Review: The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

Nat Turner – The Would Be Hero

“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)

William Lloyd Garrison

Styron received plenty of heat for his novel on the cryptic phantom of the black Spartacus, Nat Turner.

I advise the reader to pick up the 25th Anniversary Edition where Styron expresses his sentiments on the backlash the book received from disenfranchised black groups who had made a god of Turner whereas Styron had made him a man, who as expected, struggled with rage, lust, and the other mundane things a man of that era might have struggled with. Styron adds almost fifty pages on his understanding of the critique, the analytical part yes, but admits a resolute head-scratching at the mindless distaste for his work from people who never read it.

I had not known that Styron had hosted James Baldwin at his home and even received advice and blessings from Baldwin to venture into this first-person narrative of Nat Turner’s life.

Styron admits the liberty he took in recreating the antebellum world so we could understand the multifaceted grievances Turner might have had against the slave trade.

In reality, we don’t need many reasons to understand why. Nat Turner and a group of seventeen slaves set off to kill fifty-five white people in the antebellum south. Their position in life was the only precursor necessary for their vengeance upon their slave masters.

It is, however, impossible to develop a most accurate understanding of Nat Turner’s life when his confession was undersigned by a white lawyer who had been appointed to him by a court that saw him as nothing more than ‘property gone rogue’ and property worthy of hanging, quartering, and burning.

Either way, it’s an expressive work of art and demonstrably true of the horrors of American history, which, retrospectively, was all deserving of Nat Turner’s insurrection.

Sadly, his bid for freedom is seen and described as an insurrection instead of a revolution. Why? You ask. It’s because Nat Turner failed. Unlike his predecessor George Washington, who fought with the same fervency and won, Nat has been relocated to the forgotten and dismissed recesses of American history where he remains a negro terrorist instead of the black Moses he was for his time.

One cannot help but wonder… what if Nat Turner had succeeded?

The bodies of those executed, with one exception, were buried in a decent and becoming manner. That of Nat Turner was delivered to the doctors, who skinned it and made grease of the flesh. Mr. R.S. Barham’s father owned a money purse made of his hide. His skeleton was for many years in the possession of Dr. Massenberg, but has since been misplaced.

Drewry, the southampton Insurrection

Nat Turner’s original confession can be found and read in its entirety here. One must remember that Turner’s confession was transcribed and sealed by a white lawyer appointed to him by the court. We cannot rely on the accuracy of this confession because the court and his legal representative were, culturally, societally, and legally structured to work against him. We can only assume that some of what is undersigned and sealed about Turner’s undertaking are true, but how much, and exactly how accurate, we may never know. In 1831 a slave had little to no value other than the work he or she provided their masters and absolutely no rights or freedoms. We must, unfortunately, take T. R. Gray’s account down with us in history, hesitantly so, as it is the only account of this story recorded in history. We needn’t venture far to wonder why Turner’s insurrection was not as well recorded and disseminated through the Americas as was the stories and triumphs of George Washington. Some insurrections were acceptable while others were worthy of the highest levels of contempt and erasure. A military assault coordinated by negro slaves was the most horrifying news any slave owning and slavery favoring antebellum American could ever conceive of. Their worst nightmare came true in the enigmatic phantom of the black Spartacus, Nat Turner.

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