Sec. 5, Ch. 30 -- Blood on the Cross
Acts of Desecration & Demystification
Turner rocked the moral foundations of Southampton society.
The Christian slaveholders were spiritually unsettled and agitated. Instead of
reform and repentance, their energies, however, gravitated toward greater evils.
For the Virginia slaveholders, Turnerís death was not sufficient to expiate
his crimes. When Turnerís neck snapped, Southampton authorities were not yet
finished with him. They sought to rub him out utterly.
joined this campaign. Southampton slaveholders had been outdone, masterfully,
and they did not like it. Turner not only used the physical weapons of the
slaveholders, but also used their spiritual and intellectual notions against
Turner thoroughly adapted established English biblical modes
of interpreting natural and public events to prepare Christian slaves for
"the great work." The "long English tradition of reading
Scripture typologically, a tradition which Cotton Mather brought to a peak in
his Magnalia Christi Americana" became the mode by which Turner
brought the blacks of Cross Keys to a vibrant and vital Christianity (Noll, p.
Turner stood the slaveholdersí biblical exegesis on its head. He
transformed their biblical method of oppression to a Christian method of
liberation. Considering him a very dangerous man, even though dead, the
slaveholders of Southampton sought a way to expiate Turnerís
"crimes," to despoil him so that he could never be resurrected for
The first news account of Nathaniel Turnerís death appeared in
Norfolk Herald (14 November 1831). The next day The Richmond Enquirer
reprinted the article so that a broader audience could know the news of the
demise of the great "demon" of Southampton. In a precious snapshot, this news item
presents the spirit of the white response:
NAT TURNER:--This wretched culprit expiated his crimes
(crimes at the bare mention of which the blood runs cold) on Friday last. He
betrayed no emotion, but appeared to be utterly reckless in the awful fate
that awaited him and even hurried his executioner in the performance of his
duty! Precisely at 12 oíclock he was launched into eternity. There were
but a few people to see him hang (Tragle, p. 140).
Two details of the execution repeated often are that Turner
showed "no emotion" and "hurried" the executioner, as if
time were still of some symbolic import. John Brown was not so fortunate as
Turner in his death. According to Lacey Baldwin Smith, John Brown waited
"an eternity . . . in the darkness of his hood, hanging by a thread between
heaven and earth, for the trap door to be sprung" (Fools, Martyrs,
Traitors, p. 398).
In his account of Turnerís execution, F. Roy Johnson used
another source than the Virginia papers. His version differed on two accounts:
1) Who was at the execution? and 2) What happened before the execution? Turner,
Johnson wrote, "exhibited the utmost composure throughout the whole
ceremony, and although assured that he might, if he thought proper, address
the immense crowd assembled on the occasion, declined availing himself of
the privilege, and told the Sheriff in a firm voice that he was ready. Not a
limb nor muscle was observed to move" [italics mine] (The Nat Turner
Slave Insurrection, p. 149).
In this account, Johnson contradicts the
Virginia papersí statement that "there were but a few people" at the
execution. John Brown was hooded to keep him from speaking to the crowd. In one
account, Johnson reported that Turner "declined" to speak. In another,
he reported that there was a gallows speech in which Nathaniel prophesied a drought at
Virginia news editors printed whatever that would diminish
Turner and his credibility as a holy man, as a person deserving of respect. In
that era, newspaper collusion with slaveholders was a matter of course. They
were also anxious to assist the State in restoring order. It was their public
duty. These men did not want to know the truth of Southampton. Turner was a
convenient scapegoat for the moral corruption of Virginia slave society. The
foremost goal of newspapers editors was to assuage the fears of Virginians, to
return the publicís psychology back to the mundane, to familiar categories of
thought, namely, the patronizing mockery of Christian slaves.
In addition, the slaveowners feared their Christian slaves
would read Turnerís life against that of Jesus, the savior God and hero of the
oppressed. The justices and leading men of the community knew that the events of
Turnerís life would be viewed in this religious context. They decided quickly
to counter the likelihood that their Christian slaves would uphold Turner as a
praiseworthy figure, a religious martyr, a type of Christ. To muddy this
conception of Nat Turner among the blacks, the best men of Southampton County,
Virginia, conspired to debase the body and memory of Turner.
In several aspects, Turnerís death mirrored the gospel
representation of Jesusí death. In all four gospels, catastrophic natural
events were reported when Jesus "gave up the ghost." There was either
an earthquake below or a great storm above. These were conventional signs of a
divine presence or a divine consciousness at work in the world. In the gospels,
these natural events occurred just before or just after Jesus died. In the
earthquake, "the veil of the temple was rent." The nature of this sign
conveyed either Godís disfavor or token Jesusí return to his full identity
as the Christ. Or both.
Such a catastrophic event was reported to have occurred in
Jerusalem, Virginia, at Turnerís execution. In one account, F. Roy Johnson
reported a "gallows speech," and many people were there in Jerusalem
to hear it. Nat Turner then prophesied that "after his execution the sky
would grow dark and it would rain, but the rain would be for the last
time." When Turnerís necked snapped, "the cloud and rain came as
promised, and then the fearful people had to wait out a long dry spell."
According to Johnson, "many people, both whites and blacks, were greatly
alarmed" by the fulfillment of Turnerís prophecy (The Nat Turner Slave
Rebellion, p. 180). For the slaveholders, this "coincidence" was
All four gospels also expressed concerns about the disposal
of Jesusí body. The Jesus party, Joseph and others, feared that the enemies of
Jesus would desecrate his body. So they were the first to go to Pilate and ask
for the corpse. This concern for Jesusí body is more earnestly expressed in
the gospel of Matthew than in the other three. There was another party that had
an interest in the corpse. The day after Joseph and Mary dressed the body of
Jesus, the chief priests and Pharisees went together to see Pilate:
Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver [Jesus] said,
while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again.
Command therefore that the sepulcher be made sure until
the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say
unto the people, he is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worst
than the first.
Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make
it as sure as ye can. So they went, and made the sepulcher sure, sealing the
stone, and setting a watch. (Matthew 27.63-66).
The divine through his angels caused the watchmen to fall asleep and Jesus left
the tomb without hindrance.
The aftermath of Turnerís death differs radically from that
of Jesus. Nathaniel Turner did not steal away from his tomb. The good Christian white
men of Turnerís Methodist Church made certain that historic event would not
occur. The men of Virginia decided
"the last error" would not "be worst than the first."
Christian slaveholders decided to rob Turnerís family of his corpse.
"chief priests and the Pharisees" of ancient Jerusalem, the
Southampton slaveholders feared Turner would "rise again." But for
Turner, there was no party or authority to redeem his body. As Christian slaves,
neither mother nor friends had rights to lay claim to his body. The State had
paid $375 for Turnerís body to the Putnam Moore estate.
Turner was just pounds of flesh, a certain height, a certain
weight, a certain color. The State and local slaveholders had full rights and
discretion to the disposal of Turnerís body. These Christian men took full
advantage of those inhumane rights. They made certain no rumors would develop concerning
Turnerís "risen body." They prevented anyone from making merry with
the memory of Turner. Christian slaveholders dismantled Turner utterly--skin
from flesh, flesh from bone, and made a joke of his very existence.
"All of Natís followers were given a decent burial,
but the body of the ĎGeneralí was not so honored," according to F. Roy
Johnson. "instead, it was turned over to the surgeons for dissection"
(The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 149). In his chapter entitled
"Tales Made Horrid and Sad," Johnson further elaborated on the
desecration of Turnerís remains. "After the doctors had skinned the ĎGeneralísí
body and dissected it, the skeleton was said to have fallen into the possession
of one Doctor Massenberg," Johnson wrote.
Several people of Southampton
"animalized" Turnerís "curious skull," which they felt
"resembled the head of a sheep and was at least three quarters of an inch
thick" (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 181). This treatment
of Turnerís remains, I suppose, was the "civilized way" of
reconciling Turnerís "crimes." Or maybe it was a type of cult
magic--the white version of "hoodooing the hoodoo man."
The Christian officials of Southampton placed a story in the
papers to justify their barbarism. The Norfolk Herald article (14
November 1831) that first reported Turnerís death added blithely the following
comment, "General Nat sold his body for dissection, and spent the money on
ginger cakes" (Tragle, p. 140). What outrageousness! That Nathaniel Turner, a
religious ascetic, would be that cavalier about his remains seems thoroughly
Clearly, the idea of dissection did not arise from Turner, nor the
idea of the selling of his body. Christian officials of Southampton attempted to
cover their gross crimes with a purported voluntary contract, as if Turner were a
free man. Or maybe this manufactured tale of the ginger cakes was another
attempt to substantiate Turnerís "madness." Turnerís enemies,
however, are not the best sources for truth in these matters.
To conceal this barbarism behind such sheer nonsense is an
absurdity. To make the victim responsible for his own public debasement is the
worse of moral crimes. According to Johnson, the doctors "made Natís body
up into grease . . . and the blacks didnít put it beyond these same doctors to
use ĎOld Natís grease in preparing castor oil." To give such
desecrating acts respectability by associating them with the medical profession
is the very height of hypocrisy.
But there was more. One Southampton souvenir
collector claimed to own a purse made of Turnerís skin. (The Nat Turner
Slave Insurrection, p. 181). This public dispersal of Turnerís body was a
ritual designed to dispel Turnerís spiritual influence. If there was no body
to rise, the slaveholders figured, no viable myth could develop around Turnerís
resurrection. There is, however, no glory in evil.
* * *
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Salvage the Bones
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thatís about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrinaís inexorable winds is the voice of Wardís narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her familyís raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brotherís ďblood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.Ē Her fatherís hands ďare like gravel,Ē while her own hand ďslides through his grip like a wet fish,Ē and a handsome boyís ďmuscles jabbered like chickens.Ē Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isnít usually just metaphor for metaphorís sake. She conveys something fundamental about Eschís fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, whatís salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.óWashingtonPost
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update 9 January 2012