I’m only 28 pages into William Styron’s 25th-Anniversary Edition award-winning book, The Confessions of Nat Turner and my emotions are everywhere.
For those of you who don’t know, or perhaps, better stated, for those of you who were never taught about Nat Turner I must advise that this is no children’s tale. This here, the story of the largest revolt of enslaved persons in the United States of America is not a replicable Hollywood stunt, nor is it something you toss onto a playwright’s lap in hopes that she’ll hire a batch of actors talented enough to emulate such a feat. No. Nat Turner’s story surrounds the life of a spellbinding man who was born into slavery, raised up as a prophet, a dream decipherer, a reverend, an insurrectionist, a hero, and ultimately, the most hated man, sorry, property in America.
In short, Nat Turner led a revolt, a company of some fifty or sixty enslaved men to bring upon their masters and family members the same level of indecency they had endured from birth. They massacred will over fifty men, women, and children, indiscriminately killing them from the darkest hour of the night until the sun was high in the sky.
They killed. Stabbed. Chopped. Shot. Hacked. Strangled. Decapitated. Beat with clubs, weapons, and fists, every white slave owner they could find in their vicinity until their insurrection was stamped out by a local militia.
Nat, the last surviving member of this revolt was eventually apprehended, tried as a terrorist (a neologism yet unknown then but the meaning is clear), and killed by the state.
Turner was coerced by the court, and later, some believe, impressed upon by God to confess, not his sins of a violent revolt because to Turner this was not a sinful act but an act of deliverance and immediate emancipation.
Turner confessed to the step-by-step process he took in eliminating every single slave owner he knew and could find that day.
This document was presented to the court as Bible against Turner and his story spread through the American plains, from the racist abolitionist North to the slave-trading South.
Nat was the Osama Bin Laden of his day.
The problem, however, as there are many problems with retelling or the accurate telling of history is that Turner committed the crime of wanting his freedom at all costs, just as American founding fathers had ventured to liberate themselves from the grips of an imperialist Britain, so Turner sought to wring himself free from bondage.
His insurrection initiated slave patrols in the south. Slave dogs began to roam plantation fields. Negroes were from there on forbidden from learning how to read, write, and also to congregate in numbers larger than three or four, at a time.
Because if one negro can plan and execute an insurrection, what then, might other negroes do?
Had Nat Turner successfully revolted against his masters, mustered hundreds, possibly, thousands of other negroes, and whites, unto his cause, to rid all black men, women, and children from the bondage of slavery, perhaps we would know him as a triumphant liberator instead of an insurrectionist.
The same way we see Washington, we would see Turner.
But Turner was black. A black slave. Turner was property.
There’s a higher chance you’ve heard of William Wallace, the freedom fighter turned martyr whose story or legend was adapted into a big-budget movie where Mel Gibson brought Scottish knight to the silver screen.
At the end of this violent film, we watch as Wallace, played by Gibson, is stretched over a table whilst in entrails are removed from him as he suffers the gruesome death at the hands of the State. He manages to ring out a shout for freedom just before his life is taken from him with force. This heroic depiction of William Wallace, the enemy of the English state, is etched into our memories as a man who fought to protect his people, his land, and their dignity in the face of an encroaching king.
But Nat Turner was tortured, hanged, and quartered. His shout for freedom came by the same means as that of Wallace but the difference is that Wallace, a marauder, and criminal, an enemy of the state, an insurrectionist murderer was martyred whereas Turner was captured and treated like a dog.
But to the American mind, he was equal to a dog. A dog that turned on its owner and with the help of other dogs managed to kill several dog owners. He was hunted down, captured, humiliated, enchained, violently wrestled from doghood down to vermin-hood, where, as less than human, less than property, less than a dog, he was ripped to pieces and those pieces burned and what was leftover discarded in some undiscoverable place.
The difference between Wallace, George Washington, and Turner is that the first two were white men whose criminal acts have gone down in history as heroism in the face of tyranny.
Turner, having lost his physical battle and the ensuing cultural bone as well, was a devil in the eyes of every white person in America, except, say, William Lloyd Garrison:
“Washington, who with our fathers purchased our freedom by blood and violence, are lauded as patterns of patriotism and Christianity. Nat Turner, and his associates, who endeavored to work out their own salvation from an oppression incomparably more grievous and unjust than our fathers endured, were treated as rebels, and murderous assassins, and were ruthlessly hung, or shot like wolves, and their memory is corrupt.” (February 13, 1836)
Anywho, I’m angry when reading about Nat’s failed revolt. I’m angrier yet at the circumstances that existed that forced Nat to revolt in the first place.
Might write a bit more on this later. Maybe not.
On to page 29 of Styron’s book, I guess.