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?
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power