Looking for Nat Turner

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, books, African American history, Virginia, Nat Turner

In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History

Christopher Tomlins

Princeton University Press, $29.95 (cloth)

Philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin encapsulated the task of the historian in two quotations. The first borrows from the language of photography: “The future alone possesses developers strong enough to reveal the image in all its details.” The second is taken from Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal: “Read what was never written.” It is with this motto that Christopher Tomlins closes his complex and compelling restitution of Nat Turner, prophetic leader of the 1831 slave insurrection in Southampton County, Virginia.

A preacher (or “exhorter”) who forged his own apocalyptic Christian vision in seeming isolation from his community, Turner led several dozen enslaved companions into a brief and bloody campaign of liberation across the plantations on which they were forced to labor. Never before in the United States had so many whites died in a slave revolt. Decried as a sanguinary fanatic by defenders of the “peculiar institution,” Turner became a byword of uncompromising resistance, inspiring John Brown’s own efforts at insurrection and living on in the pantheon of radical Black abolitionism. Tomlins’s book builds on a decades-long engagement with Turner’s effort to unmake slavery through a kind of “divine violence.” It draws on a rich arsenal of reading methods to try to recover the unsettling uniqueness of his prophetic vision and its aftereffects on the politics and economy of the slaveholding South—all the while striving to bring that history into dialogue with our own tumultuous present.

The collective resistance and violence of the dominated, and even more so the enslaved, has long posed formidable challenges to historical inquiry at the level of method as much as morality. When oppression and exploitation include a monopoly over the means of legitimate communication—when free speech or even literacy are confiscated—what could the historical record be but power’s gilded mirror? Writing history against the grain, against the self-image of the victors’, has meant inventing methods of reading, deciphering, and recomposing the archives of domination to let other voices ring out.

In different ways, the voices of the resistant and of the defeated appear in the official archives largely as objects of control and punishment. Yet however hard the thumb of the powerful presses down on the scales of history, redress is never obliterated. So much is attested to by such classic works of oppositional history as Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (1976), which reconstructs the cosmology of a sixteenth-century Friulian miller through the records of his Inquisition trial; Ranajit Guha’s portrayal of rebel consciousness reconstructed from the records of imperial administrators in Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983); Nathan Wachtel’s excavation of the traces of Inca culture after the cataclysm of the conquista in The Vision of the Vanquished (1977); and, more recently, Saidiya Hartman’s eloquent reimagining of the cultural revolutions carried out by young Black women in the early twentieth century in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019).

That Nat Turner should command the interest of Tomlins—a legal theorist and historian of the Early Republic—is no surprise. Especially not if we recall that the bulk of our information on Turner is drawn from The Confessions of Nat Turner, a text composed by Thomas R. Gray, lawyer for several of the Southampton Rebellion defendants, as well as a literary entrepreneur and slaveholder. For Tomlins, Gray’s was just the first attempt by a white man to turn the rebel slave, his consciousness and his narrative, into the “textual property of another.”


Read entire article at Boston Review

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