Black Thunder's Call for a Conjure Response to American Negro Slavery

Article excerpt

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. …