August 22, 1831—The worst fear of Thomas Jefferson at the time of the Missouri Compromise—that slavery represented “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go”—was, for many of his fellow Virginians, borne out by the sudden outbreak of violence after midnight in Southampton County. Nat Turner, a literate African-American preacher continually beset by disturbing visions he believed “intended [him] for some great purpose,” led a half-dozen fellow slaves in a largely directionless but very deadly insurrection.
By the end of the day, the number in his group had swelled to about 40—and the number of his victims to around 60. Yet oddly, the leader of the most significant slave rebellion in American history –a figure who continued to symbolize African-American militancy more than a century after his death—took the life of only one person, a young woman, in the onslaught.
Even after most of his men rounded up, Turner hid and eluded capture for two months. He was finally captured in late October and hanged on November 11. His executioners then stripped off large pieces of his skin. His fate would be echoed years later in Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” in which the head of an executed leader of a slave revolt on a ship faces the church of St. Bartholomew, an apostle who met his end in a particularly grisly way--with his skin also torn off. In these kinds of deaths, the skin that once offended a profoundly racist society was now reduced to a skeleton, completely indistinguishable from its oppressors.
The gnawing anxiety of Jefferson and other prominent Southern Founding Fathers concerning their human chattel was not an idle fear—at least to them. The possibility was usually too awful to be confronted directly. As with the reality of miscegenation all around them, it could only be dealt with through euphemism, misdirection, public denial, and--at most--private communications, often cryptic.
As I mentioned in a prior post, James Madison’s grandfather had died in 1732 through poison administered by two slaves—the first recorded murder victim in that area of Virginia. But there was another, larger, more recent example of slavery-engendered violence that worried Madison, Jefferson and other white southerners even more: the successful Santo Domingo rebellion of the 1790s that led to the murder of at least 60,000 whites.
Turner's rebellion not only confirmed the fears of many whites all over the South that African-Americans, whether slave or free, were not to be trusted, but also led to a wave of legislation that further restricted their freedom.
A bill proposed early the following year by Thomas Jefferson Randolph, grandson of the President, calling for gradual emancipation, compensation for masters, and colonization of freedmen outside the U.S., failed by only seven votes in Virginia’s General Assembly. What was passed in its place, in various forms all below the Mason-Dixon Line, was punitive legislation making the following actions illegal:
· Preaching by slaves and freed blacks without at least one white present;
· Paying anyone to teach slaves;
· Gathering any group of African-Americans to teach them reading or writing;
· Disseminating abolitionist literature of any kind.
The last restriction was enacted because the abolitionist tract David Walker's Appeal and William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator appeared not long before the insurrection. Thus, hard-liners ended up restricting the activities of blacks, but the First Amendment rights of whites--all at a time when the franchise was being extended all over the South. The entire region had become a giant contradiction in terms.
Turner was born the same year as John Brown, whose raid on Harpers Ferry 28 years later would have more fateful and immediate consequences for the Union. Partly because Brown lived nearly twice as long as Turner, partly because Turner’s opportunity to write to other literate blacks was limited by the lack of education usually given slaves, primary source documentation is considerably more extensive for Brown than for Turner.
To be sure, novelists have hardly neglected Brown (see Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter, for instance), but enough is known about his life and motivations to inspire as much, perhaps more, psychobiography as fiction. On the other hand, Turner’s life leaves an evidentiary gap that perhaps novelists more than historians are better able to fill, through the force of imagination.
William Styron surely must have felt that way as he worked on The Confessions of Nat Turner. Even on the surface, there was much about the rebel’s life that cried out for dramatization and/or an inquiry into motive, including:
* his mother’s attempt to kill him, after she noticed odd bumps and markings on his forehead after his birth;
* his white master’s delight in the child’s memorization of the entire Bible while no more than nine years old--an attitude that encouraged Turner to think he would be freed before long, which, when that did not occur, kindled a terrible, hidden rage;
* at least five visions or signs from the atmosphere that Turner interpreted as God’s will that he lead blacks to freedom;
* the fact that the only person Turner killed in the entire two-day rampage was a white woman, Margaret Whitehead.
The more Styron pondered Turner’s situation, the more he was struck by the preacher's dark, disturbing inner landscape. The Confessions of Nat Turner won a Pulitzer Prize for a powerful narrative drive and consideration of the tangled emotional interactions of whites and blacks that evoked comparisons to William Faulkner.
The year in which Styron’s novel was published, 1967, featured racial unrest in 128 American cities, most prominently Newark and Detroit. It was to be expected that the attempt of a militant African-American to strike a blow against a society that had made his people miserable--in Malcolm X’s formulation, to use “any means necessary”--would strike a chord in that period.
But part of Styron’s portrait of Turner--an implication that the revolt leader might be homosexual--sparked a firestorm of controversy, with a number of African-American intellectuals suggesting that Styron was a) being presumptuous to think that he, a white Southern liberal, could penetrate the mind and heart of an African-American of another century, let alone speak in his voice; and b) in effect, repeating the psychic emasculation of Turner and other slaves by questioning his manhood.
The most significant action of Nat Turner’s life occurred entirely within 48 hours. One hundred and eighty years later, it continues to provoke debate and discord concerning America’s most vexing questions related to aspiration, sexuality and race.