Arna Bontemps wrote two novels about slave revolts: Black Thunder (1936) and Drums at Dusk (1939). Virtually unknown in comparison with Bontemps's 1936 retelling of Gabriel Prosser's 1800 slave revolt in Virginia in Black Thunder, Drums at Dusk chronicles the violent opening salvos of the Haitian War of Independence from the perspective of the island's French colonists. Taking a decidedly melodramatic look at bourgeois colonial decadence, Bontemps relates the romantic and revolutionary intrigues of Diron, a young French idealist and member of the Les Amis des noirs, who believes in the universality of the principles of the French revolution. Bontemps conveys the intertwined fates of both brutal and ambivalent slave owners and government officials, as well as a young ingenue newly arrived in Haiti from France and consigned to a life of romantic ennui and eventual physical degradation at the hands of her fellow colonists. Near the end of the novel, as the colonists fall prey to the nameless slave's violent retribution, the aged Toussaint L'Ouverture joins the fray in order to play what amounts to a bit part in Bontemps's novel.
Perhaps the reduced role of the black revolutionary hero is one of the reasons that the better known of Bontemps's two novels of slave rebellion is Black Thunder. The Virginian black revolutionary hero Gabriel Prosser of Black Thunder finds no peer in Drums. Perhaps this is also why what little critical work has been done on Drums is driven by a negative comparison with the novel's predecessor. By foregrounding any critical investigation into Drums at Dusk with the question of whether or not the novel presents as positive an image of the black revolutionary hero as does Black Thunder, Bontemps's critics ignore what his foray into Haitian history attempts to do within the purview of its political and cultural milieus.
Avoiding the critical tendency to make a qualitative comparison between Drums at Dusk and Black Thunder, this essay demonstrates that Arna Bontemps's 1939 novel, by invoking Haiti's revolutionary past, links African America to Haiti's political present. In doing so, Drums at Dusk accommodates the authoritarian politics practiced in Haiti by its president, Stenio Vincent, to the African American political imagination. Furthermore, Bontemps's depiction of the bloody opening hours of the Haitian revolt does not merely function as a vehicle for commentary on black authoritarian politics, but connects them to the most common form of authoritarian politics practiced in the 1930s, fascism. (1)
My argument proceeds along several lines. First, I describe the critical reaction to Bontemps's 1939 novel in more detail. I then briefly examine Haiti's political climate of authoritarian rule during the latter half of the 1930s, and the immediate circumstances that led to this situation. After considering African American responses to Haiti during the Depression and Bontemps's attitude toward Haiti and fascism in general, I define how this essay understands fascism and show the ways in which Bontemps presents fascist ideology in Drums at Dusk.
The Thunder of Drums
In the work of the few critics who have addressed Drums at Dusk, a comparison inevitably presents itself between the novel and Bontemps's earlier work, Black Thunder. (2) In his seminal study The Negro Novel in America, Robert Bone provides and typifies the most effective comparative criticism of the two books. Bone pits Drums at Dusk against its predecessor in a fight the 1939 novel cannot win. For Bone, Drums "is in every respect a retreat from the standards of Black Thunder.... In writing a successful rebellion, Bontemps is deprived of the dramatic power of tragedy, and he discovers no appropriate attitude to take its place. Upon a highly romantic plot he gratis a class analysis of society which is post-Marxian and flagrantly unhistorical. Frequently lapsing into crude melodrama, he embroiders his narrative with all the sword play, sex, and sadism of a Hollywood extravaganza" (122-23). …