The Real Nat Turner

By Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/9/2009

There are those who say that history is indifferent, though enough has been written to distort African American history to suggest that someone is playing a game with us. This is quite clear in the case of Nat Turner, born 200 years ago. It is as if he could be sheathed in an interpretative garment with so many layers that you could never really know him. Yet there are some interesting developments around Turner’s bicentennial. Symposia and seminars are planned and even a conference at Temple University on “The Meaning of Nat Turner” is scheduled for the Spring, 2000. There is even talk of Spike Lee making a movie of Nat Turner based on the discredited William Styron’s novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner. Although this novel won a Pulitzer Prize it was roundly attacked and severely criticized by some of the major African American writers and historians of the day. Thus, it is clear that the African American people have both a historical and emotional investment in Nat Turner and this interest in Nat Turner is not a new discovery, it is a permanent condition. Nat Turner’s image in our consciousness does not come and go; it is a historical presence.

A recent article “Untrue Confessions” by Tony Horwitz reminded me that it is as true today as it was thirty years ago that “every body talking bout Nat Turner don’t know Nat Turner.” Horwitz asks “Is most of what we know about Nat Turner wrong?” Because he asked the wrong question, he was never able to find the answer. The real question is, was Nat Turner right?

Speculative history written with hindsight often seeks to prove a point that could not be proved at the time of an event. Unfortunately this is not Horwitz’ aim, rather he seeks to render the work of white southern novelist William Styron (The Confessions of Nat Turner) useful in understanding Nat Turner. To do this, Horwitz relies on Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West, two Harvard professors, and Spike Lee to help resurrect a dead vision of Nat Turner. The fact that Styron was born in 1925 only a few miles away from the scene of Turner’s revolt may have given him historical interest in Nat Turner, but Styron’s novel robbed the meaning of a man’s life. In fact, Styron’s version of Nat Turner stole a people’s collective response to oppression by trying to portray a maniacal Nat Turner.
Not along ago after lecturing at the Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina I drove a few miles north just over the state line to Southampton County Virginia where in 1800 Nat Turner was born as a precocious child. I have made a habit of visiting sacred sites of African deeds. I have meditated on the farm where Harriet Tubman was born, walked among the oaks at night on Tuskegee’s campus, and slept in Amy Garvey’s house in Kingston, and so forth. In some ways, religion is the deification of ancestors and my religion is African. It was not different when I walked along the roads of history in Virginia.
On this land, I thought as I walked near the historical marker indicating the revolt of Nat Turner, we, the people of a million births, were born once more during that slave revolt in August 1831.

Since Nat Turner’s proactive strike against slavery, white authors beginning with Thomas Gray, who took his “confessions” have tried to mold a Nat Turner that they could put on an American stamp or stamp with the white American imagination. They are baffled by the fact that a black man rose up so provocatively against his oppression. What’s wrong with Nat Turner, they seemed to ask? What is a slave revolt about if it is not about despising slavery?
Enriched by the memories of Africans, because we were not citizens until after the Civil War, whose vivid and conscientious impressions of Nat Turner were painted in a historical gallery of greatness, the children of Nat Turner knew as the late John Henrik Clarke knew that “Nat Turner alone was sufficient to prove “that black people were worthy of being free people.” Like the ankh, the scarab beetle, the crucifix, Shango’s axe, and prayer beads, the iconic Nat Turner stirs in our hearts the desire for the sacred.
Soon after the publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner, Lerone Bennett, Vincent Harding, John O. Killens, John A. Williams, Alvin Pouissant, Mike Thelwell, and others wrote a thunderous response to what they saw as the betrayal of Nat Turner’s history in Styron’s work. Black Classic Press has recently re-issued the volume as The Second Crucifixion of Nat Turner. It was the last work edited by John Henrik Clarke.
Can the real Nat Turner stand up? Vincent Harding, author of There is A River, says William Styron “speaks and writes without comprehension of either the meaning of the drama, or the profound and bitter depths through which America continually moves towards the creation of a thousand Nat Turners more real than (Styron’s) can ever be. When Thomas Gray gave his peroration on Nat Turner’s “Confessions” he wrote “I looked on him and my blood curdled in my veins.” I do not know whether Thomas Gray was being melodramatic or not, but I do know that African men and women took heart in the fact that a black man could bring fear to whites. However, when Styron finished with Nat Turner you wanted to have pity on a poor misdirected, distorted, twisted, fanatic, who did not know what he was doing. So we are still asking, can the real Nat Turner stand up? The novelist John O. Killens was perceptive when he said “there are thousands of Nat Turners in the city streets today.” In effect, Turner is standing up everyday in the lives of black people dealing with the vicissitudes of racism.
The real Nat Turner was a revolutionary who believed in liberty. “Give me liberty or give me death” had reverberated from the Virginia Assembly nearly twenty-five years before Turner was born. Patrick Henry would be considered a saint for his commitment to liberty and Nat Turner would be reinvented as a fanatic for his determination for liberation. Such is the alchemy of racism. What could create such different orientations to men striking for freedom? Simply put, Nat Turner saw the white slaveholder as the enemy of justice, peace, and humanity and his struggle was for integrity.
What drives the illusions of Turner periodically sent our way by white authors? I believe that they are trying to find an acceptable, non-heroic, and less-threatening Turner. But this cannot be done without re-writing large parts of the history of our enslavement, omitting the fundamental deprivation of liberty and constructing an alternative explanation for the attempt to dehumanize us. I see in these whiten versions of Nat Turner an attempt to silence the voice of protest, militancy, anger, and righteous indignation. This is why Tony Horwitz must drag out a chorus of black post-modern problematizers so that when you see Nat Turner you will not know him. The idea is to dissect his mind and motives like the white surgeons dissected his body after execution.
In the the Second Crucifixion of Nat Turner, Lerone Bennett, the eminent historian of African American culture, wrote that in William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner, we do not get the voice of Nat Turner. He says, “the voice in this confession is the voice of William Styron. The images are the images of William Styron. The confession is the confession of William Styron.”
Tony Horwitz, with the collaboration of African Americans who wish to problematize Nat Turner and any other black heroic figure has tried to make Styron’s voice the voice of Nat Turner. William Styron was wrong in 1967 when he wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner and his Nat Turner remains silent today. It is the voice of the white southerner that we hear in Styron’s novel. No amount of revivalism by vindicationists can rehabilitate Styron’s assault on the character of Nat Turner. I call the Africans who are called upon by whites to confirm their opinions of African actions, vindicationists of white fears. If Cornel West could be quoted by Horwitz as saying “that “Styron had struggled to understand the common history of whites and blacks” Cornel West was wrong. Nat Turner did not come out of any common history of whites and blacks and William Styron knew that fact in l967 and we all know that now.
Turner’s vision meant death to the racist. His interpretation of his situation was more Fanonian than Freudian in the sense that he understood that violence against the slaveholders would show his humanity because it was human to have rage at evil and seek to overcome it. No, there was no commonality between what Turner wanted and what his slave-owners wanted. These two views were polar opposites. They were as different as valleys and mountains. No amount of gainsaying can make Nat Turner and the slave-owners brothers in a common quest. Their heavens were as different as their hells. Henry Louis Gates told Horwitz that the assault on Styron by “black intellectuals came at the height of Black Power, of the super-macho, super-stud Black Panthers, with their guns, leather, and berets. Styron’s version of Nat Turner was simply unreadable to these people, and they didn’t want a white to write about it, particularly in that way.” Once again Henry Gates has misunderstood the essence of the African American community’s massive response to Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. If Styron had written his twisted interpretation of Nat Turner today it would have generated the same heat and same criticism. Styron raped the image of Nat Turner and presented a disemboweled version of an African hero.
How could a white Virginia writer choose to place himself in the mind of the most iconic of African heroes and expect to go unchallenged? Styron puts himself in the first person as Nat Turner. Wasn’t this the same presumption that whites had taken during the enslavement and afterwards? To take one of the greatest African American icons and reduce his revolt against the racist institution to religious and sexual fanaticism remains, even now, sacrilegious. What would a Native American say if a white person chose to write of Geronimo or Cochise in the first person and make their campaign against white settlers turn on some imagined idea of sex with a white woman? Is there no other reality to the life of a person enslaved, dehumanized, and brutalized? Are the daily visitations of abuse against one’s fellows not enough to create in a person a strong desire for freedom? Nat Turner’s victory over enslavement can be found in his challenge of the system and his strike against our debasement.
Clearly, his image as an African American revolutionary retains its potency because we are confronted by racial subtleties fossilized in American institutions. If the times do not demand a messianic force, a heroic persona, then truly the times always require a thousand Harriets and Nats who can discern the numerous ways we are victimized and show the way to victory. In the pursuit of freedom one is either a collaborator with the enemy or an aggressive proponent of justice.
One wonders why Horwitz writing in the New Yorker could even try to resurrect Styron’s portrayal of Nat Turner as a tortured, tormented fanatic lusting after a white woman? Nat Turner’s deliberate revolt against the white slaveholders had more to do with his hatred of slavery than with anything else. There is nothing in Turner’s history that demonstrates this idea of revolution based on sexual fantasy. His was not some projection of whiteness as purity or saintliness; what he saw was what David Walker had seen, a corrupt, rotten, brutal system of degradation. He became in his own mind the Lion of Virginia conquering evil in the name of God. He was the first breeze of the whirlwind that was to be in Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X.
I believe that Styron’s Nat Turner came from the imagination of a writer bent on showing that Nat Turner had more love for white people than the radicals of the l960s. When in fact Nat Turner and the revolutionary activists of the Sixties were interested in the defeat of racism, oppression, and white supremacy. Both recognized that white supremacy was an abnormal, anti-god, unholy, and unfair system. They both tapped the abundant spring of American hypocrisy. They knew the white racial ideology of dominance, having felt its sting. But the idolatry of whiteness lost its power in the confrontation with black visions of freedom.
The American society has always feared rebellion from black folk. It is quite metaphysical, like the national conscience recognizes that something is wrong with the way we have been treated. Consequently, if whites could find someone to throw white paint on our black faces, to disfigure us, to distort our reality, to main our history, then they would feel more comfortable with us. Therefore, if a white writer, with black assistants, could blunt the edge of our rage, if he could problematize our heroes or add layers of complexity to our heroes’ motives, he could thwart our anger, eradicate our demands for justice, and eliminate the need for reparations. Why is it that Alexander Crummell, Marcus Garvey, Nat Turner, and Malcolm X have drawn such drastic postmodern attempts at redefinition? Is it not possible for an African person to be clear about anything, but particularly clear about racism in America? David Walker will be the next individual to be problematized, afterall, he thought “white Christian Americans” were the most hypocritical and degenerate people on the face of the earth. Shall we now await a white author and black assistants to tell us that David Walker was crazy?

Of course I am perhaps over-stretching the case in order to demonstrate that when our history is not in our own hands we are in danger of transmitting a jaundiced view of ourselves to posterity.

The governor of Virginia, John Floyd, knew the power of Nat Turner’s rebellion. Floyd spoke to the Virginia Assembly on December 6, 1831, and he said “”I am fully persuaded the spirit of insubordination which has and still manifests itself in Virginia, had its origin among the Yankee population, upon their first arrival amongst us, but most especially the Yankee pedlars and traders. The course has been by no means a direct one. They began first by making them religious in their conversations which were of the character of telling the blacks, God was no respecter of persons, the black man was as good as the white, that all men were born free and equal, that they cannot serve two masters.”

John Floyd believed that the slaves who learned to read also read David Walker. The appearance of David Walker’s “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World” provoked much discussion and concern among whites. Furthermore, it was the most passionately logical African treatise in support of revolt against slavery of its time and perhaps of all time. Even if it is true as some claim that we do not know if Walker inspired Nat Turner, it is true that the conditions both responded to were universal in North America.

I asked myself why Nat Turner has inspired generations of Africans and created great fear in the white population, a fear that comes out even in statements as contemporary as Horwitz notion of Nat Turner as someone on a “rampage” with the idea of “massacring” white people. Why couldn’t Nat Turner be at war with the enemies of justice and fair-play, the bearers of evil, and the sustainers of degradation? In fact, if anything, whites had systematically massacred black and Native Americans and “rampaged” across the continent killing and looting. We had been looted from Africa.

Didn’t white people have the freedom and the “right” to kill any Africans, to wantonly shoot down an enslaved person, to rape any black woman at will, to sell parents’ children to another plantation against their will, to act like God on earth? Had not thousands of blacks been murdered for trivial reasons? Wouldn’t the havoc and macabre killing of black women and children after the revolt be enough to suggest that the revolt had been justified? Hadn’t whites killed the innocent without remorse? Wasn’t Nat Turner responding to centuries of indignities and malicious actions?

Nat Turner’s emergence as a revolutionary in 1831 came on the heels of the 1825 emigration to Haiti of thousands of Africans from the United States, and David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World in l829. Fired up with indignation, David Walker had written like this: “the whites have always been an unjust, jealous, unmerciful and blood-thirsty set of beings, always seeking after power and authority.” Walker was convinced that no people had ever suffered such “barbarous cruelties” as Africans at the hands of white Christian Americans. The events of Southampton County occurred during the same period as the United States was removing Native Americans to Oklahoma in the Trail of Death.

Turner grew organically out of the soil of the African people. He felt what the masses felt and experienced what they experienced. He lived in one of the most repressive regimes in the history of the world during its most oppressive time. To speak of the enslavement as if it were a genteel world is to debase the memory of the ancestor who struggled against the vilest form of degradation.

What were the facts of the rebellion as they have come to us through history?

October 2, 1800 Nat Turner born

1822 Nat Turner was sold to Thomas Moore after Samuel Turner, his owner died.

1825 Nat Turner had his first vision about freedom

August 13, 1831 Signs in the sky appeared that suggested to Nat Turner that he should prepare for the rebellion

August 20, 1831 Nat Turner asks Henry Porter and Hark Travis to help plan the revolt

August 21, 1831 Hark Travis, Henry Porter, Samuel Francis, Will Francis, Nelson Williams meet at a pond and cook a pig. They are joined by Nat Turner at 3 PM. They are prepared for war by Nat Turner. He assumes the title of General Cargill. Henry Porter becomes paymaster.

August 22, 1831 They leave around 2 AM to begin their attacks. They ride their horses at breakneck speed to create terror and to prevent escape from the slaveowners’ homes.

August 22, 1831 By noon, Nat Turner had sixty mounted men, ready to march on the village of Jerusalem. They killed 61 whites. They met first resistance from armed whites.

August 23, 1831 7AM Turner’s forces met armed slaveholders, more than 100 white men.

August 23, 1831 By 9 AM men are leaving Nat to return to the plantations. Many of them would later be killed.

October 30, 1831 Nat Turner was captured

November 5, 1831 Nat Turner was tried and found guilty.

November 11, 1831 He was executed and his body mutilated. More than 200 people were killed by whites in the aftermath.

Nat Turner was not a freak. He was a self-determining African who could not live as a slave. We know enough about him to know that he loved African people and saw his history as intimately connected with that of his fellows. Scot French of the University of Virginia is quoted as saying, “About all we know for sure is that fifty-seven whites died. We have the bodies.” However, we also know that more than two hundred men, women, children, were killed by whites. They must not remain uncommented upon nor silent in history.

In the end, Styron’s novel cannot be the basis of a depiction of Nat Turner. Listen to Styron’s Nat Turner as he is about to go to the gallows:

“…I feel the warmth flow into my loins and my legs tingle with desire, I tremble and I search for her face in my mind, seek the young body, yearning for her suddenly, with a craving beyond pain; with tender stroking motions I our out my love within her; pulsing flood; she arches against me, cries out, and the twain—black and white—are one.”
If you accept this you believe that Nat Turner did not want to kill the slave-owner he wanted to sleep with the slaveowner’s wife. John O. Killens writes that “there is nothing that suggests that Nat had no love whatever for black women, which is how Styron depicts him. As a matter of fact, he was married to one, but you wouldn’t know this from the novel.” Was the lust after a white woman the only reason Styron’s Nat Turner had a voice against enslavement? Can only black men married to or lusting after white women have voice because it will be a voice of confusion, a freak show of Hollywood proportions? Is this the Turner of Spike Lee’s interest? Vincent Harding is right, they done “took my Nat and gone.”

Was Turner crazy? Was Patrick Henry? Is the real Nat Turner dead? Is God dead? By all accounts Nat Turner was not insane, despite the drawing accompanying Tony Horwitz’ piece in the New Yorker, depicting a brooding madman. Furthermore, Turner remains close to the surface of every African American who thinks about the historical conditions that are derived from the enslavement. He is neither dead nor dying in our imagination and history.

The plan carried out by Nat Turner and his cohorts shows him as a rather reflective and mature thinker and his activities were consistent with the best examples of leadership. He demonstrated both gravitas and charisma. There is no question that he was passionate, energetic, committed, and dedicated to the eradication of slavery and this is the generator for our continuing struggle. He has earned his place in the panoply of revolutionary icons such as Boukman, Dessalines, Zumbi, Touissaint L’Ouverture, Delgres, Yanga, Harriet Tubman, Nanny, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, and John Cavallo. Therefore, at the dawn of a new century, the second since his birth, Nat Turner remains elegantly and elaborately wrapped in the fabric of resistance to domination and it is this Turner, above all, that African Americans know and hold dear.

African symbol