Name, Face, Body
KENNETH S. GREENBERG
What was Nat Turner's name? What did he look like? Where is his body? We can ask these simple questions about any major historical figure and usually expect to discover simple answers. But Nat Turner was no ordinary “major historical figure.” He was a slave rebel, deeply and passionately hated by the white people of Virginia who captured and hanged him in 1831. Both his position as a slave and his position as a man who threatened the core values and institutional structures of the antebellum South have made him a difficult figure for historians to reconstruct. The men who tried and hanged him, and then dissected his body, may have done their job of obliteration so well that it will never be possible to put the pieces back together again—neither the pieces of his body nor the pieces of his character and identity. Nat Turner may be destined to live forever in our memory as the most famous, least-known person in American history.
Historians do not readily accept the idea that their knowledge of the past may be limited. They are too often subject to the hubris common among men and women who work in quiet libraries or sit at desks and believe that they can reconstruct a dead world from the shards of a pot, or that they can reconstruct the life of a slave from a few marks on a page. Humility, deep humility about the limits of our knowledge, seems a better way to approach the reconstruction of a man like Nat Turner.
Consider Nat Turner's name. At first glance, the issue may not seem complicated. Nat Turner's name was, obviously, “Nat Turner.” No historian has ever asserted otherwise. If only things were that easy in the world of American slavery and race relations. It is worth examining this matter