Black Thunder's Call for a Conjure Response to American Negro Slavery
Lane, Suzanne, African American Review
In American classrooms in the first half of the twentieth century, students using the popular history textbook Growth of the American Republic were taught that slaves "suffered less than any other class in the South from its 'peculiar institution.' ... There was much to be said for slavery as a transitional status between barbarism and civilization. The negro learned his master's language, and accepted in some degree his moral and religious standards" (Morrison and Commager 415). This idea of slavery stems directly from U. B. Phillips's massive history American Negro Slavery (1918), which dominated the historiography of slavery well into the 1950s. In Phillips's words, "the plantations were the best schools yet invented for the mass training of that sort of inert and backward people which the bulk of the American negroes represented," and Phillips emphasizes that the "process of transition from barbarism to civilization" was "essentially slow" (343). White plantation owners, in this metaphor, instill order and attempt to teach the methods of rationality to "superstitious and ignorant" slaves.
It is not surprising then to find that Arna Bontemps, when researching slave narratives before writing his historical novel of slavery, Black Thunder (1936), rejected Nat Turner's rebellion as the basis for his novel because he was uneasy about "the business of Nat's 'visions' and 'dreams' " ("Introduction" xii). Instead, he chose Gabriel Prosser and his attempt to capture Richmond, Virginia, in 1800, because Prosser "had not depended on trance-like mumbo-jumbo," and he emphasizes that Prosser "had not been possessed, not even overly optimistic" (xiii). Bontemps appears to have valued Prosser's logical planning and organization, his "strategy," and his "dignity." It would be easy to read this as revealing Bontemps's desire to counter the dominant image of slaves as "superstitious and ignorant," except for the fact that Bontemps depicts in his novel slaves who fear "signs" and "bad hands," who visit conjurers for protection, and who see the ghost of the slave Bundy, who was beaten to death by his master. It is true that Gabriel himself dismisses the other slaves' superstitions, and this has led Eric Sundquist to note that, "although conjure has undeniable power in the slave world recreated in Black Thunder, it is set in contrast to the decidedly rational foundation provided for Gabriel's bid to be free" (97); Sundquist argues that ultimately conjure remains ambivalent in this novel, since it both causes a "disabling fear of 'stars,' 'signs,' and 'bad hands' " that dooms the rebellion, and "ultimately becomes a mechanism for power and revenge within the community" (121-22).
While I find Sundquist's reading insightful and comprehensive in relation to the slaves themselves, my own reading draws on Houston Baker's theory of conjure as narrative and William Covino's theory of magic rhetoric to explore how this conflict between rationality and conjure within the novel's plot is mirrored at the level of the novel's discourse, inviting the reader to participate actively in choosing conjure over the type of rationality that Phillips's text presents. Many of the slaves in Black Thunder are caught in an epistemological dilemma between trusting the "rational" word that comes to them from masters and books, and trusting a conjure epistemology that they themselves often dismiss as "superstition." Ben, the slave who confesses and thus reveals Gabriel's plot to overthrow Richmond, is haunted by the ghost of Bundy, a slave beaten to death by his master, and yet rejects the ghost's call for retribution. Gabriel himself, at more than one crucial juncture, faces the choice between "reading" the world according to an empiricist mode and "reading" events in the natural world as signs or symbols that would reveal a conjure knowledge based on the assumption of an animate and interconnected world. By revealing Ben and Gabriel as tragic "misreaders," and by providing the reader with opportunities to interpret the text through a conjure epistemology, Bontemps argues not only for a revised history of slavery that acknowledges the slaves as sources, but also for a way of knowing both the past and contemporary reality that does not rely on objectivist discourse. While Gabriel dismisses conjure, the novel itself does not, but instead offers it as a necessary alternative epistemology, one that is available to the reader as well as to the slaves, and one that can offer a way of knowing both the past and contemporary reality that does not rely on the "objective" and "rational" framework of the dominant historical textbooks. Thus, Black Thunder itself can be read as a conjure intervention into the discourse of American Negro Slavery.
American Negro Slavery and the Silencing of African American Voices
One might imagine that in the 1930s, when the government was funding the WPA project to collect the oral histories of those African Americans who had been slaves, there was some broader public interest in the slaves' stories. But Bontemps's experience teaching school in Alabama before he wrote Black Thunder suggests that many viewed with fear and anger the possibility that slaves might tell their own stories. In the wake of the Scottsboro case, in which nine African American youths were accused of rape because they had been riding in a box-car with two white women, the director of the school at which Bontemps taught asked him to burn his copy of Frederick Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom to prove that he had no connection with the current social unrest ("Introduction" xxiv). What Bontemps's headmaster made explicit is implicit in Phillips's history text: In order to maintain control over African Americans in the present, white Americans sought to control the narratives that defined American and African American history--thus the precedent for present relations between the two groups.
A quick glance at the title-page of Phillips's text provides an introduction to both the content and the rhetoric of the dominant narrative of slavery. The main title, American Negro Slavery, with its claim to comprehensiveness, is quickly followed by a subtitle that presents a more accurate list of Phillips's interests: "A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime." The Plantation Regime is the logical (though not grammatical) subject, and the only actor. An impersonal system, it bears only an indirect relation to the white men who created it; it is the plantation regime, in Phillips's view, that determined how labor (another impersonal abstraction) was supplied, employed, and controlled. African Americans enter Phillips's language only as a modifier explaining the type of labor; this title ignores the fact that it was African Americans themselves--their whole bodies, minds, and lives, and not just their labor--who were supplied and controlled. As the title highlights, Phillips makes the plantation regime the subject of his study; the slaves themselves, as human beings, are decidedly not the subject. Instead, Phillips's entire text works to deny African Americans being, moving them from subject to adjective, and creating in the process an absent center.
The most obvious absence of slaves in Phillips's history is the complete suppression of slaves' voices. Despite Phillips's characterization of slaves as "voluble," no slaves speak throughout the 514 pages of American Negro Slavery. Phillips uses only one slave narrative as a source, and importantly he does not quote from the text; he suppresses the slaves' testimony, just as the antebellum courts denied slaves' voices by prohibiting them from learning to read and write, from testifying in court, from voting, or even from speaking against a white person. Nor does Phillips acknowledge that a slave is the source of information in the body of his text; only a footnote provides that information, while explicitly claiming that all other slave narratives are "of dubious value." (1) But the footnote is important, because Phillips does not simply ignore slave narratives; he uses the one that supports his view and rejects all the others. His reasoning here parallels his stance upholding the antebellum courts' decision to ban slaves from testifying; Phillips suggests that "anyone acquainted with the rambling mumbling, confused and baffling character of plantation negro testimony will easily believe" that allowing a slave to present his or her own story would only make the task of discovering the "truth" more difficult (504). Phillips does not rest his argument on the claim of slave subjectivity or bias; in Phillips's text, slaves do not have a competing perspective, they simply have no coherent perspective at all. By omitting the slaves' voices, Phillips suggests that the slaves not only have no agency in that they are not the subject of his study, but that they have no story.
The only story available about slavery, then, is the one Phillips and the white sources tell. Having negated the slaves' voices and points of view, Phillips repeatedly substitutes the voices of slaveholders who, like the white slave owners who testify at the beginning of Black Thunder, "assume" the slaves' tale. In Phillip's text, one slaveholder claims for his slaves that "they look on me as their friend and father. Were they to be taken from me it would be the most unhappy event of their lives" (308). This allows the master to provide a projection of his own view as that of his slaves, in the process appearing to give the slaves' points of view while only reinforcing the viewpoints of the masters. His evidence suggests that slaves, to produce a "rational" rather than a "confused" narrative, must conform to their masters' point of view. Offering neither an alternative to the master's narrative nor the possibility of anything besides "rambling, baffling" narrative chaos outside the constraints of the white perspective, Phillips implicitly defines the master's view as "universal."
In a manner similar to his displacement of the slaves' voices with the masters', Phillips displaces the violence of slavery from the masters and places it on the slaves, ending his book with an analysis of "slave crime" and the laws that were enacted to control violent slaves. By studying the financial records of a Savannah plantation, Phillips finds that many slaves ran away in a short period, and that two slaves killed an overseer; for Phillips, this explains the lack of profits on that plantation, and is evidence of the atrocity that slaves were capable of, but he makes no comment about the conditions that might have caused this insurrection. Phillips's division of his material into topical chapters allows him to discuss cruel masters without combining the evidence and addressing cruelty as an issue in its own right. Phillips describes how the masters on Jamaican plantations imposed harsh conditions, and how slave masters in Northern states resorted quickly to violence, particularly in the states that were the most vocal about abolition. He also acknowledges that some masters were absentee owners, and that in their absence some overseers abused the slaves, but suggests that these are the exceptions that prove the rule that Southern slaveholders were benevolent.
In perhaps the most striking example of this reasoning, Phillips presents the case of Madame Lalaurie of New Orleans, who "was torturing her negroes. A great crowd collected after nightfall, stormed her door, found seven slaves chained and bearing marks of inhuman treatment, and gutted the house" (511). Phillips presents this as evidence not of cruelty, but of the protection afforded slaves by Southern citizens, and follows it with the assertion that, "while the records have no parallel for Madame Lalaurie in her systematic and wholesale torture of slaves, there were thousands of masters and mistresses as tolerant and kindly as she was fiendish" (512). All of these examples present violence as stemming from a defect of reason or understanding, and none involves a Southern white master. Violence, in Phillips's text, is not a systematic form of controlling slaves, but a lack of control exhibited by slaves themselves and those whites (women in particular, or the uneducated poor white overseers) who, like the slaves, have insufficient rationality.
Orlando Patterson, in Slavery and Social Death, argues that this type of control over historical narrative is common in slave societies, and provides examples from a variety of slaveholding cultures. Where slaves predominantly come from outside of the dominant culture, as in this case, the narratives claim that the slaves have no history, no common past with the slaveholders. In Phillips's text, not only do the slaves have no history to speak of in Africa, where they are presumed to have existed in an unchanging, "primitive" state, but they have no story, and thus no history, in America either, because they have no voice. By ignoring the slave narratives as sources, by keeping them out of print--or, more radically, by burning them--the descendants of the slaveholders could continue to convey a monologic history in which African Americans had no place, and could therefore gain no place, no rights.
Phillips's own work makes explicit the link between denying slaves a voice in history and denying contemporary African Americans a voice in government and society. He uses only one slave narrative as a source in American Negro Slavery and that only briefly; no slaves speak in his text. In a 1903 article entitled "The Economics of the Plantation," he argues that "the ignorance, indolence, and instability" of the average African American would "prevent him from managing his own labor in an efficient way" and thus that whites needed to manage African American labor in freedom as they had during slavery (qtd. in Novick 229). In 1925, Phillips argued that "voluntary indenture" of African Americans to paid but fairly permanent positions on plantations under white management would improve agricultural efficiency in the South (Novick 229). Phillips collapses the past and the present in his argument, and is able to do so because of his assumption that African Americans do not participate in history. For Phillips, while the rest of the world changes and (importantly) advances, African Americans do not, because they lack the precedent, the necessary previous development that the rest of the Western world shares, and possibly they lack the ability to develop at all.
Conjuring an Alternative Historiography
Bontemps was writing to an audience schooled in both Phillips's characterization of slavery, and his authoritative, documented, academic style of historical narrative. Reflecting on this experience in his introduction to the 1969 edition, Bontemps asks, "How could I tell them about Gabriel's adventure in such an atmosphere?" and the "how" in this question suggests a real struggle with narrative form. How indeed write a narrative of slavery that so radically counters the accepted factual accounts? How present Gabriel's story when the testimony of African Americans is so unlikely to be believed, and when the stories of slaves do not appear as evidence in the history texts? As Susan Sniader Lanser argues, a reader's sense of a narrator's authority is shaped partly by the narrator's status characteristics--gender, age, class, and race. A slave character, as first-person narrator, would have low status and limited authority with a 1930s audience (29-36). In addition, as Phillipe Hamon argues, narrative histories place constraints on historical novels by acting as reference texts, a "parallel story" that "doubles, illuminates and predetermines the narrative, creating in the reader a series of lines that mark out the path of least resistance, foreshadowings, a system of expectations" (167). A realist text, Hamon argues, "systematically coupl[es] itself in this way to a historical and political background," and while this "reduces its combinatory 'capacity'"--the imaginative license an author can take with plot and characterization--this paralleling of an existing historical narrative increases the realist text's authority. To break with that parallel story would then create resistance in the readers, as the novel denies their expectations. (2) Instead, a believable historical novel would be consistent with the general depiction of slavery in Phillips's text and the textbooks it influenced--that is, consistent with the characterization of slaves as endowed with "an eagerness for society, music and merriment, a fondness for display"; exhibiting "easy-going, amiable, serio-comic obedience"; superstitious and ignorant; and engaging in occasional rebellions which were at base "crimes" inspired by abolitionists (291). (3)
Bontemps's solution to the dominance of Phillips's history at first appears to be a difficult compromise between presenting the "standard" American history that his readers would take as true and developing a narrative of slave rebellion from the slaves' perspectives. Rather than using the first-person narrative form of the slave narratives, Bontemps chose a third-person omniscient narrator, who often echoes the objectively distanced voice of an historian. Black Thunder begins very much like a history text, with the line "Virginia Court records for September 15, 1800, mention a certain Mr. Moseley Sheppard who came quietly to the witness stand in Richmond and produced testimony that caused half the States to shudder" (9). This sentence emphasizes the written legal and historical record; the narrator assumes the role of historian, giving facts--specific names, dates, and places--and documenting his sources, and this documentation at first appears to be an authenticating strategy akin to that used by many slave narratives. Bontemps had done extensive archival research, and often quotes newspaper reports in the text. By calling the reader's attention to these documents immediately, Bontemps both lends credence to his account of events--imbues his fiction with an air of factuality--and appears to privilege the written historical record from which he draws his story.
The very comprehensiveness of Black Thunder also produces a sense of historical authority. As the first line suggests, the novel does not focus solely on Gabriel, or even on the main group of slaves involved in the rebellion, but also follows the actions and thoughts of the plantation owners, a group of French printers living in Richmond, a traveling abolitionist, and a number of politicians, including James Madison, then Governor of Virginia. When, a few years after the publication of Black Thunder, Bontemps attempted to adapt it for the stage, he suggested to Langston Hughes that the way to make the story more popular would be to further reduce the focus on Gabriel. Instead, he thought
it might be just faintly possible to weave in enough standard American history (The Sedition Law, the jailing of Callander, Jefferson's friend, etc.) to interest some producer, while the doings of the slaves would remain a most dramatic and different background. It keeps coming to me. Yellow gals are always popular on the stage. Also slaves--as background. (Nichols 38)
This "backgrounding" and fragmentation of the slaves' shared reality is clearly a response to the dominant discourse (which was not only an abstract narrative problem for Bontemps but also a real, physical threat). Initially, Bontemps, in order to reach readers schooled in Phillips's dominant historiography, seems to have adapted Gabriel's story to fit, in both form and content, the story and the way of knowing the past that Phillips set as the authoritative account of slavery. In the process, it might appear, the slaves and their alternative beliefs become marginalized.
William Covino's theory of "arresting" and "generative" rhetorics offers a way to understand how this fragmentation counters the objectivist discourse of history texts. For Covino, all rhetoric is magic because it acts on the world, but it does not all work in the same way, and one's ability to wield different types of magical rhetoric depends on one's position in the social hierarchy. According to Covino, speakers who already hold authority, based on social consensus about their position (government officials, priests, professors), can make statements that act as "coercive commands"; "because such commands are intrinsic to language, and really do make and re-make reality, we 'do magic' when we 'do rhetoric,' and vice versa. Such magic/rhetoric transforms the phenomenal world through noumenal enchantment" (22). This arresting rhetoric has the power to transform the world, as when a police officer states, "You are under arrest," or even when an historian states, for instance, that "there was clearly no general prevalence of severity and strain in the [slave] regime" (Phillips 307). Covino characterizes the type of direct and factual "plain English" that became the language of objectivity during the Enlightenment as a prime characteristic of this type of "arresting" rhetoric--rhetoric that defines and limits our world (22-23). In contrast, generative magic rhetoric "can be understood as a 'philosophical condition' that continues the sympathetic polytheism central to magic. We perform literate alchemy by presuming that a plurality of relationships and articulations may affect the transmutation of any 'pure' substance, fact, idea, condition (28). This type of generative discourse counters and unsettles the coercive commands of the arresting rhetorician, and does not depend for its authority on the speaker's preexisting social status.
Through the lens of Covino's theory, what might appear, in Black Thunder, to be the fragmentation and "backgrounding" of the slaves' stories, can be read instead as an attempt to break apart the "arresting" commands of Phillips's history text and place them in dialogue with the slaves' voices. Bontemps interweaves the "factual" accounts of past events (the trial transcript and newspaper reports of Gabriel's revolt) and the memories of those who participated in the events. Although it appears only briefly, the ghost of the slave Bundy, who is beaten to death by his master, haunts the text, unsettling the readers' assumptions about rationality and objectivity. This ghost is only one aspect of what becomes a conjure discourse that works as an alternative epistemology to Phillips's academic objectivity, and which allows the kind of radical and magical transformation that is required for enslaved people to become free, and for readers schooled in assumptions of essentialist identity and static historical "truth" to recognize the ambiguity, contingency, and malleability of both the past and the self. Black Thunder's conjure discourse produces a generative magic that can transform the reader from one who passively accepts "objective" accounts of the history of slavery to one who participates in a communal and intersubjective reimagining of the past by actively considering a "plurality of relationships and articulations" among the fragments that these narratives present.
"A thrasher called him somewhere"
In Black Thunder, the master's house stands as an image of the world contained within the master's perspective, and even the slaves within that house both share and contribute to the perpetuation of the master's vision. Ben, an old slave who occupies the position of privileged house servant, is not at heart a revolutionary. We are introduced to him as he winds the clock in the great house, thus ensuring the smooth continuation of the linear, regular measure of historical time (10). As he winds, his young master returns from an evening with the "yellow" woman Melody, and enjoins Ben to secrecy; in response Ben thrice denies any knowledge, claiming, "'I don't know nothing, young Marse Robin. Not a thing'" (11). The juxtaposition of these two actions--the winding of the clock and the denial of any knowledge of his own, apart from what his master allows--reveal Ben's, and by extension the other slaves', allotted place within the master's house, and metaphorically in the white world.
But Ben is not entirely trapped in the great house, not limited to the master's mode of knowledge. As he sits outside polishing silverware, he hears a thrasher calling him; this birdcall signals the appearance of the slave Bundy, and with him the possibility of freedom. Bundy asks Ben to join the "masons," the group that Gabriel has organized for rebellion, but Ben repeatedly rejects the invitation, claiming it is "'chillun's foolishness'" (12). As Bundy leaves, Ben hears the thrasher calling him again to some "green clump," but rather than heeding the call to venture away from the house and outside his master's point of view, he goes indoors to wake Marse Sheppard. Although the implications of this choice are not yet apparent, Bontemps has presented the dilemma that will confront Ben, Gabriel, and the reader throughout the text--whether to deny the slaves' knowledge and continue the "objective," master version of history, or to heed the thrasher's call and rely on conjure knowledge, to disrupt the clock and with it the master's control.
Ben is again faced with this dilemma when Bundy is fatally beaten by his master and sends Ben a death-bed request to meet with Gabriel. Ben believes in ghosts enough to fear Bundy's, and he attends a meeting despite his reluctance. Each time Ben becomes afraid and wishes to get out of the meeting and avoid Gabriel's calls, he sees "something squatting," which "turn[s] a quizzical eye toward" him (54-56). The "call" of the ghost and of the thrasher are simultaneous with and equivalent to the call to join the rebellion. Ben believes in a conjure world view enough to be drawn into a role in the plot, but his allegiance is always torn between this conjure knowledge and the competing system that he has learned from his master. When he is back inside the great house after the meeting, Ben's fear of Bundy's ghost is replaced by a fear of the rebellion itself:
Ben was tortured with the vision of filthy black slaves coming suddenly through those windows, pikes and cut-lasses in their hands, their eyes burning with murderous passion and their feet dripping mud from the swamp. He saw the lovely hangings crash, the furniture reel and topple, piece by piece, and he saw the increasing black host storm the stairway. In another moment there were quick, choked cries of the dying, followed by wild jungle laughter. Then it occurred to Ben which side he was on. (61-62)
The "vision" Ben is tortured by is the perspective of the master, not of the slave. He imagines seeing the slaves bursting in from the outside, rather than imagining himself on the outside with them. Ben has so thoroughly internalized the objectivist perspective that he imagines no identification with the slaves, but instead identifies with the other objects of property--the hangings and the furniture--in his master's house. Ben's perception of the other slaves aligns his vision of slavery with Phillips's. Phillips categorized all slave resistance as "crime," and Ben too considers this rebellion "murder," leading him to confess his involvement to his master.
While Ben's identification with the master, and thus with the master discourse, gives the whites the information about the rebellion that allows them to track down and kill the leaders, he does not confess until after the rebellion fails. The failure itself, Bontemps suggests, is the result of Gabriel's own identification with the master discourse and dismissal of conjure knowledge. In Gabriel's case, though, this identification is much more subtle than is Ben's. In fact, Bontemps emphasizes Gabriel's distance from white literate culture throughout the novel. While many historical accounts and popular songs about Gabriel's revolt suggest that he was fairly educated, Bontemps portrays him as illiterate. (4) Although Bontemps may use Gabriel's illiteracy as a way to historically validate him and thus make him an entirely "realistic" character to those readers schooled in Phillip's assumptions of slave inferiority, I would emphasize instead that he distances him from books and literacy as proof of his distance from white culture. The narrator says, in fact, not that Gabriel is illiterate or that he can't read, but that he is "innocent of letters," as if letters were a sin (20). Bontemps also portrays Gabriel as having no connection to the "Jacobins"--the French printers in Richmond that the townspeople blame for stirring up unrest among the slaves.
In this respect, Bontemps's depiction of Gabriel as illiterate and as placing the desire for freedom in nature echoes the argument of many slave narratives that the desire for freedom resides in the body, not as an abstract theoretical concept that "primitive" or "illiterate" slaves could neither grasp nor desire. (5) While even the sympathetic M. Creuzot, the French printer, assumes that "the blacks were not discontented: they couldn't be. They were without the necessary faculties" (63), Bontemps portrays the slaves' desire for freedom as both simple and natural, a product of embodiment and not of the ability to reason abstractly and "rationally." According to Gabriel and the other slaves," 'Anything what's equal to a gray squirrel wants to be free'" (210). Gabriel's desire for freedom, as well as his plan to gain it, develop out of his own innate understanding of the horror of slavery--an understanding based on conjure knowledge, which does not separate mind from body, and which cannot view the slaves as objects.
This conjure knowledge informs the slaves' discussions of freedom. Many times during the preparations, when the slaves "whisper," the earth also "whispers." Bontemps portrays an animated earth that voices its desire for the slaves' freedom. At one secret meeting, the leaders lie on their bellies on the dirt floor and agree to Gabriel's plan. As they murmur, "their assent, so near the ground, seemed to rise from the earth itself. H'm. There was something warm and musical in the sound, a deep tremor. It was the earth that spoke, the fallen star" (61). By placing their bodies on the ground, the slaves understand their connection to the earth, and their voices mingle with the speaking earth to cause "a deep tremor," a sign of the strength they gain from this connection, and a suggestion of the upheaval that the revolt could cause. Later, another slave hears "the earth whispering, the water lapping the bank with a black tongue" (77). The water itself speaks with a black tongue, perhaps the most obvious symbol of the connection between the slaves and an animate world. When Ditcher, the second in command, cannot sleep the night before the attack, he goes outside and seems to hold a conversation with both nature and his wife:
"Pretty night, woman," he said, addressing the moon. A voice in the black hut said, "Yes, I reckon so." A pause, the earth whispering, the thrashers speaking in the thickets. (77)
Ditcher addresses the moon, and a nameless voice from the darkness answers him. The distinctions between the voices of the slaves and those of the earth and the thrasher seem to melt away here. Initially, at least, the rebels seem to be working in harmony with the natural order.
Gabriel also works as a conjurer at these planning meetings, using the Bible as a source of "prophetic incantation: as religious expression intending to induce, summon, or conjure the divine for the realization of some emancipatory future," which Theophus Smith suggests is a common feature of African American religion (59). Gabriel asks Mingo, a free black, to read from the Bible, emphasizing the line, "He that stealeth a man and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death" (Bontemps 45). By conjuring a wrathful God through the repetition of this ritual incantation, Gabriel leads his fellow slaves to transform themselves from passive victims of the masters to active participants in a divine order. (6) But this strategy of invoking the divine for freedom, as Smith argues of similar historical invocations by David Walker and Robert Alexander Young, is "designed not only for human readers [or listeners] but preeminently for that divine reader," the wrathful God, whose power Gabriel needs in order to effect the freedom that this God ordains (Smith 60). Gabriel uses the words of the Bible in a conjure ritual that is meant to transform the social order into a greater accord with the divine order, the natural harmony for which the earth, the water, the thrashers, and the living spirits of former slaves all call.
Even during the planning stages, though, Gabriel begins to distance himself from conjure knowledge and its emphasis on an intersubjective and sympathetic understanding of others and of the forces of nature. Most of the slaves visit the conjure man, Old Catfish Primus, to get a "fighting hand" before the uprising (79). Gabriel, however, does not; instead, he begins to imagine himself as a solitary and independent actor. He tells Juba about the letter he will send to other slaves once he succeeds, in which he will call himself "Gen'l Gabriel" (116). As he leaves to lead the revolt,
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 coachman's hat. It was all very important when you really thought it over. (117)
Caught up in the image of himself as General, Gabriel takes the fancy uniform that he wears as a coachman, a slave, to be a sign of power and respect. Because he is thinking through the master discourse (symbolized here by the fact that he is dictating a letter), Gabriel views himself from the outside, concerned with appearances. The other slaves begin to feel that "'Gabriel's getting biggity'" and no longer concerned with the group, that he has an individualist, rather than a communal perspective (70).
Dismissing his connection to the forces of nature as well, Gabriel sets the date for the uprising as September first, focusing on the numerical date on the calendar rather than the day of the week, which is tied to the slaves' rhythm of work and rest. As the slave Pharaoh points out, September first falls on a Saturday, whereas "'the country folks can leave home and travel mo' better on a Sunday'" (67). Caught in a sense of the historical importance of his plan, as he is caught in a sense of his own personal importance, Gabriel dons the rationalist garb of the masters' arbitrary time line, choosing the symbolic implications of the calendar date--the "first"--over the lived experience of the slaves themselves as the legitimating system of thought. As if in direct response to Gabriel's neglect of conjure knowledge, September first brings a violent rainstorm that floods the countryside. When the rain begins, many of the slaves suggest it is a sign of a "bad hand" (84), but Gabriel dismisses their concerns, suggesting that they've been "'scairt white'" (108). Gabriel continues to read the rain as purely mechanical, without meaning, and his point of view becomes linked with the distanced, third-person narration of this scene, which describes the slaves as "circling like cattle in the soft mud. Now and again one groaned at the point of hysteria. Gabriel didn't doubt that the groaners presently vanished and that the others lapsed directly into their former animal-like desperation" (107-08). As the slaves begin to voice their concerns or slip away, Gabriel calls them "fools," and blames them, not the floods or his own reliance on an arbitrary date, for the failure of the rebellion.
The conjure women on the Prosser plantation provide an alternative explanation, telling Juba,
"A man, do he 'spect to win, is obliged to fight the way he know. That's what's ailing Gabriel and all them.... They talks about Toussaint over yonder in San Domingo. They done forget something.... I don't know about all that reading in the Book ... that might be well and good--I don't know. Toussaint and them kilt a hog in the woods. Drank the blood." (166)
According to the conjure women, Gabriel has failed because he did not appreciate the importance of conjure knowledge. Gabriel has rejected "the way he know" for an image of himself as "Gen'l," dressed in the garb of white civilization. Not only does Gabriel misread the signs of nature--fail to understand the violent rain storm for what it is, a sign of a bad hand, as his brother and the other slaves do--but potentially the rain itself is the "earth speaking" and reminding Gabriel of its power. The conjure woman does not discredit the book or Gabriel's access to white written culture, but criticizes his reliance on it over conjure knowledge.
Even after the failure, Gabriel continues to misread circumstances because he rejects conjure. Before hiding in the woods, Gabriel asks Juba to hide food by the haystack in the low field. Consequently, Juba provides not only food but also a conjure "hand" to restore Gabriel's strength. Gabriel, however, decides that" 'the general ain't scratching down underneath of no mo' lightwood pile,'" and instead goes into town, to the house of the mulatto woman Melody, who offers him an alternative protection: a piece of paper with the Philadelphia address of a white sympathizer (162). This address could help Gabriel free himself by running away, but it cannot help him free anyone else, or gain strength back to continue the uprising. Again, he has made a fatal if somewhat veiled choice for white written culture and against conjure, and soon afterward Gabriel is caught and sentenced to death. At his trial, he muses that "'maybe we should paid attention to the signs. Maybe we should done that'" (214).
Bontemps's choice, then, to portray Gabriel as unable to read challenges traditional white written history and cultural assumptions even as it seems to conform to them. As many critics have noted, Gabriel takes on a mythic dimension, and this is not despite but because of his connection to black folk culture. Gabriel is not aided by whites, nor is his desire for freedom a product of the books Mingo reads. And yet his tragic flaw is that he is partially seduced by written culture and its connection with an objectivist way of knowing the world. This vision of the strength and power of black folk culture is at odds with the whites' belief in the inherent supremacy of European literate culture, which even the sympathetic whites, Biddenhurst and Creuzot, take for granted as the source of all knowledge and ideas of freedom and justice. In Black Thunder, successful slave resistance to the masters rests on their resistance to the master discourse through their reliance on a conjure way of knowing the world. Through his extensive depiction of conjure, Bontemps evokes an alternative sign-system for reading not only Gabriel's rebellion, but also the history of slavery. As the conjure woman argues, "'There's plenty things Gabriel could of done,'" and Bontemps reinscribes these possibilities into his narrative by emphasizing the many specific moments of choice that could have led to radically different ends.
Bundy's ghost, the conjure women, and the thrasher all mark moments in the text when characters can actively choose one epistemology over the other. Bontemps does not simply represent this dilemma at the level of story but problematizes it for the reader at the level of narration as well; his use of intersubjective narration marks moments when the reader, too, can choose conjure over objectivity. For instance, in the early scene in which Bundy is beaten by his master, the narration shifts in an interesting way from a distanced, third-person perspective, in which we "see" Bundy and his master, to a limited narration that focuses through the thoughts and sensations of the slaves. As Bundy comes "over a knoll, crosse[s] a meadow and climb[s] a fence" we "see" him, and we also "see" his master, Mr. Thomas Prosser, who "had on a wig, a three-cornered hat and a pair of riding breeches, but he had neglected his shirt, and he stood expanding a hairy chest in the dewy air and smiting his boot with the firm head of a riding whip" (13-14). This emphasis on visual detail and description places the reader in the position of Cartesian knower, who, while being located in no real place in the narrative, has a distanced and objectifying view of the setting, characters, and events.
But we do not occupy this position for long, because as Bundy and Prosser meet, and Prosser begins to attack Bundy, Bontemps shifts the reader alternately between their individual and limited perspectives, losing the emphasis on the visual in the process:
Something struck Bundy's head. Was it the horse or the man? Both were above him now; both showed him clinched teeth. Bundy regained his feet and made a leap for the bridle. He grasped something, something.... But there was darkness now. Old Bundy's eyes were open, but he didn't see. His mouth was open, and his face had a tortured look, but he said nothing. Mr. Thomas Prosser was obliged to use his foot to break the critter's grip on the stirrup. Was Bundy trying to resist? The old sway-backed mule. The lickspittle scavenger. Well, take that. And here is some more. This. And this. Yes, suh, 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)
During this scene the narrative point of view shifts six times, moving back and forth between Prosser, Bundy, and the other slaves who are witness to this beating. This shifting creates a multiplicity of meanings that exist simultaneously and without a hierarchical order. As readers, we are not allowed to be impartial observers (or voyeurs) of the violence inherent in slavery, but are implicated as both guilty accomplices of Prosser and fellow sufferers with Bundy. Unlike empiricism's passive and "objective" rhetoric, this narrative does not allow us passively to objectify the slave.
Like the slaves present during the attack, the reader becomes ensnared in the violence; despite the fact that we do not "see" the beating, we become witness to it, and, more importantly, to Bundy's and Prosser's subjective experience of it. With the loss of the universal perspective comes the loss of any claim to totality of knowledge; though we understand that Prosser is beating Bundy and trampling him with the horse, we don't "see" this but instead piece the event together by connecting the various fragments of perception, using Prosser's point of view to fill in the "something" and the ellipses that occur in Bundy's, and using Bundy's point of view (which later conveys that what hit him "felt like a horse's foot") to fill in the "this" and "that" from Prosser's. These two subjective experiences merge, through the reader, so that by the end of this segment, Prosser's thoughts (that Bundy is a "sway-backed mule") weave into Bundy's thoughts as well ("Yo' old sway-backed mule--that's me"). This narration, through free indirect discourse, accomplishes an intersubjective connection among the reader, Prosser, and Bundy.
Bontemps also uses free direct discourse to produce a narrative "we" that must be read as a shared communal memory. At Bundy's funeral, the slaves sing as they bury him, a "song without words" that forms a communal meditation on death:
That's all right about you, Bundy, and it's all right about us. Marse Prosser thunk it was cheaper to kill a old wo'-out mule than to feed him. But they's plenty things Marse Prosser don't know. He don't even know a tree got a soul same as a man, and he don't know you ain't in that there hole, Bundy. We know, though. We can see you squatting there beside that pile of dirt, squatting like a old grinning bull-frog on a bank. (53)
In this communal voice, the slaves (who "remembered Africa in 1800") convey conjure's assumptions of an animate world in which natural objects such as trees and water are not simply material, but instead share non-human consciousness. The dead themselves are not devoid of being but contInue in a different form, and continue to have an integral relation with the living. Thus the slaves directly address Bundy, and this shared acknowledgment of Bundy's ghost, whom they not only "know" but "see," prevents us from reading Ben's interactions with Bundy's ghost as hallucinations brought on by fear or superstition. Bontemps's presentation of the slaves' beliefs through free direct thought validates the ghost as a reality shared by the community, and "frees" this belief system from subordination to or evaluation by a central authorial narrator. Thus, conjure exists side-by-side in Black Thunder with rationalism, despite the fact that the slaves rarely have the opportunity to voice their conjure belief system in dialogue with the masters.
In this intersubjective meditation, the slaves express their belief that their conjure world view gives them access to "plenty things Marse Prosser don't know," and tie this knowledge directly to the possibility of resisting the master, as they declare that Bundy has become "a real smoke man. Smoke what gets in yo' eyes and makes you blink. Smoke what gets in yo' throat and chokes you.... Marse Prosser act like he done forgot smoke get in his eyes and make him blink. You'll be in his eyes and in his throat too, won't you, Bundy?" (53). Because Bontemps does not mark this text with signal phrases or quotation marks, this meditation "speaks" in the reader's mind as authoritatively as the rest of the narration, and when the reader voices "we" and "us," he or she must recognize an empathetic relationship with the mourners at Bundy's funeral, and be drawn with the slaves into this conjure world view. Unlike the scene of Bundy's beating, in which the free indirect discourse moves the reader back and forth dialogically between Marse Prosser and the slaves, in this interior monologue of the funeral, the reader is separated from Marse Prosser, who becomes the distanced "other" with a dangerously limited knowledge.
Eric Sundquist suggests that one could read the slaves' plan, which they develop at Bundy's funeral and other religious meetings, as the climax of Black Thunder, despite the fact that it appears early in the text, "since the spiritual truth of the rebellion lies in the conspiracy itself rather than in the revolt that never comes to pass" (100-01). Building on this suggestion, I would argue that this communal interior monologue stands, like the idea of the conspiracy itself, as an ideal within the novel that we glimpse briefly, and are meant to continue to desire throughout the rest of the text. From this point on, Bontemps does not return to a communal free direct discourse, but instead intersperses individual interior monologues with direct narration and direct discourse. Just as the individual slaves become isolated and scattered after the failed rebellion, the interior monologues become isolated within their own numbered fragments. While the move to intersubjective narration creates a tension that might frustrate the reader looking for a realist view of slavery, the return to objectivist narration also frustrates the reader drawn into the intersubjective narrative of Bundy's death, who is then thrown back out to the distanced, objective view in the next segment. To make sense of the narrative during the free indirect discourse used to narrate Bundy's beating, the reader will need to relinquish the requirement of a universalist perspective; once realigned with a consistent perspective during the communal interior monologue of Bundy's funeral, the reader will actively desire the return of the intersubjective narrative, and will be posed to try to connect the disconnected perspectives throughout the novel. The fact that the narrative never offers a return to that communal "we" will likely be felt as a loss on the order of the failure of the rebellion itself.
While Bontemps does not unite the voices of the slaves again, he does give their individual thoughts and voices a position of authority that he withholds from the voices of the masters. The rationalist view that the masters, the judges, and the newspaper reporters present never occupies an interior monologue, but remains bracketed within quotations and subordinated by "that" clauses. The authorial voice of the narrator presents events in accord with the interior monologues of the slaves, but not in accord with the quoted newspaper reports, and often presents those reports with narrative comment that explicitly discredits their validity. The narrator repeatedly calls attention to the newspapers' reliance on hastily written reports that lack evidence or thought: "Reports got through and, straight or warped, the newspapers printed and reprinted them" (139). Outside of Richmond, the narrator tells us, fear was "fanned by newspaper tales and swift rumors" (121). By making newspaper tales and rumors grammatically and functionally equivalent, Bontemps suggests that there is no way to distinguish them.
Rumors of this kind lead a band of men and boys to form a mob that calls for the death of slaves and white sympathizers. In the chapter in which the mob rules, the narrator almost entirely disappears, and the mob scene is portrayed through dialogue, which highlights its "ungrounded" nature. The dialogue itself is almost all restatements of rumors--what members of the mob have heard other people say. Because the narrator is absent and thus provides no description, the dialogue seems to float, disembodied and faceless: Although we do not "see" the characters, we hear them say," 'I've heard the old man say they're dangerous,'" and "'I've heard the old man say some pretty hard things about some of them foreign radicals'" (126-27). Later a boy with a gun says," 'With a lot of wild Africans fixing to scalp us, somebody's got to do something, they're a lot of mad dogs let loose, them niggers. It's true--I heard it from one of the volunteers'" (147). These ungrounded rumors wildly combine incongruous prejudices and fears that seem to have no source but are always a repetition of someone else's repetition. The newspaper readers therefore remain ignorant, while the slaves, through their "whispering," seem to know exactly what has happened despite the fact that they are all separated after the failed uprising. Thus conjure knowledge appears to be more "grounded" and interconnected than the knowledge of the whites, which is only second-hand and separated from the source.
Through the use of free indirect discourse, interior monologues from many characters, and the bracketing of the types of sources that Phillips uses--legal transcripts, newspaper reports, government proceedings--Bontemps has created a fragmented text that subverts the "transparent view" of reality that his authoritative first line promises. But he not only denies the universal, Cartesian perspective common to history texts such as Phillips's, he also denies the possibility of plotting events on a linear timeline.
Houston Baker, Jr.'s exploration of conjure discourse in Workings of the Spirit offers a useful starting point for thinking about how conjure narratives reimagine historical linearity. According to Baker, in Bantu philosophy, "Time is neutral until it is marked by an event; it then becomes the 'time of that event.' But events do not occur in a void; they occur in particular places" (199). Baker calls this type of time "place-time," and opposes it to the kind of Cartesian space-time that can be mapped and charted onto timelines and linear histories. Black Thunder narrates in accord with this conception of place-time by detailing events in relation to place and character, but not in relation to a numerical calendar. The only days that are marked in this text are the day on which the novel opens, September 15, and the day of the rebellion, September 1--which, as we have seen, comes to represent a tragic connection to the Western calendar over the rhythms of the slaves' lives. The scene in which Ben winds the clock occurs "early in June"; the final scene occurs some weeks after September 15. The intervening events cannot be plotted with any precision; the slaves themselves at times disagree about whether it has been "two-three weeks" or "one-two weeks" between one event and another (184). Because Bontemps follows the narratives not only of the slaves but also of the French printers, the powder-house guards, the writer Callendar (a friend of Thomas Jefferson's), and a number of other minor characters, it is unclear whether consecutive segments occur simultaneously or in sequence. By disrupting the reader's sense of time, the text makes the reader experience gaps, leaps, and associative, rather than causal, connections between scenes, and thus experiential, rather than empirically measured, progression through time. Thus, in his narrative structure, Bontemps completes the act that both Ben and Gabriel fail to do--he disrupts the clock and the calendar, and with it the control of the master discourse.
Conjure narrative validates the experience of individual, embodied perceivers; even the terminology of conjure calls attention to embodiment, as conjurers are often called "two-headed doctors" or simply "two-heads," and the charms they provide are often called "hands." This use of multiple, embodied perspectives validates the memories of individual characters, even when these memories conflict, and this narration through multiple perspectives denies the possibility of the type of universal, "objective" perspective on the past that Phillips presents in American Negro Slavery, producing instead a complex and multivocal account of slavery. The lack of a "universal" perspective, the move to intersubjective narration, and the use of "place-time" all work to directly challenge the written history of slavery. Because the narrator does not provide an evaluative function in this novel, "arguing the case," like a lawyer, but instead allows the characters to "speak" (or even "think" or "feel") directly to the reader, the reader must judge the testimony of many witnesses to events. This novel begins, after all, not only as a history but also as a trial, in which all of the narrative becomes evidence. Because we have shared the experience with the slaves as well as with the whites, we are prompted to judge the slaves differently from the Virginia court that hangs them. More importantly, we are prompted to judge as guilty the history text that views slave revolts as a crime.
(1.) The footnote I refer to appears on page 444 of American Negro Slavery. At the risk of recreating Phillips's marginalization of the source, I will identify it here as Solomon Northrup's Twelve Years a Slave. It seems significant that Phillips chooses to use this narrative, which recounts Northrup's experience of being stolen into slavery as an adult, after living his entire life as a free person in New York. Despite his insistence on not crediting any slave testimony, Phillips comes closest here to accepting the testimony of an African American not born into slavery, which suggests a slight slippage between the category of African American and that of "natural" slave.
(2.) It is important to note here Hamon's emphasis on existing historical narratives, and not on the past itself. Bontemps's novel does not depart appreciably from the events of the historical rebellion, which, as he depicts, failed in large part due to a torrential rainstorm on the night of the planned attack, and was then revealed to the white community by some of the slaves themselves. Fidelity to the specific facts of this rebellion, however, is not the real issue here; in any case, few readers would have been experts in Gabriel's particular story.
(3.) It is clear that Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind is consistent with Phillips in this sense, as Pork, Dilcey, and Prissy dramatize the characteristics that Phillips emphasizes.
(4.) Mary Kemp Davis has shown that Bontemps substantially follows the historian Thomas Higginson's 1889 version of Gabriel's uprising, and outlines the critical controversy over Bontemps's depiction of Gabriel as illiterate. Some critics have praised Bontemps for creating "realistic" slave characters, while others have criticized him for feeling the need to "authenticate" Gabriel and thus limit his abilities (Davis 19).
(5.) For an interesting discussion of slave narratives and embodiment, see Fishburn.
(6.) Sundquist analyzes Gabriel's use of the Bible as "a pragmatic tool that can mediate between his own rationalist philosophy and the sequestering folk beliefs of the other slaves." Sundquist consistently reads Gabriel as detached from the folk culture of conjure, and validates Gabriel's "rationalist philosophy," whereas I see him as tragically lapsing from a conjure epistemology that he uses early in the planning stages of the revolt. Nonetheless, Sundquist's reading and my own converge at a more general level, and I would agree with Sundquist's suggestion that Bontemps "outlines the relationship between black religion and a politics of resistance on the southern plantation" (103).
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women's Writing. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.
Bontemps, Area. Black Thunder. 1936. Boston: Beacon P, 1968.
--. "Introduction." Bontemps, Black Thunder vii-xv.
Covino, William A. Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy: An Eccentric History of the Composing Imagination. Albany: State U of New York P, 1994.
Davis, Mary Kemp. "Area Bontemps's Black Thunder. The Creation of an Authoritative Text of 'Gabriel's Defeat.'" Black American Literature Forum 23 (1989): 17-36.
Fishburn, Katherine. The Problem of Embodiment in Early African American Narrative. Westport: Greenwood P, 1997.
Hamon, Phillipe. "Phillipe Hamon on the Major Features of Realist Discourse." Realism. Ed. Lilian R. Furst. London: Longman, 1992. 166-85.
Lanser, Susan Sniader. Narrative Act." Point of View in Prose Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.
Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. New York: Macmillan, 1936.
Morrison, Samuel Eliot, and Henry Steele Commager. The Growth of the American Republic. New York: n.p., 1930.
Nichols, Charles H., ed. Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters, 1925-1967. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980.
Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.
Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.
Phillips, Ulrich B. American Negro Slavery. 1918. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969.
Smith, Theophus H. Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America. New York: Oxford UP, 1994.
Sundquist, Eric J. The Hammers of Creation: Folk Culture in Modern African-American Fiction. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1992.
Suzanne Lane is Assistant Professor of English at California State University, San Bernardino. Her current book project explores how African American writers draw on the folk traditions of conjure and trickster tales to narrate history.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Black Thunder's Call for a Conjure Response to American Negro Slavery. Contributors: Lane, Suzanne - Author. Journal title: African American Review. Volume: 37. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 2003. Page number: 583+. © 1999 African American Review. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.