Sec. 4, Ch. 26--Wrestling with Spiritual
What Price SalvationóMurder & Mayhem?
What was the outcome of fifteen, sixteen hours of the
"great work" that God required of Nat Turner? Though Christian slaves
of Cross Keys got their licks in for the first time, all suffered. The killings
rubbed heavily against Turnerís natural sensibility and his puritanical life.
He was both victim of and scapegoat for the evils of Cross Keys. Turner did not
desire the burden that Christ placed on his shoulders. Such
"enthusiasm" was contrary to his solitary and contemplative nature.
his personal behavior, he was priestly. "It is notorious," Thomas Gray
wrote in 1831, "that he was never known to have a dollar in his life, to
swear an oath, or drink a cup of spirits." Nathaniel Turner of Cross Keys was a
gentle spirit, an ascetic; at worst, a mystic capable of reshaping the world
imaginatively to suit his sensibility. Nevertheless, Turner had faith in Christ
and feared God.
But Turnerís fate was not to live his life just for
himself. At twenty-one, he sought to save his life, to run away from the fray to
obtain his personal freedom. But the Spirit denied him such leisure, and thus he
returned to his earthly master. With the aid of the Spirit, as did Jesus, Turner
placed his life into the hands of the divine. In faith, his death and the death
of others became his project, to make a sacrifice, to project himself and his
followers and his view of the world toward God and his judgment (Rowan, p. 9).
For one to live the true religious life, one must imitate Christís greatest
virtue, righteous indignation. And that must be followed by self-denial.
"If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his
cross, and follow me" (Mark 8.34-38). One can not, must not, live silently
in the midst of evil and do nothing. For the progress of the soul, conditions at
times demand a means the enemy can understand, namely, a violent and
bloodletting exorcism. Though abhorrent, that was the nature of things, divinely
Nathaniel Turnerís legendary ineptitude in taking a life troubles
many political militants. Styronís Confessions (1969) makes mischief of
Turnerís "softness." Though responsible for a river of blood, mostly
of women and children, Turner was squeamish about killing by his own hand. This
paradox can be understood only in the context of sacred violence, like Abraham
being required to kill his son Isaac. Turner had a great love for humanity,
including his fellow Christian slaves.
Only on his third attempt was Nathaniel able to
deliver the death blow, and then, seemingly, clumsily and awkwardly. That he
killed Margaret Whitehead was significant; yet it is unlikely that this killing
implied any sign of the loosening of sexual repression, as suggested by Styron
and a few other Virginians.
Turnerís murder of Margaret Whitehead probably did have
symbolical aspects in Turnerís subconscious world. Margaret was about the same
age as Nancy of the Nile when she was wrenched from Africa. Bought on the
auction block, Nat Turnerís mother was brought to Cross Keys, and raped by
Benjamin Turner. The African Nancy, the teenage child before her kidnapping, had
the same innocent joy for life and hope for her happiness as Margaret of Cross
Cherry, Nathanielís purported youthful wife, was forced into a
"marriage" not of her choosing and forced to be a breeder for Samuel
Turner. In matters or race, religion and sex, Styronís imaginative reasoning
on their connections in the 1830s seems absurd in the actual context of Turnerís
religious world and his ascetic orientation and religious consciousness.
Styronís ironic speculations are entertaining and, at their
worst, systematic. His imaginative conclusions have nothing to do with the Nathaniel
Turner we know with certainty in the 1831 "Confessions." Moreover, no
report exists of any sexual untowardness with respect to white women in any
rebellion of American slaves. That notion is a post-Reconstruction fabrication.
Despite his squeamishness in killing with his own hand, Turner asked his
Christian soldiers to dip their hands in the enemyís blood. His killing by his
own had was thus what a leader had to do.
Turnerís singular murder symbolized
a strike at the very heart of the slaveholderís racial oppression: the double
standard with respect to women. Christian slave women were "breeders"
rather than "ladies" deserving of regard. In addition, by his murder
of Margaret Whitehead, Turner, as Godís chosen, sanctified all the other
killings that came before and after. His men required of Turner no further
demonstration of his loyalty or his commitment..
There is no question that Turnerís holy war was a bloody
mess. As the Richmond Whig reported 29 August 1831, "whole families,
father, mother, daughters, sons, suckling babes and school children, were
butchered . . . thrown into heaps, and left to be devoured by hogs and dogs, or
to putrify on the spot" (Johnson, p. 133). This Cross Keys Christian
community sacrificed greatly at the altar of slavery, as would the entire South
and the rest of the nation.
"Turnerís practical impact was small,"
according to Rosemary Reuther, "but the psychological impact was great. The
terror he [Turner] evoked was not simply due to the few deaths he caused, but
the consciousness that he expressed thereby of being the divinely appointed
agent of apocalyptic wrath, to which white society, in its guilt, could only
respond in fear and fury" (The Radical Kingdom, p. 225).
Although Turnerís "insurrection" was confined to
a small Southampton community, the specter of its duplication in every slave
community became a palpable threat in the minds of slaveholders throughout
Virginia and the South. Most American slaves were owned by such medium-sized
farms as those of Cross Keys. In such communities, whites numbered as high as a
hundred or so.
In Jerusalem, there were 175 inhabitants. In such a small
population, the slaughter of fifty-five men, women, and childrenóten men,
fourteen women, thirty-one childrenóa third to a half of the population of
Cross Keys, was great and traumatic, white bodies "chopped to pieces with
axes, the trees, fence and house top covered with buzzards preying on
carcasses" (Johnson, p. 133). Doubtless, Turnerís war was tragic, but not
one-sided and thoughtless.
Contrary to popular beliefs, Turner did not make war on all
whites. Without exaggeration, we can say, Turner spared Jerusalem. Both blacks
and whites of Southampton attest that Turner spared Wiley Francis, Giles Reese,
John Clark, Thomas Gray and their families. These exceptions provide massive
evidence of Turnerís humanity. With the help of the Holy Spirit, Turner also
awakened Brantley from the dead and gave him a new life in Christ. Turnerís
healing and baptism of Brantley is usually disregarded in almost every
assessment of Turner.
Those who have claimed that Turner intended to kill all
whites should also scan the surnames of those murdered. Only one was named
Turner, namely, Elizabeth. Her relationship to Turnerís masters is unclear. If
indeed vindictive, Turner would have gone after Samuel Turnerís family and his
children and his sisters. But that did not happen. Turner had an ethic against
spilling the blood of his own kinsmen.
Turnerís holy war invoked, however, a count-terror that, in
contrast, slaughtered and tortured Christian slaves indiscriminately. On the 24th
of August 1831, John Hampden Pleasants of the Richmond Light Dragoons arrived in
Southampton and witnessed the "temper of the [white] population . . . to
inflict immediate death upon every prisoner." He talked with one fellow
"of intelligence who stated that he himself had killed between 10 and 15.
He justified himself on the ground of the barbarities committed on the
whites" (Johnson, p. 110).
Though the primary task of the State military
apparatus, about 800 soldiers including the militia of several counties, was to
arrest the Southampton Rebellion, its actual role was the protection of slave
property from wanton destruction. With the loosening of such repressed
attitudes, the military found it necessary to threaten swift military justice
against roaming bands of whites. None of these murderers were arrested nor
morally reprimanded by the Virginia newspapers. If Turnerís holy war did
nothing else, it unveiled beastly attitudes concealed behind masks of Christian
In fear for white lives, however, the military imprisoned
over fifty Christian slavesómen, women, and children. Twelve, among them the
boy Moses owned by Joseph Travis, were auctioned and "sold down the
river." Seventeen Christians, lovers of freedom, were hanged, including a
woman, Lucy Barrow, who brazenly and defiantly, rode her coffin to the gallows.
A short period later, three free Negroes were executed for supposed involvement
in the Nathaniel Turner affair. Other acts of white terror, including hangings, were
carried out in adjoining counties, such as Sussex and Prince George (Brawley, p.
By Sunday, 30 October 1831, when Nathaniel Turner was taken into
custody, seventy-five to a hundred Christian slavesómen, women, and childrenóhad
been indiscriminately slaughtered in fierce revenge and retaliation. The toll on
Christian slaves in the counter-terror was high; yet their deaths were more
ennobling. "Indeed," according to F. Roy Johnson, "some of the
insurgents considered themselves martyrs.
Governor Floyd, reflecting upon
General Eppesí report, stated: ĎAll died bravely indicating no reluctance to
lose their lives in such a causeí, and again he declared Ďsome of them that
were wounded and in the agonies of Death declared that they were going happy for
that God had a hand in what they had been doing" (Johnson, p. 111).
During the summer and fall of 1831, the Christian hope of
black slaves had little consideration in the calculus of public opinion. In
critical contrast, the general public, North and South, disregarded and
applauded the evils committed by Virginia whites. To an astonishing degree, the
murderous slaughter of the rabid counter-terror was forgiven, understood under
One is ever shocked and disturbed on reading the temporary
accounts of reactions to the Rebellion in Southampton. Virginia papers in
Richmond and Norfolk printed letters from the highest levels of Virginia society
that advocated a black holocaust, of exterminating the whole population of
blacks if a Nat Turner Rebellion ever repeated itself (Tragle, p. 147; Foner, p.
Truth was the foremost fatality of Turnerís war. Turner and
his Christian soldiers did not have the full freedom to tell their story. Other
than the "Confessions" of Nathaniel Turner, all the direct court testimony of
the Christian slaves tried, hanged or sold on the auction block were
whitewashed, wiped out. The stories of Christian slaves were hushed and then
silenced by the hand of the law. There was no roving independent reporter
interested in the real truth of the Rebellion, from the Christian slaveís
point of view except, maybe, Thomas Gray.
These Christian men, women, and
children, in the mind of most whites, had no independent reality worthy of
respect or consideration. Freedom of the
press was limited to those who had wealth and power. These propagandists, North
and South, came together in publications and speeches to put the worst light on
Turner and the horrific events of Southampton County, Virginia. To put it
mildly, the national media sacrificed truth to melodrama and amusement.
* * *
* * * * *
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.ó
* * * * *
The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of
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 incarcerationóbut her
carefully researched, deeply engaging,
and thoroughly readable book should
* * * *
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update 12 February 2012