From firstname.lastname@example.org Mon Aug 20 12:09:49 2001
Date: Sun, 19 Aug 2001 11:19:55 -0500 (CDT)
From: Michael Eisenscher <email@example.com>
Subject: Anniversary of Nat Turner’s Slave Revolt; US Needs Political
Wednesday marks the 170th anniversary of Nat Turner’s rebellion of slaves against their masters in remote Southampton County on the North Carolina border. Within 24 hours, Turner and six insurgents had grown to a band of 60 to 80 and they had massacred as many as 60 whites, mostly women and children.
No slave revolt in the United States brought forth more brutality—both from the perpetrators, who were armed with guns, axes and knives, and the militiamen who crushed the insurrection. They killed nearly 100 people, guilty and innocent, in a reprisal nearly matching the rebels’ savagery.
Fifty-two slaves were brought to trial, and a score, including Turner, were hanged. Because Turner could read and write and had preached the gospel of Jesus to blacks and whites, Virginia passed laws prohibiting slaves to read and write. The state also forbade blacks, slave and free, from holding religious services unattended by a licensed white minister. Another law decreed that no black could carry a firearm.
The revolt also rekindled a dialogue that had been latent in Virginia since the post-Revolutionary War era. Legislators and their constituents espoused everything from the deportation of Virginia’s entire black population to the gradual emancipation of slaves. But the economics of slavery—the chattel needed for intense labor—perpetuated the institution.
Most of the information about Turner and his revolt stems from one
source, a 13-page pamphlet titled
The Confessions of Nat
Turner, published in 1831 by Thomas C. Gray, a Southampton lawyer
who defended some of the insurgents, although not Turner. Gray
interviewed Turner in his jail cell, and the lawyer attested that the
narrative was dictated by Turner.
But the narrative is so articulate and well-organized that scholars both black and white believe it’s hard to say where Turner ends and Gray begins.
Confessions, Turner is quoted as saying that his owner was
kind, and placed the greatest confidence in me. But that was
overridden by a vision he had in 1828:
I heard a loud noise in the
heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said, the Serpent
is loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the
sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the
My more-than-passing interest in the rebellion came to the fore this summer, when filmmaker Cynthia Griffin invited my wife and me to watch a re-creation of Nat Turner’s story from the point of view of Virginia author William Styron. It was being filmed in the fields of Westend, an antebellum plantation in the pristine Green Springs region of southwest Louisa County, because the Southampton sites associated with the rebellion had been altered or destroyed.
The finished product,
Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, is
due to be completed in October, the month Turner was captured after
six weeks in hiding in 1831, and will be aired later on public
Griffin said the documentary will present
of diverse viewpoints about Nat Turner—referring to the 1950
film by Akira Kurosawa in which four people see a murder in a
different light. Among those slated to present views are novelist
Louise Meriwether, actor Ossie Davis, black-power activist Ayuko Babu
and scholar Alvin Pouissant. Excerpts from a Southampton Historical
Society video with a Southern perspective also will be included.
Styron resurrected Nat Turner for the public in 1967, when his novel
The Confessions of Nat Turner became a bestseller. The book won
the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and rekindled the debate: Was Turner
hero or a madman?
I had met Styron in 1998. We were both former Marines and were invited to a 200th anniversary celebration of the corps, held at the Smithsonian Institution. He was on the dais, reading from a novel he is still writing on his World War II experiences in the Pacific theater. My wife and I were among the admiring audience.
In June, Styron and I sat together in lawn chairs on the vast, open portico of Westend, in the heat and humidity of central Virginia, to watch the filming of the documentary.
Styron grew up in old Warwick County, now part of Newport News, and
told me he first heard of Turner in 1939, when he managed the Warwick
County High School football team. (
I was too small to play, he
told me.) On a bus ride to Courtland, where they were to play
Southampton County High, they pulled over by a state historical marker
briefly describing Turner’s insurrection:
Five miles from
here in 1831 took place . . .
Maybe we stopped to relieve ourselves, but we stopped, he
I remember it [the marker] vividly, by a cotton field. I was
too young to have decided on a vocation, but I was interested in
history and was fairly intellectually alert.
After his years in the Marine Corps, Styron continued to think of
Turner. About 1961, Styron said, black author James Baldwin came to
stay with him at his home in Roxbury, Conn.
I had by this time a
considerable period of years to deal with Nat Turner as a work of
fiction, but I was still a bit unfocused as to how to go about it.
Jimmy had been writing freely about white people in his own
fiction, and his views were like mine: There was no need to be
hesitant about acquiring the viewpoint—to get inside the
person—of another race. Partially, his encouragement gave me the
courage, and I began to write about Nat Turner in 1962.
In encouraging the effort, however, Baldwin was, as black historian
John Henrik Clarke put it, among
a few notable exceptions in
the black intellectual community, which excoriated Styron and the
white literary establishment. Under Clarke’s editorship,
William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond,
came out in 1968.
Clarke’s introduction synthesized their views:
The Nat Turner
created by William Styron has little resemblance to the Virginia slave
insurrectionist who is a hero to his people. . . . Why did William
Styron make Nat Turner a celibate with rising lust for what he has
called ’a pure white belle with swishing skirts’? Why did
he ignore the fact that Nat Turner had a wife . . . a slave wife on a
plantation separate from that of his master? The very separation and
helplessness of a man to protect his mate was part of the explanation
for Nat Turner’s revolt against slavery and the plantation
system. . . .
Is there a difference between William Styron’s stereotyped
portrayal of Nat Turner and the current racial bigots’ opinion
of civil rights leaders.
Replying to such criticism, Styron told me in June that his book
too often treated as a work of fact. He pointed out his
During the narrative that follows, I have
rarely departed from the known facts about Nat Turner and the revolt
of which he was the leader. However, in those areas where there is
little knowledge in regard to Nat, . . . I have allowed myself the
utmost freedom of imagination.
Styron’s imagination created the vivid scene we saw filmed in
the hayfields of Westend. Margaret Whitehead, a
white belle with
swishing skirts played by Megan Gallacher, of Virginia Beach,
encountered Styron’s prurient Turner, played by James Opher. In
Gray’s pamphlet, Turner says,
She fled but was soon
overtaken,and after repeated blows with a sword, I killed her by a
blow over the head with a fence-rail.
In 1968, in the very decade Martin Luther King Jr. espoused nonviolent protests to end segregation, 20th Century Fox decided against making a film of Styron’s brutal depiction of Nat Turner. Now that view will appear on screen, along with the views of diverse scholars and descendants of those affected by the revolt.