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I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. . . .

Very little communication ever took place between us



The Uncertain Identity of Nathaniel Turner:

The Scholars Debate

By Rudolph Lewis


According to Gerald Peary in his article “Nat Turner’s Second Coming: Set This House on Fire” (Village Voice, 29 August 2001), filmmakers are making another attempt to portray what Molefi Asante calls “The Real Nat Turner” (Emerge, March 2000). In this new “omnibus movie,” part documentary and part fictional, director and co-writer Charles Burnett uses six chosen texts, including Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred (1856), Randolph Edmond’s “agitprop play Nat Turner,” and William Styron’s 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (which James Baldwin “adored”), and will also use six different actors to dramatize the life and career of the Southampton prophet and Christian apostle.

William Styron, who used a Freudian analytical approach, rightly points out that “Nat Turner has conformed to all those who consider him, and been rewritten in the image of people writing about him.” This author-influenced view may be applicable to the 1831 “Confessions” edited and published by Thomas R. Gray. Nonetheless Turner’s testament is indispensable in determining his character and his biblical theological perspective, which no theologian or other commentator has ever attempted to ascribe to the lawyer Gray. Yet we need to be more critical and systematic about the folklore and other historical documents if we are to get at the truth of Nathaniel Turner’s identity, which is inseparable from his religiosity. To get at the center of Turner’s theological perspective, such factors as the date of his mother’s arrival in Virginia, his parentage, his religious denomination and influences, his marital status, his struggle for self-identity, and his goals must be clarified. This paper will present that more systematic view.

Determining the truth of the mother in the 1831 “Confessions” and her role in Nathaniel’s life is essential in order to make sense of Nathaniel’s family and his character. But Turner scholars have failed to produce a coherent view of the young African woman, named Nancy by her master Benjamin Turner, that rings true. In his Trabelin’ On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith (1979), Mechal Sobel concludes that Turner’s mother “had been taken from Africa some five years before his birth,” and that Nathaniel’s father “may have also been born in Africa” (p. 162). Sobel’s estimation about the African mother’s arrival in Virginia and the father’s ethnic origin are mere imaginative speculations which Sobel cannot sustain by reasoning or by documentation. Sobel’s primary aim is to use Nathaniel’s life to sustain a thesis that the Baptist faith of African Americans is a syncretic religion, part Christian and part African.

In Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African American Experience (1999), edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, writer Robert Fay concludes that Nathaniel’s mother “was kidnapped from Africa in 1793” and that Nathaniel’s father “is believed to have spent his life in the Great Dismal Swamp . . . with other escaped African Americans” (p. 1901). Again the information provided on Turner’s parents is speculative and imaginative, rather than factual and definite. Like Sobel, Fay provides no documentation or reasoning for his conclusions. As can be noted, a two-year difference exists in these two accounts of Nancy’s arrival in Virginia. Sobel chose five years before Turner’s birth (1795) and Fay seven years (1793). Though neither writer included the rationale for such dates, these estimations resulted from Turner’s account of his “mother” in the 1831 “Confessions” in which she is a woman who has fully absorbed a Christian world view. Thus this “mother” needed to have been in Virginia for an extended period of time.

Before turning to the 1831 “Confessions” and its account of Turner’s parents, two other factors must be considered, namely, the physical descriptions of Nathaniel and the attempted infanticide by his mother, both of which recur in folklore and historical accounts. In Before the Mayflower (1962), Lerone Bennett, Jr., then history editor of Ebony magazine, concluded that Nathaniel Turner was “black in color" (p. 118). In Black Odyssey: The Story of the Negro in America (1949). Roi Ottley described Turner derisively as “short, black, and calm, with a hairless bullet head set on broad shoulders” (p. 139). Neither of these reputable scholars accounted for his source of information. Again, we have  a case of imaginative projection.

Documents contemporary to the events provide a contrasting description. According to the Governor of Virginia’s 1831 proclamation and the letter of Jerusalem resident W. G. Parker, Nathaniel Turner was of a “rather bright complexion.” Both accounts go on to explain that Turner could not be confused as a white man; that is, he did not have the typical appearance of a mulatto, for he also had strong Negroid features which included a “large flat nose” (Tragle, p. 421 and Foner, p. 13). In a set of four video tapes made for the Southampton Historical Society, Gilbert Francis, descendant of local slave holders and a folk historian, makes an unsuccessful attempt to account for Turner’s “bright complexion.” Francis theorizes that Turner’s mother was from the Nile Valley and was of an “olive color.” This East African theory of the origin of Turner’s mother seems highly unlikely and raises the suspicion that this explanation of Turner’s complexion was manufactured by Turner’s white family and sustained by their co-religionists to mask the sexual impropriety of Benjamin Turner, Nancy’s owner and master.

This documentary tape of the Southampton Historical Society provides not only a different description of Turner’s skin complexion but also a different timeline for the arrival of Turner’s mother in Cross Keys. According to Gilbert Francis, slave traders imported Turner’s mother from Africa to Jamestown and sold her on an auction block in Suffolk, Virginia, to Ben Turner, then in his early 30s “some time between January and March of 1800” (Nat Turner Insurrection—1831, Tape 1). Francis’ 1800 date is at odds with the 1793 date in Gates’ Africana and the 1795 date in Sobel’s Trabelin’ On. If Francis is correct in his timeline (which seems reasonable in light of other factors), this fact must alter entirely how we interpret other events in Turner’s life and how we interpret events narrated in the 1831 “Confessions.”

In his video narrative, Gilbert Francis also sustains the tale of the attempted infanticide. According to Francis’ account, Nathaniel’s mother tried to kill him at birth, as soon as he came out of the womb, because she “did not want her baby to grow up in slavery.” But this kind of conclusion that Nancy possessed a radical “abolitionist sentiment” seems unjustified historically and culturally. In his The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Search for a Common Moral Discourse (1995), Peter J. Parris, Professor of Social Ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary, points out rightly that “African slaves did not arrive on these shores as full-blown abolitionists” (p. 62). 

In their world-view, Africans coming from a tribal background possessed neither a “pan-African [nor] racial identity” (p. 61). According to Parris, “Africans had long practiced domestic slavery where the captive became attached to the family and gradually was assimilated into it at the lowest rank.” So, with respect to the ethical legitimacy of the institution of slavery, Parris continues, “there was virtually no difference between slaveholding Christianity and African religions” (p. 62). Thus, Nancy’s ethnic origin nor her religion seems to account for this African mother’s odd and bewildering behavior. We must, therefore, look elsewhere for a more reasonable explanation.

If we allow that Nathaniel had a “bright complexion” and that his mother arrived in the village of Cross Keys, the center of the Southampton Rebellion, “some time between January and March of 1800,” we must also allow that the most likely candidate for Nathaniel’s father is the thirty-four-year-old Benjamin Turner, her owner and master. That a young terrified African girl in her teens would make a free sexual alliance with an American slave immediately on stepping off a slave ship, especially without Ben Turner’s consent, seems too incredible, baffling and exceedingly doubtful. Such a determination would play on the stereotype of the loose morality of African females, which none openly will try to sustain.

A more likely scenario would be that the sight of the newborn’s complexion rekindled the angst Nancy felt when she was ravished; it marked her shame and symbolized the violence visited upon her by her new master, Benjamin Turner. In addition, Ben Turner had by his wife Elizabeth, according to F. Roy Johnson, “three sons and two daughters—by age, Samuel, Nancy, John Clark, Susanna, and Benjamin B,” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 18). In that John Clark and Nathaniel, playmates during their childhood, were about the same age, it is likely that Ben Turner’s wife was pregnant with her third child John Clark when Nancy was bought on the auction block in Suffolk and brought to Cross Keys (Nat Turner Insurrection—1831, Tapes 1 and 2). The pregnancy of the wife Elizabeth thus created a situation and condition for Ben Turner’s probable sexual impropriety with the young African teenager, Nathaniel’s mother.

But there are additional factors suggestive of Ben Turner’s paternity of Nancy’s baby. It was Ben Turner who named the child Nathaniel, which in Hebrew means “gift of God.” (Nathaniel is also the name of one of the disciples of Jesus in the Gospel of John; it was he who first recognized Jesus as the Son of God [1:49].) It was also Ben Turner who gave the child to Harriet and Tom to be raised. (Harriet and Tom were house slaves who had probably also been owned by Ben Turner’s father.) This scenario of taking the child from the mother and giving it to older slaves to raise was not unusual. 

According to Frederick Douglass’ 1845 Narrative, this was a common practice so that the child did not develop an affection for his mother. In his domestic drama, Douglass wrote: “I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. . . . Very little communication ever took place between us. . . . I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death or at her burial.” The nameless father in the “Confessions” that ran away was probably Tom, Nathaniel’s surrogate father rather than his biological father. We must also conclude that the “mother” and the “grandmother” referred to in the “Confessions” are one and the same person, namely, Harriet.

With this background, we turn now to the 1831 “Confessions” and the miraculous events of Turner’s childhood which he believed were critical in determining his career as prophet and his becoming an apostle of Jesus Christ.

Being at play with other children, when three or four years old, I was telling them something, which my mother overhearing said it had happened before I was born . . .  others being called on were greatly astonished, knowing that these things had happened, and caused them to say in my hearing, I surely would be a prophet as the Lord had shewn me things that had happened before my birth. And my mother and father strengthened me in this my first impression, saying in my presence, I was intended for some great purpose, which they had always thought from certain marks on my head and breast.

According to Mechal Sobel, this interpretation of the birth marks was an “African tradition . . . his mother Nancy . . . was not very distant from” (p. 162). Sobel’s cultural analysis, however, runs counter to that of Anglican priest John Mbiti, author of the influential book African Religions and Philosophy (1969). “In the strict biblical sense of prophets and the prophetic movement,” according to Mbiti, “there are no prophets in African traditional societies,” for African concepts of time “lack the long dimension of the future” (p. 248). Thus Nancy could not have been the “mother” to which Turner makes reference to in the 1831 “Confessions,” for she had not been acculturated to the extent that she could offer such religious training.

When speaking of his “mother,” Turner, as is common even today among African-Americans, was speaking of his surrogate mother and “grandmother,” namely, Harriet, who should be viewed more precisely as Nathaniel’s “spiritual mother and guide.” In any event, for a slave child, Nathaniel received considerable and uncommon attention. Seemingly, it was Harriet who set up an interview with her fellow religionists of Turner’s Meeting House, a Methodist congregation founded and headed by Ben Turner in his own household. Turner told Gray, “My grand mother, who was very religious . . . my master [Ben Turner] . . . and other religious persons who visited the house and whom I often saw at prayers, noticing the singularity of my manners . . . and my uncommon intelligence for a child, remarked I had too much sense to be raised and . . . I would never be of service to any one as a slave.” In this account, Harriet seemingly extracted a promise from Ben Turner for Nathaniel’s eventual freedom.

There were also additional childhood events that further assured Nathaniel that he had a special destiny. He learned to read and write without teachers. He knew the contents of books without having studied. He made paper, gunpowder, and other items without training. By age seventeen, Nathaniel was able to conclude definitively that he had indeed been set aside by God for a divine mission, for it was at the ages of seventeen and nineteen that he received his first two revelations, in which the Holy Spirit urged Nathaniel to seek the kingdom of Heaven.

Though not mentioned directly in the 1831 “Confessions,” the period from 1810 to 1823 was one of great crisis for Ben Turner’s family. In 1810 Ben Turner died. According to F. Roy Johnson, “All thirty of the old master’s slaves were divided between their mistress [Elizabeth] and her five children. (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 27). Sam Turner, however, received the greater portion of Ben Turner’s estate which included 360 acres of land (Nat Turner Insurrection—1831, Tapes 1-2). With fewer slaves than his father, Sam Turner did not indulge Nathaniel as had his father and thus sent Ben Turner’s young protégé and son to the fields to work behind the plow. Nathaniel remained until the very end a field slave, a radical contrast to his earlier status as pampered house slave. In 1822, Samuel Turner died. His slaves, including Nathaniel, were placed on the auction block to assure his wife and children an income.

At Ben Turner’s death, there was an economic downturn in Virginia, which was mirrored in the 1832 legislative speech of Thomas Jefferson Randolph, nephew of the master of Monticello. Randolph reported that the exportation of slaves had “averaged 8,500 for the last twenty years,” that is, from 1812 to 1832. Randolph concluded that it had become an “increasing practice, in parts of Virginia to rear slaves for the market” (The Negro in Virginia, p. 179). 

From a religious perspective, Methodists in Virginia mirrored less and less God’s universal salvific will, which is everywhere and always, by becoming more exclusionary in their religious practices. The Methodist Discipline of 1796 which took a strong stand against the buying and selling of slaves was less observed. By 1820, the Methodist policy of “delayed manumission schedule agreements,” under which Ben Turner probably promised Nathaniel his freedom, ceased to be used as frequently. “Methodism moved from a persecuted, radical sect to dominant church (The Garden of Methodism, pp. 161-163; 167-168).

In Cross Keys, Turner’s Meeting House, founded by Ben Turner, which included both white and black, slave and free—in the Pauline manner—reestablished itself as Turner’s Methodist Church, headed by Nathaniel’s second master and Ben Turner’s eldest son, Samuel, who was a trustee. This Cross Keys’ religious institution in its ecclesiastical majesty excluded slaves from worshipping and partaking of the sacraments along with their masters. 

In effect, Christian slave holders stood treacherously between Christian slaves and God’s “real presence” and his “true and effectual means of grace.” Christian slave holders thus forced Christian slaves to develop other means of reenacting the Lord’s baptism, his Last Supper, and his sacrifice on the cross. The efforts of Christian slaves to restore this symbolical loss of God’s living presence can be seen in Nathaniel’s Eucharistic vision, that is, the blood of Christ falling from heaven as dew and landing on the leaves of corn and also sacred writings appearing in the blood of Christ.

At age twenty-one, Nathaniel demanded that Samuel fulfill Ben Turner’s promise of freedom. But Sam Turner, who died suddenly a year later in 1822, refused the demand and had Nathaniel whipped for his arrogant self-assertion. These events threw Nathaniel into a spiritual crisis. He ran away into the wilderness of Cross Keys, forsaking the Holy Spirit’s urge that he “seek the kingdom of Heaven,” a phrase that can be found in both the Gospel of Matthew (6:33) and the Gospel of Luke (12:31). Nathaniel, however, returned to his master after thirty days, prompted by yet another encounter with the Holy Spirit, in which he was told that he must do the will of his Master, that is, Jesus Christ, or be beaten with many stripes, an admonition that can be found at Luke 12:47. The entire chapter of Luke 12 is important for an understanding of Turner’s theological vision and his rationale for a holy war, especially verses 49-53 in which Jesus exclaims he came not for peace but division even within families and for the baptism of his own death.

Soon after his wilderness experience, it is believed that Nathaniel “married,” a tale oft-repeated in folklore and history books. Most likely, Sam Turner concocted this notion of marriage, an arrangement which fell well short of the true meaning of the word. For African-American slaves, marriage with all of its spiritual and legal rights was an impossibility in the village of Cross Keys. Local whites and others in retelling the "Nat Turner Story" paired Nathaniel with Cherry as a means to conceal Sam Turner’s sexual impropriety with the slave girl Cherry. This pattern of deception by local religionists is not new to the slave-holding regime. Douglass wrote about such deceptions in his 1845 Narrative. In addition, we have already demonstrated above how slave owners and their heirs fudged Ben Turner’s rape of Nathaniel’s mother Nancy when she first arrived in Cross Keys after which she conceived and bore Ben Turner’s son Nathaniel.

As Styron  pointed out in the Village Voice (29 August 2001), to portray the prophet of Southampton as the head of a bourgeois family with wife and child, as John Henrik Clarke argued in Ten Black Writers Respond (1968), would be to ignore the ascetic life and calling that Nathaniel Turner etched out clearly in the 1831 “Confessions,” a religious life recommended in chapter seven of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. In the midst of slave breeding and slave trading, it is reasonable to think that Turner believed as Paul, “It is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman” (7:1), for “An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife” (7:32-33). Undoubtedly, the 1831 “Confessions” portrays Nathaniel Turner clearly as a man  “anxious about the things of the Lord.”

Allow me to conclude by sketching briefly the three stages that can be seen in the life of Nathaniel Turner. His first stage was an idyllic one. He lived in the household of his master and father Ben Turner and received many accolades and considerable attention by Ben Turner’s Pauline religious community. Beginning with the death of Ben Turner, Nathaniel Turner entered his second developmental stage which was one of paternal abandonment and betrayal. In this progressive level, Nathaniel moved into his central crisis of growth and self-identity. He was owned by three separate masters, including his half-brother Sam Turner; and at his death, Nathaniel was sold on the auction block and bought by Thomas Moore; and at his death, Nathaniel was inherited by Thomas Moore’s six-year-old son, Putnam, who was one of the children slaughtered in the Rebellion. 

During this middle stage of identity creation, Nathaniel was in psychological bondage: he lacked direction; he was confused, questioning and trying to find the meaning of love, authority, rebellion, and fatherhood. In the words of theologian William Hamilton, Nathaniel Turner was an Oedipal believer, “a man standing still and alone in a desolate place . . . looking up to the heavens . . . no eyes of flesh, only eyes of faith . . . crying out his questions to the heavens” (The Death of God Movement, p. 67). Nathaniel Turner, however, did become an “autonomous religious personality.” Like Christ, he stood beside his neighbor, that is, by those at the bottom of society, his fellow slaves.

In this final stage of maturation, Nathaniel Turner can be likened to the Greek character Orestes, who eschews an inexorable fate. Orestean theology means an end to a preoccupation with inner conflict, the agony of faith, and the careful confessions of sin. When emphasizing Turner’s killing of Margaret Whitehead as “incredibly significant,” William Styron was exceedingly perceptive. For Nathaniel Turner, Margaret Whitehead symbolized Turner’s Methodist Church, the religious institution that sanctified in Cross Keys slave breeding and slave trading or more specifically the “works of the flesh” listed by Paul at Galatians 5:19-21. 

The leaders of the Church desecrated marriage vows, violated the sanctity of family, and dissolved numerous families for monetary greed. By these moral crimes, untold and de-emphasized, the Christian slave holders of Cross Keys found security and authority. In his decisive choice, Nathaniel Turner understood that only when these acts are abolished can one inherit the kingdom of Heaven. Taking up his cross, he exacted the wrath of his Lord Jesus Christ and atoned for his “crimes” with his own life’s blood. Because of his Christian decisiveness and sacrifice, I thus offer Nathaniel Turner as a paradigmatic hero for contemporary man.

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Nathaniel Turner

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton 

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

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Basil Davidson's  "Africa Series"

 Different But Equal  /  Mastering A Continent  /  Caravans of Gold  / The King and the City / The Bible and The Gun

West Africa Before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850 (Davidson) / African Slave Trade: Precolonial History, 1450-1850 (Davidson)


John Henrik Clarke—A Great and Mighty Walk

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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Malcolm X

A Life of Reinvention

By Manning Marable

Years in the making-the definitive biography of the legendary black activist.

Of the great figure in twentieth-century American history perhaps none is more complex and controversial than Malcolm X. Constantly rewriting his own story, he became a criminal, a minister, a leader, and an icon, all before being felled by assassins' bullets at age thirty-nine. Through his tireless work and countless speeches he empowered hundreds of thousands of black Americans to create better lives and stronger communities while establishing the template for the self-actualized, independent African American man. In death he became a broad symbol of both resistance and reconciliation for millions around the world.

Manning Marable's new biography of Malcolm is a stunning achievement. Filled with new information and shocking revelations that go beyond the Autobiography, Malcolm X unfolds a sweeping story of race and class in America, from the rise of Marcus Garvey and the Ku Klux Klan to the struggles of the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties.

Reaching into Malcolm's troubled youth, it traces a path from his parents' activism through his own engagement with the Nation of Islam, charting his astronomical rise in the world of Black Nationalism and culminating in the never-before-told true story of his assassination. Malcolm X will stand as the definitive work on one of the most singular forces for social change, capturing with revelatory clarity a man who constantly strove, in the great American tradition, to remake himself anew.

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The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

By Pauline Maier

A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly). Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state convention’s verdict affected another’s. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.—Booklist

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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