Nat Turner's Ever-Evolving Image

Roundup: Talking About History

Felicia R. Lee, writing in the NYT (Feb. 7, 2004):

On 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?"

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