From Mon Aug 20 12:09:49 2001
Date: Sun, 19 Aug 2001 11:19:55 -0500 (CDT)
From: Michael Eisenscher <>
Subject: Anniversary of Nat Turner’s Slave Revolt; US Needs Political
Article: 124879
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Insurgent Slave Still a Divisive, Intriguing Figure

By Eugene Scheel, The Washington Post, Sunday 19 August 2001; Page LZ03

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.

In 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 serpent.

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 television.

Griffin said the documentary will present a ’Rashomon’ 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 said. 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 is too often treated as a work of fact. He pointed out his author’s note: 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.