Was Nat Turner Right?

More

One clear problem with looking at the historical Nat Turner is sourcing. Beyond the fact that much of it is newspaper reports, there's the problem that Turner's story (right down to his "confession") is filtered through the lens of white supremacists and slave-holders. (Usually both.) This does not mean those sources should be disqualified. On the contrary, I feel like, in reading them, I've lot learned a lot about the context in which Nat Turner lived. But the want of black sourcing is still there. You can't help but wonder how the slaves, themselves, viewed Turner's action. On that matter the record is scattered. At least from the historical perspective. 


But from the world of myth--a world which I believe to be just as important as the historical--the evidence is rich. This slave song for instance is beautiful not simply in its rendering, but in all the space it leaves for our interpretations:

You might be rich as cream
And drive a coach and four-horse team,
But you can't keep the world from moving round.
Nor keep Nat Turner from gaining ground.

And your name it might be Caesar sure
And you got your cannon can shoot a mile or more,
But you can't keep the world from moving round
Nor Nat Turner from gaining ground.

The inference here, is that freedom is a kind of destiny for black people, that Nat Turner in death is "gaining ground," that he represents something more than his physical self. I am reminded of Douglass argument that the Civil War would ultimately become a war on slavery because it was dictated by the "inexorable logic of events."

Questions for further reading: Enslaved black people lived in a world where "freedom" was the norm. We know that unfreedom was the actual norm in the 17th and 18th century for much of the world. Is it "Western" or "American" to feel that freedom is destiny, that there is no power on earth that can stop "Nat Turner from gaining ground?" And surely some African-Americans in Virginia deeply resented Turner's actions, given that it was met with a wave of repression. Was that frustration transmitted in the mythology? Or do such memories (much like the memory of the loyalist during the Revolutionary War) vanish as they become inconvenient to the times?

Jump to comments

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to a Seaside Town in Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where the Wild Things Go

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Adults Need Playtime Too

When was the last time you played your favorite childhood game?

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

From This Author