Nat Turner Hero Essay

One of the newest books about him, ''The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory'' (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), by the historian Scot French, marches Turner through the prism of various eras, from the 18th century to today. Mr. French, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Virginia, offers several narratives that dispute Gray's account, drawing, for example, on oral traditions in Southampton's black community and on testimony from the trials of the accused rebels.

He also shows how the very idea of the dangerous, rebellious slave was prefigured in warnings by men as different as the black abolitionist David Walker and Thomas Jefferson, so that when Turner arrived on the scene he already fit certain ideological templates.

And Mr. French shows that while many black intellectuals now insist that Turner is clearly in the tradition of American freedom fighters, during more politically cautious eras black leaders pointedly ignored him.

''Your version of history can give us some insights into how you see yourself,'' Mr. French said in an interview. ''It's not simply a black-white divide. It's ideological. How are you mobilizing history in your own world?''

That multifaceted identity is literally visualized in the new PBS docmentary, ''Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property,'' by using five different actors to dramatize the various ways Turner has been seen. The film presents Turner through the eyes of the white abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, the black playwright Randolph Edmonds and even Gray, who wrote ''The Confessions of Nat Turner,'' based on what Turner supposedly told him.

This approach to history, which focuses on what is called ''social memory'' or ''public memory,'' takes for granted that different groups construct different versions of the past. The competing versions are passed down through museums, books, commemorations, films and oral tradition.

Each generation then decides whether to embrace the accepted truths or to challenge the orthodoxy.

''A lot of it is about who has cultural authority at any given moment,'' Mr. French said. ''To accept Nat Turner and place him within the pantheon of American revolutionary heroes is to sanction violence as a means of social change. He has a kind of racial consciousness that to this day troubles advocates of a racially reconciled society. The story lives because it's relevant today to questions of how to organize for change.''

Revisions in the public's understanding of figures like Christopher Columbus, events like the bombing of Hiroshima and the American Civil War and the fate of Native Americans all owe something to this process of challenging the conventional history. Yet some historians complain that at some point including everyone's perspective has a downside: that too much attention to ''social memory'' can degenerate into an endless parade of historical accounts without any cohesion.

Such ambiguity does not trouble Kenneth S. Greenberg, an historian at Suffolk University in Boston and the co-producer of the PBS documentary. ''All of my work doesn't present a Nat Turner or the real Nat Turner,'' he said.

The documentary, for example, dramatizes a sexually charged scene from the 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, ''The Confessions of Nat Turner'' by William Styron. The Southern-born Mr. Styron imagined a Turner who desired white women, especially one Margaret Whitehead, who, according to Gray's account, was the only white to die by Turner's own hand. As they take a walk, a lustful, tormented Turner fleetingly ponders abandoning his rebellion for just a few moments of sex with the blond teenager.

Mr. Styron's novel came out at the height of the black power movement and was fiercely denounced by some black intellectuals, who wrote a book of essays criticizing the novel and organized to stop a film version of the book. Critics complained it advanced the old stereotype that black rebellion is fueled largely by black men's desire for white women. They also objected to the fictional Turner's disdain for his fellow slaves.

In the documentary, Mr. Styron argues that he made Turner more heroic than he really was and tried to humanize him. But critics dismiss that explanation. The actor and civil rights activist Ossie Davis, who is also in the film, responds that Turner was already human enough. Whites, he said in an interview, have often looked upon black rebels ''as demons and subhumans.''

The refusal of the film to present a straightforward account of slavery has troubled some people who viewed the it at earlier previews. ''Our view is that the film is a continuing white misrepresentation of the life and career of Nathaniel Turner of Southampton,'' said Rudolph Lewis, the editor of ''ChickenBones: A Journal'' an educational Web site that explores black culture (nathanielturner.com). ''From my view, Turner was a man of God, and he was responding to the immoral aspects of Virginia slavery,'' said Mr. Lewis, a librarian who lives in Baltimore and conducts his own research on Turner.

Charles Burnett, the director, is not surprised by that response. ''We don't put our perspective in the film,'' he said. ''Some people want it to be more Nat Turner, liberator and hero. We knew that it was going to cause a debate.'' The filming in Southampton brought to the surface many of the opposing views and resentments of the residents, he said. Many people, he said, were reluctant to speak on camera about the racial differences.

''The Nat Turner rebellion is almost like the epicenter of racial violence in American history,'' Mr. Greenberg said. ''There are separate black and white folk memories of Nat Turner to this day.''

Mr. Greenberg edited ''Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory'' (Oxford University Press, 2003), a collection of scholarly work on Turner. One study views Turner as a leader in his community, another sees him as marginalized by his religious fanaticism.

Mr. Greenberg notes that no one even knows Turner's real name, what he really looked like or what happened to his body (he was apparently decapitated and his body skinned). He explores an interpretation of one description of Turner as evidence that he was a mulatto fathered by his master. ''You learn a lot more about the world around him,'' he said.

To the historian Edward L. Ayers, dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, what's important is to ''put the documentary record out there.'' He applauded Mr. French for doing so. ''It makes more evidence available. It looks at the role that race has played, that gender has played, that regionalism has played.''

Mr. Ayers said the way that public memory or official versions of history are constructed is now becoming more transparent because of the Internet. He has assembled an Internet archive that displays the records for every person in two counties, one in the North and one in the South, during the Civil War (valley.vcdh.virginia.edu). Mulling that material, he said, shows the messy business of how history is made.

In the case of Turner, Mr. Greenberg said, ''We know the truth we tell will fade away,'' he said. ''Whatever truths we've subscribed to are not the truths our children and grandchildren will subscribe to.''

Continue reading the main story

Nat Turner was an African-American slave preacher in Virginia who led the bloodiest slave rebellion in American history.

In the 185 years that followed the rebellion, Turner’s place in history has been reinterpreted, revised, maximized, and minimized. His legacy is still debated, and even more so today, with Turner’s Bible now on display in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture and the release of the feature film The Birth of a Nation, chronicling Turner’s life and revolt.

The Slave Revolt and the Historical Record

On August 21, 1831, Turner led a small army that used axes, hatchets, knives, and muskets to kill 55 white Virginians. By August 23, the revolt was suppressed and his followers were apprehended. Turner escaped and hid in the woods for two months until he was captured and taken to the jailhouse in the county seat of Jerusalem, today the town of Courtland, Virginia.

Much of our knowledge of Turner comes from Courtland. Between his trial and execution, he was interviewed by lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray. The interviews were compiled in a pamphlet entitled "The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia." This serves as the main historical record of who Nat Turner the man may have been. But it’s an imperfect record.

Some historians think Gray took personal liberties with how he presented Turner, and they believe the authenticity of the pamphlet may be compromised. Many other popular ideas about Turner were shaped by a work of outright fiction: William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, which was released in 1967. The volume remains controversial as its Caucasian author takes on the voice of the black slave preacher turned revolutionary and steeps it with a fevered sexual obsession for white women.

Since then, Turner has remained little more than a footnote in some history books, a fact that may very well enable his legacy to evolve as the United States continues to grapple with the legacy of slavery.

The Beginnings and an Early Prophecy

Nat Turner was born into slavery on October 2, 1800, on the Benjamin Turner family plantation in Southampton County, Virginia. He was born with several marks on his chest that family members regarded as the marks of a prophet. Having learned to read at an early age, he was considered an intellectual at the time, as it was highly frowned upon to teach slaves to read.

Throughout his life, Turner would look to the Bible to better understand the reason behind the enslavement of his people. His wisdom and natural orating skills led him to become a respected preacher among the surrounding slave community. Early on, he interpreted that the Bible said that slaves should remain subservient to their earthly masters, but a series of prophetic visions changed his views.

Rise Up: The Legacy of Nat Turner airs Friday 10/9c on the National Geographic Channel.

“I had a vision … I saw white and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened … the thunder rolled in the heavens and flowed in the streams,” Gray quotes Turner as saying in "The Confessions of Nat Turner." “I discovered drops of blood on the corn as though it were dew from heaven.”

These visions convinced Turner that it was his destiny to unite black men and women, both enslaved and free, to overthrow their masters. For years he waited for a sign from God to begin the fight for freedom. On February 12, 1831, Turner saw a solar eclipse. Upon seeing this "sign," Turner discussed his plans with four other slaves, and they set the date for July 4. Turner fell sick, however, and that date passed. Around August 13, he witnessed a second atmospheric disturbance in which the sun appeared bluish green from volcanic dust in the air.

The Plan

On August 21, Turner met with a group of fellow conspirators in the swampy woodlands around Cabin Pond. The group ate a meal and took a vow to kill all slave owners they encountered, including women and children. They decided the first victims would be Turner’s current master, Joseph Travis, and his family, and that Turner should deliver the first blow.

The group traveled from farm to farm, slaughtering whites and freeing blacks. Many of the enslaved chose not to join the revolt, and some even fought to protect their masters. At most stops the rebel force grew, at one point reaching around 40 recruits. Over the next two days they killed at least 55 whites. Turner's presumed goal was to reach Jerusalem, where he believed there was an armory that his forces could use to further their rebellion.

The group never made it to Jerusalem and within two days were scattered and captured by the local militia. Turner eluded capture for two months by hiding out in the woods. Records show that out of the 53 suspected to be involved, more than 50 were brought to trial, 18 were executed, 12 were transported and sold South, and 21 were discharged to return to their masters. Of the four free blacks brought to trial, one was executed and the other three found not guilty.

Turner’s Capture

It is written thatTurner was discovered hiding out on October 30 by farmer Benjamin Phipps. He surrendered to Phipps and was taken to be tried. On November 5, 1831, he was sentenced to death for "conspiring to rebel and make insurrection." On November 11 he was hanged.

Desperate to regain control in the wake of the rebellion, white militias unleashed a wave of violence and intimidation against both enslaved and free blacks throughout the region. Many innocent people who had nothing to do with the insurrection were killed as a result of this campaign. In one case a severed head was put on display at a Southampton County crossroad. To this day, the street located outside Courtland, Virginia, bears the name Blackhead Signpost Road. In Virginia,strict laws were passed to further limit the right of blacks to gather.

A Changing Legacy and a Memorial

It is rumored that after Nat Turner was hanged, he was then decapitated, quartered, and skinned. Allegedly his skull and brain were sent off for study, his fat was rendered to wagon-wheel grease, and pieces of his tanned skin were given out as souvenirs. This would have been done in an attempt to crush Turner’s legacy and prevent him from being exalted as a martyr.

But Turner’s story is now undergoing a resurgence. The new film presents Turner as a patriot. And his descendants and the descendants of survivors of the revolt are back in the news debating the legacy.

Today in Courtland, monuments stand in honor of the Confederate military, and its battle flag can still be seen waving across the South. There’s a plaque noting the rebellion happened, but those who see Nat Turner as a hero believe that just as the Confederate memorials stand to benefit descendants of southern soldiers, it is only fair that descendants of the enslaved should have a place to pay homage to figures like Nat Turner, who gave his life to fight for their freedom.

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