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Othered Southern modernism: Arna Bontemps's Black Thunder.

ARNA BONTEMPS MIGHT BE SAID TO HAVE BECOME CONSCIOUS OF HIMSELF early on as a Southern writer of sorts, a designation less common among scholars than that of "African American author." (1) By the 1930s, following a sojourn in Alabama that reinforced his sense of connection to his Southern roots and further stimulated an interest in the history of his people in that region, Bontemps came to the conclusion that "The Negro writer, like the white writer of the South, is a product of the Southern condition. Whether he wills it or not, he reflects the tensions and cross-purposes of that environment" ("Negro Renaissance" 35).

Bontemps frequently treated Southern themes in works such as the short stories collected in The Old South: "A Summer Tragedy "and Other Stories of the Thirties and the novel Sad-Faced Boy. Indeed, his novel Black Thunder holds particular resonance for Southern literary modernism in terms of the challenge it presents to the internal logic of the Agrarian fable that would come to be regarded as the whole of Southern modernism. By means of its focus upon a piece of Southern history that reveals the plantation order as unstable and under threat of collapse long before the Civil War--the 1800 slave revolt planned by Gabriel Prosser--the novel asserts that black Southerners have been active influences in the course of Southern history far longer than conventional accounts have been willing to acknowledge, and thus it challenges the very foundations of the myth that bolstered both the Agrarians' view of Southern culture and their prototype of the Southern literary paradigm.

Numerous scholars have observed the rigid apartheid of the modern Southern literary tradition established by the Nashville critics and writers who would become the Southern Agrarians. Michael O'Brien points out that in their own time, the Southern Agrarians were able to take racial segregation for granted in part because the larger society at the time did not question the arrangement and so they could "afford relative indifference" (17) to black Southern writers--and to the intertwining of black and white in Southern culture--in their critical formulations of the character of the modern South. Likewise, Michael Kreyling notes that "The principle organizers of I'll Take My Stand knew full well there were other 'Souths'" than the singularly homogeneous version they promoted, yet "they deliberately presented a fabricated South as the one and only real thing" (xii). Rather, then, than the objective account of material history upon which they claimed to base their critical practice, "the Agrarians produced the South in the same way that all historically indigenous social elites produce ideological realities: out of strategies for seizing and retaining power ... that are then reproduced as 'natural'" (Kreyling 6).

Certainly, though, the intellectual Agrarians did feel some need to attempt to justify their vision of the Southern social hierarchy in regard to race. O'Brien argues that while the Agrarians were philosophically unsympathetic to Romanticism because of its implicit affirmation of individual diversity in the form of harmonious, organic groups distinguishable from one another by any number of "natural" criteria and therefore preferred to declare their faith instead in the more standardizing Enlightenment notion of a uniform human nature which they used to advance their concept of a homogeneous South (4), their very sense of regional distinctiveness was fundamentally dependent upon the "devious legacy of Romantic social thought" (27) which they so derogated. Despite their hostile stance toward all things Romantic including the poetic tradition, O'Brien contends, the Agrarians' "Southern myth" in fact "was the inarticulate stepchild of Romanticism" (27).

The Agrarians seem to have misused both Romantic and Enlightenment philosophical tenets precisely to rationalize racial segregation as well: at the same time they resisted Romanticism's implicit imperative toward acceptance of cultural diversity, they discovered that it did provide them with a theoretical absolute on which to ground their sense of a "natural" racial hierarchy based upon, in Allen Tate's words, "The enormous 'difference' of the Negro" which "doomed him from the beginning to an economic status purely" and thus caused the race to act as a barrier to the white development of "The high arts" in the South (273). Tare tacitly invokes the Romantic notion of natural distinctions that define disparate groups to imply that black Southerners are so different from white that only as an historical aberration do they exist at all within Southern culture, as merely an inhibitive economic entity. As such, this characterization not only figuratively propels black Southerners outside the category of humanity altogether, thus rendering the South safely uniform in terms of race and making it easy to slide into a misapplication of Enlightenment philosophy typical to modernism--which Henry Louis Gates demonstrates functioned to declare any consideration of ethnicity unnecessary, finally, by arguing that only those heir to the Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian traditions ostensibly responsible for the advancement of Western culture can be members of the literate human community ("Writing 'Race'" 4)--but it also implicitly erases class as a legitimate category of concern for Southern modernism.

Gates argues in "Writing 'Race' and the Difference it Makes" that the modernist canon influenced by T. S. Eliot implicitly declared all its authors members of the "same race"; at the same time, however, "the citizens of the republic of literature" were assumed to be "all white, and mostly male." Even as Eliot's theory implied that racial distinctions were irrelevant, then, "the 'racialism' inherent in such claims of tradition" (4) as usual designated race a "trope of ultimate, irreducible difference" between groups (5) that functioned as a marker of exclusion. And it was the Southern Agrarians, Gates notes, whose critical practice revealed an "extreme manifestation of the presuppositions" (4) on which such a paradigm was constructed.

Marianna Torgovnick has observed that Anglo modernism's only way of overtly acknowledging race was in fact founded upon the notion of exclusion as a function of racial difference. In the form of a primitivism that proceeded to define the modernist self in the act of defining the Other, this modernism not only established power relations between the modernist "Us" and the primitive "Them" that determined the cultural hierarchy, but also "presuppose[d] that they mirror[ed] Us" (11). These Others existed "in a cherished series of dichotomies: by turns gentle, in tune with nature, paradisal, ideal--or violent, in need of control; what we should emulate or, alternately, what we should fear; noble savages or cannibals" (3). And they often were "processed ... through a variety of tropes which [saw] them as a threatening horde, a faceless mass, promiscuous, breeding, inferior--at the farthest edge, exterminatable" (18).

Operating according to an implicit principle of segregation that could seem only logical to the Agrarians, then, the primitive perhaps represented a means to the necessary acknowledgment of racial distinctions that had constituted a significant element of the Southern past and provided a way to contain the threat to the plantation myth of cultural order should race be introduced into the Agrarian paradigm. For as Torgovnick notes, modernism "believed that it knew what primitive meant and had established the best possible relations with primitive societies" (34). Having designated black Southerners "the Southern primitive," the Southern Agrarians perceived that the "best possible relation," at least metaphorically, was the institution of slavery, which had contained the specter of the Other within impermeable boundaries and thus provided a stable foundation for the Southern white's vision of his own identity. The abrupt end of that cultural order in an apocalyptic moment of Civil War of course could only represent chaotic uncertainty and tragedy and precipitate a nostalgic desire to return to the age of order, in part through the re-creation of racial containment in the modern age as Jim Crow segregation--the logical culmination in character and content of precisely the historical perspective pled by the Agrarians as the true Southern writer's mindset.

Less candidly accounted for within the Agrarian paradigm, and until very recently less often examined by scholars of modernism at large, is the issue of class containment in the rapidly industrializing twentieth century. Eric Schocket argues that many of what are taken as the central features of literary modernism--schism, fragmentation, and the desired restoration of cultural and conceptual wholeness--"can be read as modernism's own technique for apprehending and containing the dissonances of class segmentation" (14). The contemporary phenomenon of industrial urbanization and immigration prompted figures such as T. S. Eliot to develop what Schocket terms an "aesthetics of management" modeled after the permeative presence of labor management techniques in the first two decades of the twentieth century, in order to enable literary engagement with what "existent forms of literary representation could barely recognize, much less remediate" and thus diffuse "the shock of modernity by adding a measure of predictability and impersonality" (19) to the necessary encounter with class and ethnic difference. Innovative style became at least a figurative means of containing the "fear, revulsion, and horror" (Benjamin 174) with which modernists met the presence of the Other and enabled modernism to transfer "materiality from the referent ('the real world' in realism) to the signifier (the materiality of language or of modernist linguistic practice)" (Schocket 22). Wed thus to an essentially conservative social politics, "The otherness that once seemed foreign and inassimilable is reconstituted as a material property of language itself" (23), and existing power structures are both justified and conceptually maintained.

For the Southern Agrarians, the spectre of class difference that threatened the internal consistency of their cultural myth, as indicated in Tate's remarks about the economic anomaly represented by black Southerners, would be dealt with by means of the merger of class with racial management in the form of segregation. Under the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent methods of implementing Reconstruction that inevitably undermined the effectiveness of the Fourteenth Amendment, black Southerners were threatened with relegation to the status of permanent underclass. White supremacists, determined to do just that, pushed for uniform legislation of what had previously been informal and locally variable habits of segregation into the iron law of Jim Crow (2)--and set the stage for the conflation of class with race that the Agrarians would use to wed their particular social conservatism to the modernist aesthetics of class management and set as a cornerstone of their feudalistic Southern paradigm. In the process, they effectively suspended economic difference as an element of the discourse of Southern modernism and set themselves in vocal opposition to "Chapel Hill sociologists" like Howard Odum, whose too-eager endorsement of capitalist industrialization they regarded as one of the "deadening effects of the new southern hypocrisy" (Hale 258) that would further erode Southern culture. As Grace Elizabeth Hale observes, Odum and other regionalists recognized "the race question" as "a subset of the class structure of the region," which perhaps constituted conflation of race and class from the opposite direction in their desire to "gain public support for programs that would benefit poor blacks as well as whites" (258). Although the Agrarians' preferred segregation prevailed over the regionalists' cultural materialism as a conceptual model for Southern modernism and functioned to forestall any serious consideration of the relationship of class and race in its accomplishment of the "intended effect of hiding especially middle-class African Americans from view," Hale's account suggests that the really significant fact is that "they argued publicly at all," united to some degree in their opposition to external criticism of the South from other sections (258). (3) Historically, that is, both the Agrarian and the regionalist models constituted intertwined facets of modernistic response to "the Southern condition" which Bontemps's remarks suggest implicated both African American and white Southern writers. Add to that the revelation that Agrarian modernism was itself infected by the permeative presence of industrial capitalism to no less degree than they claimed was the regionalists' version, and it becomes impossible to maintain that Southern modernism can or should be represented only by the Agrarian model.

Having ignored the intersection of these white Southern responses to modernity for so long perhaps has helped incite Southern studies scholars' perpetuation of cultural segregation in their own criticism, causing them in turn to overlook the ways in which African American and Southern modernisms have likewise crossed paths. For while the African American modernism famously described by Houston Baker was based on ontologically distinct assumptions from those of Agrarian modernism, it nonetheless enacted a similar impulse to "take a backward look," as Tate put it, in order to chart a course into the future. This simultaneous backward look was more than simply a temporal coincidence, for despite their differences in conceptualization, both represent approaches consistent with what should be recognized as the whole of Southern modernism. African American writers' conceptually similar approach resembles that of the Othered pole of white Southern modernism, the Chapel Hill group's cultural materialist engagement with Southern modernity. African American modernism, then, like Southern regionalism, should be recognized as an integral facet of Southern modernism itself.

Leonard Diepeveen notes that "two marked attitudes of the Harlem Renaissance" were "an uneasy accommodation with the past ... and the campaign for desegregation" (66) in which "the Harlem Renaissance deliberately tried to break with past social injustices and past artistic misrepresentations of the race" (69); consequently, "Locke, Du Bois, and others all saw desegregation rather than separatism as the key to social progress" (74). If it was assumed, then, that the Harlem Renaissance was focused not upon the past, but implicitly upon the future because of its nascent desire to achieve integration, then it became too easy for critics--particularly those already operating under the assumption that segregation was an absolute--to assume that no black writer could properly be a Southern writer because he or she likely would not revere the past, as a "Southern writer" necessarily should. For given a predominant Agrarian paradigm which urges that a segregation based upon slavery or its modern equivalent be posited as the order-making, restorative social condition of the South, what but shame and degradation could the Southern past represent to the black writer who is assumed to function as the opposite or negation of the white? By such reasoning, it would seem that rather than nostalgically remember that past and work for its metaphorical return, black writers would want to forget and move on, the absence of the proper historical sensibility thus further disqualifying them as Southern writers. The logical conclusion to such a scenario, then, might be to see the Harlem Renaissance itself as the negation of the Southern Renascence rather than as a coextensive manifestation of the larger development of a literary modernism that would profoundly influence Southern literature.

In recent years, of course, scholars have come to recognize that much of the work of the Harlem Renaissance is extremely significant to the development of Southern literature. As Baker argues, that cultural moment in African American history was founded upon the realization that the folk heritage rooted in the black Southern past could serve as the foundation of an "Afro-American expressive" culture which ultimately would lead to "an intensely successful act of national self-definition" (72). Like the writers of the Southern Renascence, many of those of the Harlem Renaissance similarly took a "backward look" at their history in order to chart their course in the twentieth century, but they did so with a perhaps more materialist than aestheticized approach. As Baker observes, their vision did not begin with "a historically and materially grounded 'slavery' as the Afro-American's point of commencement"; rather, it cast its departure point more positively as "a FOLK" (63). And that folk, of course, most often had its origins in the South, even as it was becoming increasingly diasporic with northward black migration in the years surrounding the decade of the 1920s. The Harlem Renaissance began as a Northern urban phenomenon and at times its writers shared the impulse to artistic innovation which Schocket associates with Eliotian modernism's response to industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Yet particularly after its focus shifted from the Talented Tenth to the folk in the later 1920s, writers of the Harlem Renaissance tended to make greater use of the realistic narrative--perhaps because, unlike elite white modernists, they sought not to aestheticize the lower classes out of existence but instead to represent their concerns with a stark veracity that addressed the foundational role of class in racial discrimination.

The conditions that made possible this revaluation of the black Southern past arose again, ironically, out of the segregation and racial hierarchy central to the Western literate tradition. Gates argues that the Enlightenment regard of writing as the "visible sign of reason" ("Writing 'Race'" 8) and hence that the supreme marker of one's humanity caused black individuals erroneously to believe that they could "write themselves into being" in the eyes of the hegemony by proving themselves through the creation of texts that would achieve the "transformation through which the African would become the European, the slave become the ex-slave, the brute animal become the human being" (11-12). Within this paradigm, indigenous--and preliterate--black traditions thus represented something to rise above rather than something to treasure. But Enlightenment philosophy, it turned out, had superimposed another trope over the top of the notion of writing-as-humanity: that of blackness as absence or emptiness. Hence in white eyes, black texts were necessarily always "blank" and black writing could thus be dismissed as mere mimicry, the trick of a cleverly trained animal emulating its superiors. But Gates notes that instead of letting their aspirations be thwarted by this situation, black writers instead generated a literary tradition based precisely upon difference, with the result that "the vernacular inform[ed] and bec[ame] the foundation for formal black literature" (Signifying xxii). While it inevitably would be influenced by the white Western tradition, its texts would always carry a "distinct and resonant accent ... that Signifies (upon) the various black vernacular literary traditions" (xxiii). According to Baker, the Harlem Renaissance represented one such moment at which black writers accepted, and self-consciously embraced, this tradition of radical difference--a moment at which, precisely, the folk past became a value and a specifically African American modernism was thus enabled.

The Southern Renascence likewise championed historical difference as the foundation of an indigenous literature, even if it did claim to do so in terms based on regional rather than on racial distinctiveness; yet perhaps because of its legacy of sociopolitical and critical segregation, critics only recently have begun to investigate potential points of intersection and overlap like these between simultaneous literary moments which would mark their shared territory in the development of both modernism and Southern literature. Only now have scholars begun to realize that just as the Southern Renascence has been perceived as a moment marking a major step in the development of Southern literature, the Harlem Renaissance likewise should be so taken, for it designates an instance in which the contents of a specifically black folk tradition were introduced into the historical perspective that so distinctively characterizes the literature of the region.

Black Thunder is an exemplary text in this regard. Written in the context of Bontemps's perusal of postbellum slave narratives that had been collected in the 1920s and later compiled by WPA writers into the agency's Slave Narrative Collection, the novel is the product of Bontemps's exploration of a growing sense that African American history did not, in fact, begin with the Emancipation Proclamation (Jones 45-46). In the intellectual milieu of the Harlem Renaissance, Bontemps had discovered what seemed to him, as Kirldand C. Jones describes it, "living proof of the survival in America of an African culture" that would eventually "give to America a new aesthetic" (56); the extended knowledge and affirmation of the folk past which the Harlem Renaissance experience provided moved Bontemps to probe its connection to the South more fully. During his residence in Alabama, Bontemps made a trip to Fisk University, where the original transcripts of interviews with ex-slaves were housed, and later he noted that upon discovering there

a larger collection of slave narratives than I knew existed, I began to read almost frantically. In the gloom of the darkening Depression settling all around us, I began to ponder the stricken slave's will to freedom. Three historic efforts at self-emancipation caught my attention and promptly shattered peace of mind. I knew instantly that one of them would be the subject of my next novel. (Introduction xxvi)

In these postbellum narratives Bontemps began to find material that helped answer the questions he had had as a child about the slaves' fight for freedom and about racial myths that continually hindered black Americans' struggle for equality.

William L. Andrews notes that post-Emancipation slave narratives relied heavily on pragmatic judgments of slavery's meaning to the present in pleading the case for equality in the modern world. Their crafters perceived that the conception of slavery could make "a difference ultimately in what white people thought of black people as freedmen, not slaves" (68) and that it had to be demonstrated that the legacy of slavery was not a race of lazy, ignorant, and servile creatures, but of self-sufficient and hard-working human beings. Only thus might blacks be afforded "credentials" that would urge the modern world to accept the narratives' arguments for humane and equal treatment (69). Hence postbellum slave narrators tended to emphasize not the "brutalizing horrors of slavery" (64) but rather the fact that they had survived a dehumanizing institution with an intact sense of dignity and autonomy (66) and had made significant contributions to Southern culture in both existential and material terms in the process (69). The postbellum narratives, in short, complemented Bontemps's existing mindset in their positing of Southern slave history as a valuable source of inspiration and guidance rather than as merely a shameful era to be risen above and then forgotten.

Indeed, Hazel Carby contends that the novel which grew out of Bontemps's research into the slave narratives drew its inspiration directly from "these less formal interviews" that detailed the "daily round of slave life" and thus suggested the existence of "a black culture that existed as a space away from the control of whites" (137). Because these postbellum narratives were not intended to be put to the service of abolition and hence were not necessarily crafted with a white audience in mind, they implicitly appealed more directly to the black community; in consequence, Carby observes, "Bontemps' slave folk... are also represented as having a community and culture that is a source for their group resistance" (138) and thus his novel "made a claim to a revolutionary black tradition that directly opposed the historiography" girding the nostalgic myth of plantation life embedded in the popular memory of the South (139). In the stuff of black Southern history, that is, Bontemps discovered not the disgrace and degradation of a people who represented the antithesis of modern white Southern culture, but potential inspiration for the Depression-bound era of the 1930s, in which the advances of the New Negro seemed under threat of dissolution as scarce resources precipitated renewed racial discrimination and oppression.

It was in the account of Prosser's revolt in Virginia--a story that concluded not with material triumph over racial oppression but with the failure to achieve emancipation--that Bontemps chose to ground his exploration of the meaning and value of black Southern history in the context of the present. Black Thunder emphasizes that although Gabriel falls short of his ultimate objective of ending slavery--in fact, the novel suggests from time to time that the rebellion only served to tighten the hold of the institution on Southern society (4)--nonetheless he, along with his fellow slaves, makes strides toward the discovery of a source of collective serf-worth and hence of an inspiration to action outside of extant white, elite structures of authority.

On this level the novel presents a portrait of the contrast between three principal black male characters, Ben, Bundy, and Gabriel, each of whom possesses a perception of his social status that the novel problematizes as it explores the implications of each vision. Its initial scene depicts Ben, the faithful personal servant of plantation owner Moseley Sheppard, as he moves quietly through the house in the dead of night while his master sleeps peacefully upstairs. The secure calm is a contrast to the novel's opening lines that allude to "disclosures" made by Sheppard that spawned "rumors that would positively let no Virginian sleep" (9) for fear of events to follow shortly. On this night, however, Ben is an almost maternal figure as he brings light and order to the darkened household, winding the clock and providing a midnight supper for Sheppard's wayward son Robin, who comes in from his nocturnal carousing. Robin invokes Ben's loyalty when he swears him to secrecy about when he came in and at the same time reveals that he has been keeping company with a "yellow" woman--a secret he tells Ben because he "might need [him] sometime" if trouble should arise. Ben's reply--"Yes suh. I know and don "t know"--signifies his complicity and earns him Robin's praise. Ben's "heart fluttered with pleasure; he was a good boy" (11); thus the novel reveals Ben as a character who has conditioned himself to accept his inferior racial stares unquestioningly and who as a result enjoys the relative autonomy and special privileges afforded house slaves in the plantation South.

Indeed, Ben's tendency to identify himself with his aristocratic masters rather than with his fellow slaves is emphasized in his response to Bundy's request for another jug of Sheppard's rum. Ben is willing to bend the rules and clandestinely refill Bundy's jug from the master's stores, a move which might suggest his feelings of comradeship with his fellow slaves--"I reckon maybe Marse Sheppard can spare you one mo' jugful. I'll just fill it anyhow and ask him about it some other time" (12). Yet he never considers openly declaring his allegiance to them by acceding to Bundy's urging that he "come on j'ine the masons" (12), a coded reference to the planned rebellion. Significantly, the chapter ends with the diversion of Ben's attention from the matter of Bundy by the pull of his duties in the house:
   Join the Masons! Lordy, what a notion! Where was it the thrasher
   called him, to what green clump? Mr. Moseley Sheppard was probably
   still sleeping, his toes looking out from under the sheet, but
   bacon was frying in the kitchen and Ben thought he had better go up
   and wake him now. (13)

Here the novel foreshadows Ben's ultimate loyalty to his white subjectors, for finally he will not function as the source of the unrest that soon will disturb the smooth functioning of the plantation system; rather, as he does with the clock he winds in the opening scene, he will enable its continued and regular operation, even to the extent eventually of revealing the insurrectionist plan to his master.

Ben again betrays his ambivalent fellow feeling for the other slaves, this time more strongly, when he does unwillingly become involved in the rebellion as a result of Bundy's death at the hands of Marse Prosser. Ben feels that he is obligated to the dead to fulfill what might well have been his last wish, and so since "Bundy wanted Ben to talk with Gabriel ... Ben knew now he would have to do it" (53). Ben still is not motivated to become involved because of his own convictions about freedom and individual liberty; indeed, when he swears himself to secrecy in the presence of the others, he does so not out of his own latent sense of oppression but merely because "so great was his curiosity, he couldn't possibly resist the desire to hear. Gossip was sweet at his age" (54). Hence he takes an oath of loyalty to the rebellion while at the same time reasoning that "he wouldn't be swearing to do anything he didn't want to do; he would just be swearing that he'd keep his mouth closed. It was no more than he'd have done had he not come to the burying" (54).

Ben's response to his realization that he has become irrevocably involved in plans for an insurrection is telling:
   And so this was what old Bundy wanted him to hear from Gabriel, was
   it? Did he think Ben would get mixed up in any such crazy doings?
   Ben's lips twitched. His thought broke off abruptly. Something
   squatting beside the covered hole turned a quizzical eye toward the
   frizzly whiskered house servant. Ben wrung his hands; he bowed his
   head, and heavy jolting sobs wrenched his body. He wasn't in for no
   such cutting up as all that. The devil must of got in Bundy before
   he died. What could he do now with that eye on him? Ben bowed
   lower. (55-56)

And when another slave asks Ben, "What's the matter, nigger, don't you want to be free?" the narrative notes that "Ben stopped sobbing, thought a long moment. 'I don't know,' he said" (56), as if he never had allowed himself fully to consider the question.

Ben remains hesitant about his participation in the rebellion, despite Gabriel's efforts to provide both biblical and practical justification that would pacify Ben's objections to what he characterizes as their plans for "killing and murder and burning down houses" (60). In fact, his mental image of the revolt is more typical of what one might expect white Southerners to envision: "filthy black slaves coming suddenly through those windows" of Sheppard's house, "pikes and cutlasses in their hands, their eyes burning with murderous passion and their feet dripping mud from the swamp" (61-62). Ben has so internalized an elite white perspective that he finally sees his fellow slaves in precisely the rhetorical terms aristocratic white Southern culture has used to characterize them: as savage animals who will "desecrat[e]" white Southern space and seal the deed with "wild jungle laughter." Again, he is physically overcome when "it occur[s] to [him] which side he" has sworn to be on (62).

On only two occasions do thoughts enter Ben's head that suggest that he does hold some antagonism toward his white master. Once, while the old slave is serving amidst the "warmth and security" of the supper table (71), "without warning, the devil spoke to his mind," challenging his loyalty to Marse Sheppard, "a rich old white man that God don't even love" (72); and again, as Ben prepares to leave on his journey to Richmond on behalf of the insurrection, he notes his sorrow at the prospect of leaving Sheppard's house for good, even characterizing his impending freedom as "such a disagreeable compulsion, such a bondage" (93), when "suddenly another thought shouted in his head. Licking his spit because he done fed you, hunh? Fine nigger you is. Good old Marse Sheppard, hunh? Is he ever said anything about setting you free?" (94). In both instances, however, Ben's attention as usual is diverted from further examination of his thoughts by the demands of the household: in the first case by Sheppard's spell of angina, which converts Ben's hostility into a reverie about how long the two have been together and how soon their tranquil home will be disrupted by "the crowd of mad savages coming through the windows with scythe-swords and pikes" (73); and in the second by the necessity of shooing a wayward bird out of the kitchen, an event which gives Ben misgivings about his mission when Drusilla interprets it as a "sign of death" (96). Ben's brief animosity is quickly replaced by regret; he "utter[s] a small, audible groan" (96) as he and Pharoah depart to spread word of the rebellion to neighboring slave communities.

Unsurprisingly, Ben needs little convincing that the rainstorm on the night the uprising was to have taken place constitutes a sign that it will fail. He and Pharoah quickly abandon their assigned task as they lose their nerve and begin blaming one another for the quandary in which they now find themselves; tellingly, Ben's thoughts as usual turn toward the paternalistic haven of the plantation house and the status it gives him as he notices "that his good clothes were near ruined" and he tries "to imagine himself tucked in a dry feather bed at home" (106), all the while "crying in his mind like a child" (111-12). Soon after, he literally enacts the role of the obedient child, appearing before Sheppard "neatly dressed" and restored to his preferred state: he "dropped to one knee, his hands resting on the arm of the planter's chair, and began weeping aloud" as he confessed all the details of the plot to his master (113).

Armed with a "new Sunday hat" (132) he has been awarded for his obedience, Ben repeats his assertions of faithfulness to the white South in court and explains "how the long net, against his will, had seemed to involve him more and more without actually taking him in" (132), and in the process he incriminates all the principal players in the rebellion. It is precisely this treason toward his fellow slaves, however, that marks the lasting influence of the insurrection even in the face of its material failure. For despite his loyalty to the plantation system, Ben forever has lost comfortable faith in his proper role within it, and his sense of security in its day-to-day workings. Although on the surface the situation appears to have returned to what he regards as normal, he is dogged insistently by a sense of uncertainty, prompted by his knowledge that it was he, not Pharoah, as the other slaves believe, who initially exposed the plot to Sheppard; and it is he, not Pharoah, who will face the judgment of his people should the truth about his betrayal of them come out (217).

Ben's certainty that the aristocratic white South would protect and shelter him has been shattered by his recognition of the imperative toward identification with one's own race in a culture radically predicated upon the notion of racial hierarchy and its attendant class structure; for the specter of Gabriel's execution stays with him, and knowing that he himself faces similar retribution from his own kind for his disloyalty, "He could not feel reassured about the knives that waited for him with the sweet brown thrashers in every hedge and clump" (224). Hence ultimately Ben appears to display a fundamental--and necessary--identification with someone of his own race. This realization perhaps might lead in the course of time to what Carby contends is Black Thunder's predominant focus: a representation of "the collective acts of a black community as signs for future collective acts of rebellion and liberation" (140). (5)

In many ways Bundy appears a counterpart to Ben, given his apparently servile behavior upon his first appearance in the novel: he arrives at the kitchen door of Marse Sheppard's house, begging a refill for the rum jug that, in tandem with his advancing age, presumably prevents his performing any useful task for his own master, Prosser. Indeed, even Ben is amused at the comedic sight of Bundy's "making his way across the fields on such unsteady legs with such a fat jug" (13) once he has wheedled "another little taste of that old pizen rum" (12) from the house servant. To white eyes, Bundy seems every inch the stereotypically abject and inferior slavehand who continually shirks his duties. However, Bundy's insistence that Ben talk to Gabriel suggests that Bundy is not quite so contemptible as he lets on. While his response to Marse Prosser's attack is to attempt to avoid or deflect the master's physical blows rather than directly fend them off--
   Old Bundy saw something coming and veered away, his arm thrown up
   to protect his head. He saw it again and started side-stepping. He
   dropped the jug, threw the other hand up and felt the butt end of a
   riding whip on his elbow. His arms became
   suddenly paralyzed. Again he veered anxiously. This time he went
   down on his knees in a clump of rank polk and began crying like a

--his final action suggests a latent spirit of rebellion that perhaps has lain dormant in the old man for a long time: "Bundy regained his feet and made a leap for the bridle. He grasped something, something ... But there was darkness now" (14).

The narrative places the interior monologue marking Bundy's ultimate subjugation to his master as he is beaten to death--"Yes, sub, Marse Prosser, I'm taking it all. I can't prance and gallop no mo'; I'm 'bliged to take it. Yo' old sway-backed mule--that's me" (14-15)--in direct juxtaposition with the image which follows of the colt Araby, whose youthful spirit--"happiness itself, pure joy let loose" (15)--represents a stark antithesis to Bundy's present constitution, broken and "sway-backed" after years of abuse. Yet the narrative soon discloses that Bundy once possessed this same strong spirit and that he once yearned for freedom in the same way Gabriel now does: Ben recalls Bundy as "a young buck standing cross-legged against a tree and telling the world he was going to die free," although it is Ben's perception that in the meantime Bundy "had grown old and given up the notion, it seemed" (33). Directly after Ben's reminiscence, though, Bundy's words to Gabriel suggest that freedom, in fact, is still very much on his mind: "I don't mind dying, but I hates to die not free. I wanted to see y'-all do something like Toussaint done. I always wanted to be free powerful bad" (34). Marse Prosser's beating apparently has only redoubled that desire within him, rather than destroyed it, as Bundy's monologue seemingly professed.

In light of these contradictions, Bundy's conscious and deliberate subservience to his white master is revealed as a facade under which he has subsumed his rebellious spirit simply as a means of survival in the face of material powerlessness--that he is, after all, signifying upon the master-slave relationship and ironically commenting upon the racial hierarchy through his professed acceptance of the role of lazy, conniving slave. It is telling that Bundy's sympathies never subconsciously fall into line with those of his white master, as Ben's often do, and that he never shares Ben's tendency to see through white eyes and identify with his white subjectors over his fellow slaves, for all his acting out of the role of the indolent darkie. Rather, his calculated subservience is just that: an act which always leaves some distance between how he knows his white master is prone to perceive him and how he truly perceives himself. (6)

By this reading, then, Bundy begins to emerge as an ironic figure who, although his signifying does not translate into direct action, (7) nonetheless plays a pivotal role in helping Gabriel inspire his followers to undertake such action themselves. For although Ben perceives Bundy as something of a failure because while he always said he wanted to be free, he "kept drinking up all that rum because he couldn't get up enough nerve to make his getaway" (33), it is important to remember that the novel, written during a period in which Bontemps's thought was steeped in the implications of Marxist theory for a Depression-bound society, (8) clearly validates mass over individual action. The narrative itself finally does not posit Bundy as a failure for not running away, but as a character who, like Gabriel, will settle only for a freedom that extends to all rather than just to himself. As Bundy reveals on his deathbed, he retains to the end that vision of a freedom which is both communal and personal and he dies chanting his belief that he, and the others, are "Bound to be free, chillun, bound to be free" (35), an antiphonal refrain that on one level serves as a mantra to prepare him for the figurative freedom of the next world, but on another functions as an inspiring reminder of the revolt's material goal to those who will take part in it.

Indeed, Bundy finally succeeds in bringing together the radically different characters of Ben and Gabriel and uniting them in a common cause in a way that might not have been possible otherwise, for if his signifying represents a sort of middle ground between Ben's passive internalization of the slave's inferior status and Gabriel's overt refusal to tolerate his bondage, his death serves the men as an impetus toward the same end because it presents to each a challenge to uphold his fundamental sense of obligation to others, whether man-to-man or to the entire community. In Ben's case, "There was something about a dead man's wish that commanded respect" (53) so that out of duty he becomes involved in the plot despite his reluctance to challenge his white oppressors. For Gabriel, his sense that he must carry out his mentor's dreams and that he must avenge the murder committed by Prosser spurs him to even more determined action. In the deathbed scene with Bundy, the two men commiserate, and Gabriel reassures the dying man that "we going to do something too. You know how we talked it, you and me" (34). Significantly, at the final meeting between Ben and Gabriel before the revolt is to take place, Bundy again figuratively unites the two in a common purpose, for Gabriel makes rhetorical use of Bundy's death to bolster Ben's weakening resolve and to reorient the old servant's loyalty toward his own people:

"I can't do it," [Ben] said. "Lordy, it's killing and murder and burning down houses. I can't do it." Gabriel turned sternly, paused and then spoke.

"It's the onliest way. Besides, I reckon that wa'n't murder when Marse Prosser kilt old Bundy." (60-61)

Hence Bundy's signifying upon his material situation, while it does not finally achieve freedom in a literal sense for either the man or his community, still exerts a positive influence in that it helps create and nurture a mindset in his people that will enable a man like Gabriel to lead them toward the next step in their collective history.

If Ben internalizes white perceptions based upon the cultural power engendered by racial hegemony and if Bundy signifies upon them, Gabriel actively rebels against them. Yet despite his determination to make literal what Bundy achieved only figuratively, Gabriel and the rebellion ultimately fail in the sense that the system of slavery will endure for another sixty years afterward--perhaps precisely because Gabriel does not succeed in rebelling fully. The narrative clearly indicates that Gabriel's desire for freedom arises from within himself rather than from the external inducement of abolitionists like Alexander Biddenhurst and his French acquaintances, as many white citizens of the town quickly assume. Gabriel simply hears his desires articulated for the first time when he overhears M. Creuzot and Biddenhurst, discussing the French Revolution, give name to the feelings he has had for some time (21). But as Gabriel will come to realize, he must learn to articulate them for himself, in his own racial and cultural language, before they can be realized successfully.

Indeed, the novel simultaneously suggests that as conceived and executed, the entire rebellion itself remains bracketed by white power. It notes explicitly that the model for revolt used by Gabriel's followers is the San Domingo uprising, which history has held was given its initial impetus by white citizens of Haiti and by Toussaint L'Ouverture, whose seizure of power was in part enabled by those citizens. Gabriel makes extensive use of scripture, a traditionally white-appropriated text, to inspire his followers to rebel:

"God's hard on them ... he don't like ugly"....

"It say so in the book, and it's plain as day," Gabriel said. "And, let push come to shove, He going to fight them down like a flog of pant'ers, He is. Y'-all heard what [Mingo] read. God's aiming to give them in the hands of they enemies and all like of that. He say he just need a man to make up the hedge and stand in the gap. He's going to cut them down his own self. See?" (47)

In Gabriel's mind, of course, he is the man to "stand in the gap," but his impressions of what such figures properly do and say correspond more nearly to elite white historical tropes of valor and courage than to models from his own African heritage. The narrative represents Gabriel's increasingly self-conscious preoccupation with enacting the role of the general leading his troops on a heroic mission as he becomes caught up in the trappings of the whole affair and begins to see himself as a sort of North American L'Ouverture. On the evening when the revolt is scheduled to take place, Gabriel muses:
   It was right pretty how Toussaint writ that note. I'm going to get
   Mingo to write me some just like it. We can send them to all the
   black folks in all the States. Let me see now. How it going to
   read. "My name is Gabriel--Gen'l Gabriel, I reckon--you's heard
   tell about me by now." (116)

And as he immerses himself further in his heroic fantasy,
   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. (Yen 7 Gabriel. He turned abruptly, went back into the hut
   and put on his shiny boots, his frock-tailed coat and his varnished
   coachman's hat. It was all very important when you really thought
   it over. (117) (9)

The uniform by which Gabriel sets so much store is, significantly, provided to him by his white master, and despite the young slave's attempt to make it the indicator of his own power and leadership rather than of his continued servitude, it ironically symbolizes instead Gabriel's fatal error: he remains immersed in a white paradigm of power rather than forging an autonomous sense of his own black identity that will accord him an independent authority. And as a result, he frequently crosses over the thin line between a necessary pride in himself as a human being and a self-serving egotism. Finally, Gabriel's interior reaction upon finding himself reduced to sleeping under a woodpile reveals his sense that such accommodations are now beneath a figure of renown such as he:
   Nothing for a general to crow about, though. Crawling down
   underneath of a woodpile on his belly. Lordy. I counted on a heap
   of things, but I sure ain't never counted on this. I heard tell
   about generals getting kilt and hanged and one thing and another,
   but I is got my first time to hear tell about one scratching around
   like a dog under a woodpile. It don't suit a general, this here
   hole; and it don't suit me a little bit. Laying on this sword don't
   feel good neither. Swords belong to hang down. This here hole ain't
   going to do me--I see that sticking way out. A general, do he lay
   down at all, supposes to hang up his sword. Lordy, this ain't me,
   this sure ain't Gabriel down under here. Gabriel ain't scairt of
   the living devil; and do he lay down at all for a nachal man, he
   lay down dead. That's Gen'l Gabriel, Lord, not this here crawling
   thing. (160-61)

Only when Gabriel takes the first step of exploring his worth outside the bounds of elite white modes of validation will he come closer to achieving a literal freedom to correspond with his intellectual liberation. As he gradually learns, he cannot simply imitate the white man in power, for aristocratic white Southern culture will never acknowledge him as such a figure; rather, he must base his fight for material freedom on modes determined more directly by his own historical context. Tellingly, until the very end of the novel Gabriel steadfastly refuses to heed the folk customs of his people on more than the superficial level necessary to ensure the loyalty of some of the slaves; rather, on more than one occasion he literally turns his back on the traditional folkways. (10) Ultimately, of course, his failure to heed the warning of the rainstorm leads to the rebellion's failure and signifies his downfall as a leader as well: rather than engaging the collective power of the folk--and respecting their customs--as a way to strengthen his leadership, he instead lapses more fully into an individualistic egotism which, like his fancy uniform, becomes a mockery as it is reduced to mere tatters that make him a pathetically comic figure, his "hat ... battered beyond recognition," his coat beginning "to show its hard use.... His shirt ... gone" and a "strip of bright black nakedness [flashing] between his buttons" (170). As the ancient slave woman assesses the situation, "Gabriel done forget to take something to protect hisself. The stars wasn't right. See? All that rain. Too much listening to Mingo read a white man's book. They ain't paid attention to the signs.... There's plenty things Gabriel could of done" (166-67).

Eric Sundquist argues that on the one hand, the "role of conjure in Black Thunder ... is part of Bontemps's searching attempt to recover the meaning of the insurrection from a variegated African-American point of view that could include Gabriel's astute articulation of revolutionary political ideals as well as a folk understanding of the spiritual basis for freedom" (98-99). Putting "the language of the masters and the language of the slaves on a continuum" in order "to discover in the coded discourse of vernacular an equivalent to the philosophical language of the Rights of Man" would validate the slaves' capacity for achieving freedom and thus give "a special voice to those whose testimony, in court and in history, had been accorded no legal or official historical meaning" (100). Yet the novel also emphasizes that conjure "formed a hidden semiotic code and system of belief that operated secretly, set apart from the white command of slaveholding" (123); it represented a kind of rhetorical power that served as "a vehicle for the retention of African beliefs in which resistance and heroism alike were possible" (123).

Bontemps suggests, in other words, that the potential for Gabriel's heroism resides more properly in the world of "the rural black folk... that Gabriel could understand but from which he had detached himself intellectually" (Sundquist 106). If, as Daniel Reagan interprets it, Gabriel's refusal to read the signs of nature signifies his fundamental rejection of "the very source out of which his language and community have been formed" (78), perhaps the novel posits that in this case history was not yet ready for the rebellion and hence it could not materially succeed, for Gabriel has not yet based his self-worth on his own origins, but has only tried to "dress up" in the trappings of elite white notions of leadership and freedom. His mind remains locked into the notion of making aristocratic whites acknowledge him on their terms, rather than realizing that validation must come first from his own community. Hence Gabriel is as dubious of the validity of his own folk culture as antebellum whites are of the power of conjure--or, as Sundquist points out, as Bontemps knew the "modern skeptic[s]" (99) of his father's generation had been:

In their opposing attitudes toward roots my father and my great-uncle made me aware of a conflict in which every educated American Negro, and some who are not educated, must somehow take sides. By implication at least, one group advocates embracing the riches of the folk heritage; their opposites demand a clean break with the past and all it represents. ("Why I Returned" 11)

By casting Gabriel's failure as in part a function of the primitivist dichotomy by that time internalized by African Americans--between naive celebration of a superstitious past and outright rejection of the very source of one's cultural identity--Bontemps transforms his ostensible slave narrative into a parable for the modern African American community as well.

Only in the final courtroom scene does Gabriel begin to make the distinction between his own liberty and the freedom whites are refusing to grant him and at the same time to resemble the modern hero Bontemps finally portrays. For the first time, the white language now condemning him, that same language he had used to authenticate the revolt, itself "sound[s] like conjure" (214)--an ironic twist on the term connoting the folk customs he had unwisely ignored before. Tellingly, in the last scene in which Gabriel is directly involved, he finally wonders whether he should have "paid attention to the signs" (214). Thus Gabriel finally begins to achieve what Ben and Bundy themselves never came to: breaking completely free of seeing through elite white eyes and, consciously or not, applying white judgments to themselves. Gabriel instead comes to perceive freedom as something he himself has the power to define and enact, and by the end of the novel he achieves a freedom still metaphorical like Bundy's, perhaps, yet somehow more potentially literal than that which the old man was able to achieve because it combines active resistance with a sense of the distance between white and black perceptions of what freedom and autonomy entail. The fact that Gabriel chooses not to run away and be physically "free" himself, but elects instead to fall along with the rest of those involved in the rebellion, is one sign of his growing recognition that one's own community gives worth to the individual--no one man is free if the community remains enslaved. Finally, rather than resist his captors and escape from the ship, which the narrative intimates he might have been able to do had he seized the chance, Gabriel chooses to reveal himself: "I ain't got much rabbit in me.... I was in for fighting, me" (193).

Ultimately, Gabriel begins recognize the key to becoming an active influence upon the course of his larger culture, outside the boundaries of his own racial community. Although he develops a sense of self-worth from within his own heritage too late for this particular rebellion, he and his compatriots do succeed in planting seeds of doubt in aristocratic white minds as to the absolute reign of their racial--and by extension, their class--hierarchy in a slave society; the novel makes reference to the various proposals that followed the rebellion, by figures like Governor James Monroe, for a maroon state for freed slaves, or even for gradual and wholesale abolition (218). At the same time, Gabriel situates his story as a source of inspiration and instruction for later generations who finally will overcome in their struggles for material freedom.

In addition to the postbellum slave narratives at Fisk University, in constructing this narrative Bontemps also consulted written white accounts of the rebellion from newspapers of the time (Davis, "Authoritative" 23). As Mary Kemp Davis notes, Bontemps noticed the absence of black perspectives in existing accounts of the rebellion, and through the representation of Gabriel and his followers created a counterpoint to that "official" chronicle which gives a voice to the conspirators themselves ("Authoritative" 34). As Bontemps thus exposes the viewpoint of the black Southerner and makes it a part of the written testimony, he also reweaves black and white together to help complete the Southern tapestry. Through his modern, flawed hero, he complicates the conventional Agrarian myth whose logical consistency--and dominance--depended upon suppressing fully one-half of the story of Southern culture.

Kreyling contends that "it was not so much 'the South' that triggered Ill Take My Stand as the presence in the cultural/historical arena of competing 'orders' of cultural power that threatened to imagine the South in other ways that would have disenfranchised the Agrarian elite. And they fought back" (6). Finally, then, perhaps Bontemps's novel rarely has been read in the context of its relationship to Southern literature precisely because it does so radically threaten the neat picture of the Southern past that allowed the Agrarians, and the critics influenced by them, to present Southern literature as a genre segregated by philosophical absolutes that deem inadmissible certain events of history, alternative perspectives upon those events and hence a myriad of truths about the interrelationship of black and white in the development of Southern culture, and, ultimately, certain works of literature about the South--such as those that, as in this case, uncage the racial beast and raise the specter of class and racial disorder within the very plantation (and literary) tradition presumed to represent a haven from modern cultural chaos.

Works Cited

Andrews, William L. "The Representation of Slavery and the Rise of Afro-American Literary Realism, 1865-1920." McDowell and Rampersad 62-80.

Baker, Houston. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1987.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations." Essays and Reflections. Ed. and intro. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969.

Bontemps, Arna. Black Thunder. 1936. Boston: Beacon, 1992.

--. Introduction. 1968. Black Thunder. 1936. Boston: Beacon, 1992. xxi-xxix.

--. "The Negro Renaissance: Jean Toomer and the Harlem Writers of the 1920s." Anger, and Beyond." The Negro Writer in the United States. Ed. Herbert Hill. New York: Harper and Row, 1966. 20-36.

--. "Why I Returned." The Old South: "A Summer Tragedy" and Other Stories of the Thirties. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1973. 1-25.

Carby, Hazel. "Ideologies of Black Folk: The Historical Novel of Slavery." McDowell and Rampersad 125-43.

Davis, Mary Kemp. "Arna Bontemps' Black Thunder: The Creation of an Authoritative Text of 'Gabriel's Defeat.'" Black American Literature Forum 23(1) 1989: 17-36.

--. "From Death Unto Life: The Rhetorical Function of Funeral Rites in Arna Bontemps' Black Thunder." Journal of Ritual Studies 1 (1) 1987: 85-101.

Diepeveen, Leonard. "Folktales in the Harlem Renaissance." American Literature 58.1 (1986): 64-81.

Fairclough, Adam. Better Day Coming." Blacks and Equality, 1890-2000. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Gates, Henry Louis. "Introduction: Writing 'Race' and the Difference It Makes." Race, Writing, and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1986. 1-20.

--. The Signifying Monkey. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Genovese, Eugene. From Rebellion to Revolution. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1979.

Grigsby, John. "Jesus, Judas, or 'Jes a Happy Old Nigga:' Or, Will the Real 'Uncle Tom' Please Step Forward?" Publications of the Mississippi Philological Association 5(1986): 51-62.

Hale, Grace Elizabeth. Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940. New York: Vintage, 1998.

Jones, Kirkland C. Renaissance Man from Louisiana: A Biography of Arna Wendell Bontemps. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992.

Kreyling, Michael. Inventing Southern Literature. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1998.

Lane, Suzanne. "Black Thunder's Call for a Conjure Response to Negro Slavery." African American Review 37.4(Winter 2003): 583-98.

Levecq, Christine. "Philosophies of History in Arna Bontemps' Black Thunder (1936)." Obsidian III 1.2(2000): 111-30.

McDowell, Deborah E., and Arnold Rampersad, eds. Slavery and the Literary Imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989.

O'Brien, Michael. The Idea of the American South 1920-1941. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1979.

Rampersad, Arnold. Introduction. Arna Bontemps. Black Thunder. 1936. Boston: Beacon, 1992. vii-xx.

Reagan, Daniel. "Voices of Silence: The Representation of Orality in Arna Bontemps' Black Thunder." Studies in American Fiction 19.1(1991): 71-83.

Schocket, Eric. "Modernism and the Aesthetics of Management, or T. S. Eliot's Labor Literature." Left of the Color Line: Race, Radicalism, and Twentieth-Century Literature of the United States. Ed. Bill V. Mullen and James Smethurst. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 2003. 13-37.

Scott, William. "'To make up the hedge and stand in the gap:' Arna Bontemps' Black Thunder." Callaloo 27.2(2004): 522-41.

Sundquist, Eric J. The Hammers of Creation: Folk Culture in Modern African American Fiction. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1992.

Tate, Allen. "The Profession of Letters in the South." 1935. Collected Essays. New York: Alan Swallow, 1959. 266-81.

Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1990.

Warren, Robert Penn. "The Briar Patch." I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. 1930. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1977. 246-64.

Weil, Dorothy. "Folklore Motifs in Arna Bontemps' Black Thunder." Southern Folklore Quarterly 35.1 (1971): 1-14.


East Tennessee State University

(1) Bontemps most often is treated in terms of his relationship to African American literature and culture alone; see for example Carby, Grigsby, Reagan, and Sundquist. Other rubrics under which Bontemps has been explored include folklore (see Davis "Rhetorical" and Weft). More recently, scholars also have considered Bontemps's work in the context of historiography and/or the philosophy of history (see Lane and Levecq) and materialism and radical writing (see Scott).

(2) See Fairclough's discussion of the shift from "fluidity and uncertainty" in Southern race relations before 1890 to "segregation as a rational solution to the problem of racial conflict" after (16).

(3) Hale's discussion of the culture of segregation in the South suggests that the Jim Crow system's ascendency depended upon its endorsement by the newly empowered middle class in the South with its "moderate" politics, as opposed to remaining exclusively a project of aristocratic, politically radical white supremacists (93). The Agrarians, as O'Brien and others have noted, were largely middle class themselves, although some of them had descended from families who lost their aristocratic status after the Civil War. Of the inner circle of literary Agrarians, Robert Penn Warren is perhaps the most candid about the importance of economics to the discourse of Agrarian modernism when he addresses the entwinement of class and race in his essay for 17/ Take My Stand In "The Briar Patch" Warren ponders the issue of education for black Southerners and poor whites alike, whom he asserts were "just as much the victim of the slave system as the Negro" (258), although in the end he seems to reaffirm the inevitability of segregation as the central social order.

(4) For example, following the public revelation of the plot, Alexander Biddenhurst muses that "Now the hope of freeing the slaves was more remote than ever in the United States and would have to wait for the slow drip of spring to cut a way through stone" (152).

(5) The text also hints at the logic of solidarity between black and poor white Southerners, as for example when on the night of the planned insurrection Criddle approaches the farmhouse of an old white yeoman and his daughter Grisselda. The narrative voice, describing Grisselda's uncomfortable feeling that someone is lurking outside in the storm, poses the question "What would he seek in the cabin of a widowed old man and his young daughter, destitute white folks who were poorer than blacks [sic] slaves?" (89). Criddle's progress toward his assigned objective is slowed by his libidinous association of Grisselda with "a certain indentured white girl in town" whose memory, however, does cause him to question himself: "Could he really hurt that girl? Could he make his hands do it?" (91). As quickly, though, he bolsters his resolve: "Us ain't sparing nothing, nothing what raises its hand. The good and the bad goes together this night, the pretty and the ugly. We's going to be as hard as God hisself.... Well, they had nobody to blame but themselves. Had no business buying and selling humans like hogs and mules" (91). Criddle's conflation of whites of all classes with those wielding the economic and social power of the aristocracy is a mirror image of the Agrarians' own conflation of race and class. Perhaps Bontemps did not pursue this line of reasoning fully because, as he opines in his introduction to the 1968 edition of the novel, in 1936 "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" (xxix); certainly the theme of solidarity between poor whites and blacks would have been regarded as even more intimidating to readers already sensitized to the perceived menace of Radical Left politics during the Great Depression.

(6) It is significant that, unlike Ben, Bundy is a fieldhand with a proportionally more direct connection to the folk and less incentive to implication in the power structure of the white elite, and thus a more fitting heroic inspiration for Gabriel.

(7) In some ways the narrative suggests that history simply was not ripe enough in Bundy's youth for him to be able to take part in direct action aimed toward gaining material freedom through mass revolt. There is some evidence to support the notion that it was the precedent set by the San Domingo (Haitian) uprising in the West Indies (1791), just before the time period in which this novel is set, that provided the impetus that might have enabled the United States slave South to progress to an historical stage that would permit similar activity. See Eugene Genovese's argument in From Rebellion to Revolution about how the distinctions he draws between United States and West Indian slave systems helped determine the potential success of mass rebellion in either location.

(8) Bontemps enjoyed a long friendship with Langston Hughes, who became actively involved in the American Communist Party during the 1930s, and indeed Bontemps came under the suspicion of his employers in Alabama because of his habit of borrowing books through the mail from Hughes. Arnold Rampersad notes that during the 1930s, too, Bontemps's own "vision of the world shifted to the left and to a more radical understanding of the fate of blacks in America" (xi-xii).

(9) Compare this description to that of the US cavalry officer dispatched to Richmond to quash the rebellion: "There was a pleasant rattle of side arms, a delicious squeak of new saddle leather, an immoderate splendor of buttons and chevrons. Captain Orian Des Mukes, straight, aristocratic, cavalier, gave his young orderly a profile on which was written a type of languid, moonlight bravery" (122).

(10) See for example two scenes in which the slaves engage in a traditional call-and-response ritual that bolsters their determination to rebel: at Bundy's wake (35) and at the meeting at Mingo's house where the Scripture is read (46). In both instances, Gabriel "gave the others his back" while they chanted antiphonally, and did not take part himself.
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Author:Leroy-Frazier, Jill
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
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Date:Jan 1, 2010
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