Nat Turner in History's Multiple
By Felecia R. Lee
On Nov. 11, 1831, the slave Nat Turner was
hanged in Jerusalem, Southampton County, Va., for leading a
shocking revolt against slavery. The body count included at
least 55 whites, mostly women and children, and was the
bloodiest slave rebellion in American history.
At the time, the two-day uprising in August
[22-24] led to new discussions about slavery, animated the
abolitionist movement and prompted draconian laws to restrict
black people further.
Ever since it has inspired debates about
Turner himself. As viewed by many 19th-century Southern whites,
he was a misguided fanatic. Some blacks in the 1960s claimed him
as the ultimate symbol of black resistance to White Supremacy.
Some white descendants of those killed maintain his actions were
immoral and indefensible.
These conflicting interpretations are now
themselves the subject of debate, in a new film that is to be
broadcast on PBS on Tuesday night, as well as in some recent
"Nat Turner is a classic example of an
iconic figure who is deeply heroic on one side and deeply
villainous on the other," said David W. Blight, a
history professor at Yale and who this summer will become
director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery,
Resistance, and Abolition there.
"For those who need a slave rebel, he
serves that purpose. For those who need to see him as a deranged
revolutionary who likes slaughtering people, they can see that,
too. He's forever our own invention in some ways," given
the paucity of evidence about him.
Scholars are still digging for answers about
Turner. How widespread was the revolt? How did Turner plan it?
How authentic was the famous jailhouse confession he made to
Thomas R. Gray, a white lawyer and former slaveowner who took it
upon himself to seek an accounting from Turner. Was the
rebellion inspired by religious visions, as claimed by Turner.
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, drawings, 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 cautions
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
That multifaceted identity is literally
visualized in the new PBS documentary, Nat
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" [1831
Confessions ] based on what Turner supposedly told
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
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 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
The refusal of the film to present a
straightforward account of slavery has troubled some people who
viewed the film 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.
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
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 rebellious 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
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 (www.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."
Source: New York
Times. Arts & Ideas, A17 (7 February 2004)
* * *
on Nathaniel Turner
The Manichean Leitmotif by
Slave Rebellion in History and Memory by Kenneth
Turner Before the Bar of Judgment by Mary Kemp Davis
Turner's Tragic Search by
The Rebellious Slave
Nat Turner in American Memory by Scot French
* * *
Turner TimeLine / 1831
Sonnets in Memory of Nathaniel
Turner (Rudolph Lewis)
Martyrdom in Southampton: A Theology of Black Liberation (Rudolph
Nat Turner in History's Multiple Mirrors
(Felecia R. Lee, NYTimes) / Hatcher
Plans to Exhibit Turner Skull
Of The Blacks Niles’ Register
3 1831 Sept.
10, 1831 Sept
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Life on Mars
By Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection's "lyric brilliance" and "political impulses [that] never falter." A New York Times review stated, "Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we're alone in the universe; it's to accept—or at least endure—the universe's mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith's pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant." Life on Mars follows Smith's 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet's second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans. The Body’s Question (2003) was her first published collection. Smith said Life on Mars, published by small Minnesota press Graywolf, was inspired in part by her father, who was an engineer on the Hubble space telescope and died in 2008.
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The Epic Story of America's Great
By Isabel Wilkerson
Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a
sharecropper's wife, left Mississippi
for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin
was falsely accused of stealing a white
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death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling,
a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem
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to these three stories is Pulitzer
Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson's
magnificent, extensively researched
study of the "great migration," the
exodus of six million black Southerners
out of the terror of Jim Crow to an
"uncertain existence" in the North and
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