Nat Turner's name rings through American history with a force all its own. Leader of the most important slave rebellion on these shores, variously viewed as a murderer of unarmed women and children, an inspired religious leader, a fanatic--this puzzling figure represents all the terrible complexities of American slavery. And yet we do not know what he looked like, where he is buried, or even whether Nat Turner was his real name.
In Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory, Kenneth S. Greenberg gathers twelve distinguished scholars to offer provocative new insight into the man, his rebellion, and his time, and his place in history. The historians here explore Turner's slave community, discussing the support for his uprising as well as the religious and literary context of his movement. They examine the place of women in his insurrection, and its far-reaching consequences (including an extraordinary 1832 Virginia debate about ridding the state of slavery). Here are discussions of Turner's religious visions--the instructions he received from God to kill all of his white oppressors. Louis Masur places him against the backdrop of the nation's sectional crisis, and Douglas Egerton puts his revolt in the context of rebellions across the Americas. We trace Turner's passage through American memory through fascinating interviews with William Styron on his landmark novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and with Dr. Alvin Poussaint, one of the "ten black writers" of the 1960s who bitterly attacked Styron's vision of Turner. Finally, we follow Nat Turner into the world of Hollywood.
Nat Turner has always been controversial, an emblem of the searing wound of slavery in American life. This book offers a clear-eyed look at one of the best known and least understood figures in our history.
In August 1831, Nat Turner, a 31-year-old slave claiming divine inspiration, led a band of rebels in the murder of some 60 white men, women and children in Southampton County, Virginia. In a careful investigation of the man and the myth, Greenberg, chair of the history department at Suffolk University and co-writer of a forthcoming documentary on Turner, includes recent and classic essays from 12 scholars, plus transcripts of interviews with novelist William Styron and Alvin Poussaint (Lay My Burden Down). Discussions, sometimes heated, range from the role of women in the insurrection to Turner's relationship to the local black community; from his name to his wife, or lack of one; and from the fate of his body to the question of slavery in Virginia and the country. Writes literary scholar Mary Kemp Davis: "The rebellion event invites and resists interpretations at every turn." Historian Herbert Aptheker's 1937 essay asserts that it was only at the moment of Turner's November 11, 1831 execution that Turner began to live. And indeed, he was quickly and posthumously notorious. The Confessions of Nat Turner, by Thomas R. Gray, a local attorney who interviewed Turner after he was caught, was immediately scrutinized; critics questioned the work's authenticity, doubting that a slave could speak so elegantly. During the Civil Rights movement, interpretations of Nat Turner continued; William Styron used Gray's work as a source for his novel of the same name, which in turn spawned the critical volume William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. A film of Styron's book lost steam due to lack of financing and the coordinated opposition activist Louise Meriwether. Greenberg writes that "these events illustrate the deep and bitter divisions that made it virtually impossible for the nation to remember collectively its most important slave rebel during the 1960s, even in fictional Hollywood form." Throughout the years, Turner scholarship has been"messy and confusing," Greenberg says, but he has done a fine job of collecting and introducing it here.