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"In establishing Turner as the mastermind," writes French, "Pleasants limited

the extent of the conspiracy to the reach of his voice"-though, in fact, Turner's

call to rebellion spread far, and long after his death.



The Rebellious Slave

Nat Turner in American Memory

By Scot French



In this well-written and absorbing book, French presents comprehensive documentation and analysis of Turner's influence on American culture, politics, racialism, and relations between African Americans and whites . . . Beginning with writers of jeremiads antedating Turner, French then traces the responses of politicians, historians, preachers, publishers, editorialists and novelists from post-Turner to the present.... French describes the details of the ups and downs of Turner's 'posthumous life' with infectious enthusiasm. His clear-eyed command of all the stories and reasons for Turner's ever-present and captivating persona in what he calls 'our social or collective memory' is compelling.The Rebellious Slave is a well-researched book that probes the often ambiguous yet tortured image of the Negro in the American psyche.--Seattle Times, Feb. 22, 2004:"'Nat Turner': The Haunting Legacy of a Man who Would Not Live a Slave" Reviewed by John C. Walter

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French vividly traces the 'postmortem career' of Nat Turner as an alternately loved and loathed icon of black America. From the official "master narrative" of 1831 to William Styron’s highly controversial, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and beyond, Turner’s rebellion inspired uncompromising resistance for many Americans, and embodied loathsome anarchy for many more. French first parses the image of the rebellious slave before Turner. The antislavery jeremiads of Thomas Jefferson (who was "for black freedom on his terms, and his terms alone," according to French) and starker voices like William Lloyd Garrison and David Walker presaged a bloody uprising among the slaves; others used the perception of simmering black rage to push pro-slavery sanctions.

French’s book, like the brilliant work on John Brown by fellow University of Virginia professor Merrill Peterson, mainly examines the protagonist’s intensely debated legacy. Abolitionists, later Communist propagandists and finally civil rights activists and modern liberals would celebrate Turner as their archetype and hero. Confederate sympathizers and white Southern conservatives labeled him a dangerous fanatic and mass murderer, and would ennoble instead the faceless "faithful slave" or quiet Negro.

French is an adept chronicler of Turner’s ghost, although much of the book will be familiar territory to those who have read Kenneth Greenberg’s edited volume on the subject. The work expands but leaves unresolved the debate over whether the rebellion resulted from a wider conspiracy or simply, as the official account holds, from the messianic mind of Turner himself. After stating his intent "to reach an audience beyond the academy," French succeeds admirably through concrete prose, though his ethereal subject matter may nonetheless limit that reach considerably.--Publishers' Weekly

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Scholarly but accessible and nicely written study of the many roles the 19th-century insurrectionist Nat Turner has played in popular culture and memory.

Nat Turner and a band of slaves-some sources say no more than 40, others 100 or more-rose against their masters in Tidewater Virginia in August 1831. According to one contemporary witness, writes French (Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies/Univ. of Virginia), Turner convinced his followers that "there were only 80,000 whites in the country, who, being exterminated, the blacks might take possession." This witness, a Richmond-based journalist named John Hampden Pleasants, created an influential view of Turner as charismatic, dictatorial leader of a sheeplike bunch of followers; they called him "General Nat," imagining him to be a martinet of the barnyard, of only local interest and importance. "In establishing Turner as the mastermind," writes French, "Pleasants limited the extent of the conspiracy to the reach of his voice"-though, in fact, Turner's call to rebellion spread far, and long after his death.

French examines numerous narratives, among them the challenging eyewitness account of one "Beck, a slave girl," who revealed that the insurrection had been carefully planned by many participants for more than a year; the reverberations of the Turner uprising in John Brown's abortive raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, which Abraham Lincoln characterized as "an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among the slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate. In fact, it was so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough that it could not succeed"; and, of course, William Styron's famed, controversial novel Confessions of Nat Turner and a subsequent film version that never saw light because, Styron claimed, "Black Power" protests killed it-later amending his claim to say that the box-office failures of Hello, Dolly! and Dr. Dolittle bled the parent studio dry, "and Nat Turner was the casualty.

An illuminating exegesis on slavery and American popular culture alike, and a well-done expansion on Kenneth Greenberg's collection Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory (Feb. 2003).--Kirkus Reviews, Dec. 15, 2003

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French explores the treatment of Nat Turner in popular American culture from the immediate aftermath of the slave revolt he led, when authorities were primarily concerned with preventing the spread of the rebellion, to more contemporary views. Focusing on Turner's official confession, French suggests that the document may have been manufactured to downplay the fervor and extent of the rebellion and points to counternarratives that indicate a broader conspiracy. French traces the impact of the revolt on the abolitionist movement and free people of color, as well as slave narratives and other popular literature of the time, through the Reconstruction era, when Turner was viewed as a race hero. 


More contemporarily, French explores William Styron's 1967 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and popular response from black power advocates. When Styron's work was optioned by Hollywood, its controversial nature eventually killed the project, highlighting the black anger and white fear engendered by the rebellion and its place in the history of resistance to American slavery and racism.--Booklist (review journal of the American Library Association) Reviewed by Vernon Ford

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In the News

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, 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?" . . .

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.Felicia R. Lee, "Nat Turner in History's Multiple Mirrors," The New York Times Arts & Ideas Section, Feb. 6, 2004, p. A-17:

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Fifty years ago this coming May, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling that profoundly changed American life. In the Brown vs. Board of Education case, the court said that schools must be integrated because the doctrine of "separate but equal" was not constitutional. The ruling's consequences, both intended and unintended, are still affecting school integration and the politics of race.

This spring, several books will be released that re-examine this monumental decision. They, along with the many books published to capitalize on the interest generated by Black History Month, add depth and breadth to our understanding of what it means to be black in America, from the earliest days to the present . . . .

A look further back in time at the man who became synonymous with the bloodiest slave riot in American history can be found in The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory (Houghton Mifflin, $26). In it, Scot French, a former reporter and now a professor specializing in African and African American history at the University of Virginia, uses the 1831 rebellion, which panicked the slaveholding South, to examine American race relations and attitudes on violence as a political tool. He writes that the rebellion was not an isolated incident, as commonly thought, but a part of a large slave conspiracy.Carole Goldberg, "Insight Into What It Means To Be Black In America" 2004

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Advance Praise

In this beautifully written narrative, Scot French unfolds the story of how Americans have imagined Nat Turner over the last 170 years. With a subtle touch, French evokes the fears and hopes that have swirled around one of the most enigmatic figures in American history. No one has looked so deeply into the public memory of race and violence in this nation.Edward L. Ayers,In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863 and Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction


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Far more compelling than a traditional biography, Scot French's innovative probing of our collective memory opens new avenues of debate even as it details and evaluates earlier portrayals of the black insurrectionist as both incubus and icon. The Rebellious Slave is a most welcome contribution to African-American literary and cultural studies.William L. Van Deburg,  Black Camelot: African-American Culture Heroes in Their Times, 1960-1980; New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975, and Slavery and Race in American Popular Culture

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Nat lives! Scot French brilliantly demonstrates how the image of Nat Turner could be used and abused, fashioned and refashioned, but never co-opted or rendered passe.Daryl Michael Scott, Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880-1996


Source: The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory  /


Scot French (b. May 29, 1959) is a native of Boylston, Massachusetts. He and his family live in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he teaches History and African American Studies at the University of Virginia.

He received his B.A. in American Literature and Magazine Journalism from Syracuse University, where he served as editor-in-chief of The Daily Orangestudent newspaper from 1979-80. After a brief stint as a freelance writer, he embarked on an eight-year career as a reporter, editor, and columnist for several New England newspapers -- the Peterborough, N.H.-based Monadnock Ledger; the Manchester, Conn.-based Herald and Journal-Inquirer, and the Concord (N.H.0 Monitor. 

During his years as an editor and reporter in New Hampshire, he covered three first-in-the-nation presidential primary campaigns (1980, 1984 and 1988) as well as the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster. He received several journalism awards, including one for depth reporting from the Society of professional Journalists/Sigma Delta Chi (SPJ/SDX) and one for editorial writing from the New England Press Association (NEPA).

French enrolled in the graduate history program at the University of Virginia in September 1988. There he studied under the direction of Waldo E. Martin Jr. (The Mind of Frederick Douglass) and later, as a doctoral candidate, with Edward L. Ayers (The Promise of The New South: Life After Reconstruction). In 1993, French and Ayers co-authored an article - "The Strange Career of Thomas Jefferson: Race and Slavery in American Memory, 1943-1993" - for a volume of essays (Jeffersonian Legacies, ed. Peter S. Onuf) marking the 250th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's birth. A one-year dissertation fellowship from the Southern History Program and a two-year predoctoral fellowship from The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at U.Va. provided French with crucial support during the research and writing of his doctoral dissertation. He received his Ph.D. from the Corcoran Department of History in May 2000.

French is an assistant professor and associate director of The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, where his teaching portfolio includes courses in Southern History, African American History, and African American Studies. He recently traveled to Havana, Cuba, as part of a Ford Foundation-funded program exploring the construction of racial identities in Africa and the Atlantic World. French is married to Christine Madrid French, an architectural historian and preservation activist. Their first child, Gideon, was born in 2001. The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory  

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Related files: The Rebellious Slave Overview  A Conversation with Scot French   The Rebellious Slave Reviews