Othered Southern Modernism: Arna Bontemps's Black Thunder

Article excerpt

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). …