The Artist Birthday Series

Arna Bontemps

In 1936 Bontemps published what is known as some of his best work, Black Thunder. This novel recounts the tale of a rebellion that took place in 1800 near Richmond, Virginia led by Gabriel Prosser, an uneducated field worker and coachman. It shares Prosser’s attempted plan to conduct a slave army to raid an armory in Richmond, and once armed with weapons, defend themselves against any assailants. A fellow slave betrayed Prosser causing the rebellion to be shut down, and Prosser to be lynched. However, in Bontemps version of the story, whites were compelled to admit that slaves were humans that had possibilities of a promising life.

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Black Thunder received many extraordinary reviews by both African-American and conventional journals, for example, the Saturday Review of Literature. Despite these rave reviews of this literary piece, the earnings were unable to sufficiently support his family in Chicago, where they moved shortly before he published the novel. He briefly taught in Chicago at the Shiloh Academy but did not stay long because he took a job with the WPA Illinois Writers’ Project. In 1938, following the publication of another children’s book Sad-Faced Boy (1937), Bontemps acquired a Rosenwald fellowship to work on his novel, Drums at Dusk (1939), which was based on Toussaint L’Ouverture‘s Haitian rebellion. This book was more widely recognized than his other novels. Critics were split as some viewed the plot as overdramatic, while others commended its characterizations.

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