Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory

Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory

Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory

Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

The Nat Turner slave rebellion erupted in Southampton County, Virginia, during the early hours of 22 August 1831. It was directed by an extraordinary 31-year-old man who was inspired by a series of heavenly visions to lead his people in a great battle to destroy slavery. Seven conspirators, initially armed with a variety of farm implements, attacked Turner's home farm, the Joseph Travis residence, and killed all the white inhabitants in their sleep. During the next 24 hours, the rebels moved rapidly from farm to farm, killing every white man, woman, and child they encountered; gathering horses, guns, and recruits; and ultimately generating consequences that touched the entire nation and that continue to influence American race relations to the present day.

The revolt was short, lasting little more than a day. Although panic spread throughout the South, the major violence was confined to Southampton County. The number of people directly involved was limited—60 to 80 active rebels who killed no more than 57 to 60 whites, and an infuriated white population who retaliated by summarily executing scores, if not hundreds, of blacks. Yet Nat Turner and the revolt he initiated have become an important part of American historical memory. Whenever Americans have attempted to understand the meaning of the Southampton revolt of 1831, they also have had to grapple with the meaning of slavery and race relations in our society.

The present volume gathers the best recent scholarship on Nat Turner, a few classic works in the field, and transcripts of two interviews conducted for the documentary film Nat Turner ˜A Troublesome Property. Part One, “The Search for Nat Turner,” begins the volume with two essays that focus on a set of issues that are fundamental to any analysis of the subject. Every historian who deals with the world of Nat Turner encounters a set of sources that are notoriously obscure and difficult to interpret. They include newspaper accounts, letters from white eyewitnesses or from people who spoke to white eyewitnesses, trial records, government documents, folk memories, The Confessions of Nat Turner (a published pamphlet . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.