms of narrative. We are witnesses to the ravages and cruelty of the institution of slavery only through the narrator, thus we are at once removed from history. On the other hand, we recognize that the central character Arna Bontemps creates in Black Thunder is actually a figure from historical facts and this creates an immediate tension.
To further complicate matters, because of rich, complex language the hero is not created through narrative, but rather through the purposeful creation of a fictitious identity through narration and his own dialogue. Consider for instance the reader’s image of Gabriel. He is never broken, even when being sliced across the face by a cruel master. He is rather an epic figure, and even a somewhat manufactured one at that. As he prepares to cross the bridge with his men, both physically and metaphorically, the narrator paints a vivid portrait for us, stating in one of the important quotes from “Black Thunder” by Arna Bontemps, “Gabriel stood with his feet in it [the water] Rain whipped his back. There was grief in the treetops, a tall wind bearing down. Gabriel could see the flash and sparkle of water through the blackness. He bowed his head, heavy with thoughts, and waited a long moment without speaking" (104). Here we are faced with the decision of whether or not we should cast aside historical reality in favor of a romanticized character or if we should simply continue the struggle of balancing the two possible truths. Despite one’s choice when reading this text, however, it is essential to choose one over the other or else the language will lose its luster and seem contrived or conversely, the resemblance and importance of the slave narrative as crucial predecessor is lost.
At points throughout Black Thunder by Arna Bontemps, it is nearly impossible to reconcile the true historical personage with the heroic character of Gabriel. While the reader is certainly aware that the central character is written as semi-fictional, the tension is always present. The reader becomes constantly aware of the author’s desire to present a traditional hero despite any realities historical research might prove. For instance, one of the most compelling examples of this is when Gabriel is about to be hanged. His speech is pristine and he manages to invoke the sympathy from readers just as the slave narrative might. The executioner inquires whether or not Gabriel has any final words, but instead of ending his life with a grand soliloquy, he humbly states, “Let the rope talk, suh… the rope, please you suh—let it talk" (223). The reader must note that it is not just what he says but how he says it. In his simple language (we are told that he is illiterate, a hurdle that is difficult to overcome, especially during some of his more elaborate speeches and thoughts) he says these words almost melodramatically. There is a tinge of contrivance in this scene and it is because of this melodrama—the theatrics—that this scene breaks tradition with the traditional slave narrative and is wholly fiction.
One scholar remarks on this passage by stating, “The rope, talking the language of violence against black bodies becomes Gabriel’s mouthpiece or idiom. By choosing not to give a statement, Gabriel ends his life with an act of writing: the violence of his execution is itself sufficient to inscribe a revolutionary message inasmuch as it produces—precisely where it is thought to be punishing—the blackness of his “black" body" (Scott 522). While Scott’s assessments are generally agreeable, he does not address the level of contrived language that provokes the revolutionary message. In some ways, it seems as though as though the reader is being led to believe that melodrama equals revolution simply because it is the height of expression, the pinnacle of emotion. The problem with this is, it does not present the reader with a realistic portrait of a condemned African fugitive, but rather a carefully sculpted hero based upon the ancient canon. He is humble, yet his simple language belies his complexity. Instead of speaking as he does throughout the text, he suddenly becomes next to mute and oversimplified in his verbal response to his situation. The overall effect of this is not a revolutionary leader, but a martyr, a victim—not something that would seem appropriate in the context of the neither true slave narrative nor traditional epics.
In terms of the above scene, it is important to consider the value of a balance between historical accuracy and fiction—at least on the level of language. Davis questions “Gabriel’s eloquent but unhistorical speech to the court despite the fact that his historical model neither confessed nor addressed the court; and his silent courage at his barbaric (but unhistorical) execution—all these details project Gabriel as a legendary hero" (Davis 17). While it may seem useless to argue to about historical accuracy, especially since we are all aware that Gabriel is a combination of imagination and actual history, it does begin to matter when we consider the way language creates a heroic personage. In some ways it seems fitting that this is the case because Gabriel is so affected by language. He is constantly finding words and phrases that act as intoxicants upon him and this character trait is the only way he becomes an acceptable balance between historical reality and fictional imagination. For instance, Gabriel’s understanding of the meaning of words is stronger than any other characters and this is his most heroic trait throughout the text. It is also, unfortunately, his Achilles heel as well. When he first considers deeply the meaning of the simple word “general" he becomes enamored with it—the word itself invokes a visceral response. As the narrator relates, “Presently a thought halted him, the memory of a single word he had dictated into his imaginary letter to the black folks of the States. Gen’l Gabriel. He turned abruptly, went back into the hut and put on his shiny boots, his frock-tailed coat and his varnished coachmen’s hat. It was all very important when you really thought it over" (117).
The interesting fact about Gabriel is that he does “think it over" when it comes to the power of words and it seems as though once a particular word strikes him, his life and mind center upon it. For example, during the trial he says, “I’m name Gabriel… I been the leader, me, I’m the one" (207). He goes on to say, “I been a free man—and a gen’l, I reckon" to which the prosecutor replies, “And stop saying general, too. Ringleader of mad dogs. That’s what you’ve been" (213). In the end, the hero’s great battle is not with legions of soldiers (as would be the case in the traditional epic) but with words. He is forced to fight the idea of a grand general in “shiny boots" and a “varnished coachmen’s hat" against that of society’s outlook—that he is a “ringleader of mad dogs." This war of understanding language and its primal power even further induces rage among the whites because it takes away essential meanings they are familiar with and imposes them upon something else entirely.
Even still, this war of words is never quite firmly recognized if one remains aware of the constant push and pull relationship between true historical heroics and those that are constructed by narrative, particularly one that was created far after the actual historical event. Although this tension is always looming in the background, it is still useful to think about the ways in which language and narrative can invoke a revolutionary response in the reader, even far after the event has passed. It is has been suggested that, “Gabriel’s interpretation of what rhetoric, dialect, and conjure are needed to make a revolution brings three historical moments into alignment by way of a new regard for the political function of literature" (Rowe 340). Indeed, the political nature of the narrative has not been lost, even if the historical sentiment has been corrupted. The author uses strong language derived from the Enlightenment to invoke a reader response and we are expected to be just as stirred by certain “revolutionary" or at least meaningful words such as “liberty, equality, and fraternity." These three words have an intoxicating effect on Gabriel (as do many others) and he bases his life upon these combinations of letters, even though they may seem like nonsense to some. Even at the very beginning of the text we are granted permission to understand the powerful effect of language on Gabriel as we witness his fascination with the printing press.… “They were all just words but they put gooseflesh on Gabriel’s arms and shoulders. He felt curiously tremulous" (21). This “curious" feeling is what makes him heroic and the author is careful to add this trigger—words and language—that will respond to political inequity. In this way he is recognizing the traditional slave narrative since he prompting his main character to react through verbal or written expression the agony of oppression.
Although there are multiple ways to approach this text, in the end it is clear that heroes are not simply created out of the knowledge of history, but of their resonance throughout time by means of creative narrative strategies and epic language. By constructing a character that both adheres to ancient literature’s ideal hero while still maintaining elements of the slave narrative, the reader is put in a precarious political and investigative position. While some may argue that one does not need to make a decision on how to read this text and stick to it, doing so provides for a more stable reading perspective. Still, no matter how one might approach this work of historical fiction, one important realization should be that our historical heroes are both legends of deeds and of imagination. Romanticizing through language can be, as proved by this novel, the key to either creating or destroying historical truth.