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Posted February 7, 2004
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Hero or villain? In 1831 Nat Turner led the bloodiest slave revolt in American history. He has variously been viewed as a religious visionary fighting a terrible evil, as a figure of liberation or as a murderous fanatic. Sometimes historical accounts say more about the viewer than the subject.

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Courtesy of ITVS

Nat Turner in History's Multiple Mirrors



In Nov. 11, 1831, the slave Nat Turner was hanged in Jerusalem, Southampton County, Va., for leading a shocking revolt against slavery. The body count included at least 55 whites, mostly women and children, and was the bloodiest slave rebellion in American history. Dozens of blacks were killed in official or unofficial retaliation. At the time, the two-day uprising in August led to new discussions about slavery, animated the abolitionist movement and prompted draconian laws to restrict black people further.

Ever since it has inspired debates about Turner himself. As viewed by many 19th-century Southern whites, he was a misguided fanatic. Some blacks in the 1960's claimed him as the ultimate symbol of black resistance to white supremacy. Some white descendants of those killed maintain his actions were immoral and indefensible.

These conflicting interpretations are now themselves the subject of debate, in a new film that is to be broadcast on PBS on Tuesday night, as well as in some recent books.

"Nat Turner is a classic example of an iconic figure who is deeply heroic on one side and deeply villainous on the other," said David W. Blight, a history professor at Yale and who this summer will become director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition there. "For those who need a slave rebel, he serves that purpose. For those who need to see him as a deranged revolutionary who likes slaughtering people, they can see that, too. He's forever our own invention in some ways," given the paucity of evidence about him.

Scholars are still digging for answers about Turner. How widespread was the revolt? How did Turner plan it? How authentic was the famous jailhouse confession he made to Thomas R. Gray, a white lawyer and former slaveowner who took it upon himself to seek an accounting from Turner. Was the rebellion inspired by religious visions, as claimed by Turner?

One of the newest books about him, "The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory" (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), by the historian Scot French, marches Turner through the prism of various eras, from the 18th century to today. Mr. French, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Virginia, offers several narratives that dispute Gray's account, drawing, for example, on oral traditions in Southampton's black community and on testimony from the trials of the accused rebels.

He also shows how the very idea of the dangerous, rebellious slave was prefigured in warnings by men as different as the black abolitionist David Walker and Thomas Jefferson, so that when Turner arrived on the scene he already fit certain ideological templates.

And Mr. French shows that while many black intellectuals now insist that Turner is clearly in the tradition of American freedom fighters, during more politically cautious eras black leaders pointedly ignored him.

"Your version of history can give us some insights into how you see yourself," Mr. French said in an interview. "It's not simply a black-white divide. It's ideological. How are you mobilizing history in your own world?"

That multifaceted identity is literally visualized in the new PBS docmentary, "Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property," by using five different actors to dramatize the various ways Turner has been seen. The film presents Turner through the eyes of the white abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, the black playwright Randolph Edmonds and even Gray, who wrote "The Confessions of Nat Turner," based on what Turner supposedly told him.

This approach to history, which focuses on what is called "social memory" or "public memory," takes for granted that different groups construct different versions of the past. The competing versions are passed down through museums, books, commemorations, films and oral tradition.

Each generation then decides whether to embrace the accepted truths or to challenge the orthodoxy.

"A lot of it is about who has cultural authority at any given moment," Mr. French said. "To accept Nat Turner and place him within the pantheon of American revolutionary heroes is to sanction violence as a means of social change. He has a kind of racial consciousness that to this day troubles advocates of a racially reconciled society. The story lives because it's relevant today to questions of how to organize for change."

Revisions in the public's understanding of figures like Christopher Columbus, events like the bombing of Hiroshima and the American Civil War and the fate of Native Americans all owe something to this process of challenging the conventional history. Yet some historians complain that at some point including everyone's perspective has a downside: that too much attention to "social memory" can degenerate into an endless parade of historical accounts without any cohesion.

Such ambiguity does not trouble Kenneth S. Greenberg, an historian at Suffolk University in Boston and the co-producer of the PBS documentary. "All of my work doesn't present a Nat Turner or the real Nat Turner," he said.

The documentary, for example, dramatizes a sexually charged scene from the 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Confessions of Nat Turner" by William Styron. The Southern-born Mr. Styron imagined a Turner who desired white women, especially one Margaret Whitehead, who, according to Gray's account, was the only white to die by Turner's own hand. As they take a walk, a lustful, tormented Turner fleetingly ponders abandoning his rebellion for just a few moments of sex with the blond teenager.

Mr. Styron's novel came out at the height of the black power movement and was fiercely denounced by some black intellectuals, who wrote a book of essays criticizing the novel and organized to stop a film version of the book. Critics complained it advanced the old stereotype that black rebellion is fueled largely by black men's desire for white women. They also objected to the fictional Turner's disdain for his fellow slaves.

In the documentary, Mr. Styron argues that he made Turner more heroic than he really was and tried to humanize him. But critics dismiss that explanation. The actor and civil rights activist Ossie Davis, who is also in the film, responds that Turner was already human enough. Whites, he said in an interview, have often looked upon black rebels "as demons and subhumans."

The refusal of the film to present a straightforward account of slavery has troubled some people who viewed the it at earlier previews. "Our view is that the film is a continuing white misrepresentation of the life and career of Nathaniel Turner of Southampton," said Rudolph Lewis, the editor of "ChickenBones: A Journal" an educational Web site that explores black culture ( "From my view, Turner was a man of God, and he was responding to the immoral aspects of Virginia slavery," said Mr. Lewis, a librarian who lives in Baltimore and conducts his own research on Turner.

Charles Burnett, the director, is not surprised by that response. "We don't put our perspective in the film," he said. "Some people want it to be more Nat Turner, liberator and hero. We knew that it was going to cause a debate." The filming in Southampton brought to the surface many of the opposing views and resentments of the residents, he said. Many people, he said, were reluctant to speak on camera about the racial differences.

"The Nat Turner rebellion is almost like the epicenter of racial violence in American history," Mr. Greenberg said. "There are separate black and white folk memories of Nat Turner to this day."

Mr. Greenberg edited "Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory" (Oxford University Press, 2003), a collection of scholarly work on Turner. One study views Turner as a leader in his community, another sees him as marginalized by his religious fanaticism.

Mr. Greenberg notes that no one even knows Turner's real name, what he really looked like or what happened to his body (he was apparently decapitated and his body skinned). He explores an interpretation of one description of Turner as evidence that he was a mulatto fathered by his master. "You learn a lot more about the world around him," he said.

To the historian Edward L. Ayers, dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, what's important is to "put the documentary record out there." He applauded Mr. French for doing so. "It makes more evidence available. It looks at the role that race has played, that gender has played, that regionalism has played."

Mr. Ayers said the way that public memory or official versions of history are constructed is now becoming more transparent because of the Internet. He has assembled an Internet archive that displays the records for every person in two counties, one in the North and one in the South, during the Civil War (valley.vcdh Mulling that material, he said, shows the messy business of how history is made.

In the case of Turner, Mr. Greenberg said, "We know the truth we tell will fade away," he said. "Whatever truths we've subscribed to are not the truths our children and grandchildren will subscribe to."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Arts & Ideas, of Saturday, February 7, 2004., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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