I’ve been working on this for a while…
It seems like every day there is a new horror story of people of color getting killed by the police. I’m always hearing of a new Tamir Rice, Stephon Clark, or Philando Castile. Sometimes I wonder what I would do if one of my friends’ name were added to that ever-growing list of people. What would I do if, like Castile, a traffic stop ended with my friend getting shot at seven times? What if my friend died and the officer wasn’t even fired, but was placed on paid leave? I might have a chance to find out – it keeps happening. Stephon Clark was killed on March 18, and he is far from the last. Just last week (I’m writing this on April 16) there was a man named Diante Yarber who was shot multiple times by the police in a Walmart parking lot. He wasn’t violent. He wasn’t armed. And if past occurrences are any indication, the officers won’t be charged, and they’ll pull up every little thing Diante had every done wrong to somehow make his death seem less tragic. What if Diante had been my friend? Not all of my friends have squeaky clean pasts. They’re still people I know and love and grew up with. They’re still people I joke around and go get lunch with. So, what if a police officer shot and killed my friend? Would I tweet about it? March in the city? But besides awareness, what has that done for the myriad of cases where police kill black people with little consequence?
What if I didn’t have any reason to think that justice would be met unless I took justice into my own hands? Eye for and eye, tooth for a tooth. You kill my friend I kill you. Would that be understandable? Would you be able to make excuses for me? Would you want to?
Most likely there are as many answers as there are people to that question. Your opinions would probably range from me being a dangerous fiend to someone who did something completely justifiable – especially if you knew the story.
In a similar way, Nat Turner is viewed as either a demon in human skin to a failed revolutionary working on behalf of an oppressed people. But too often, especially with people who view him as the former, he is taken out of the historical context in which he lived – even though David Walker’s Appeal had begun circulating throughout the country only a few years prior, America had been praising the revolutions throughout France, and Haiti’s slaves had successfully overthrown their masters. Despite all of this, many of the newspapers in his day depicted Nat as a crazed religious fanatic. Thomas Gray’s Confessions of Nat Turner also served to spread this point of view. If I were to take Thomas Grey’s Confessions at face value, the best I can say about Nat was that he was an intelligent, albeit largely uneducated man who took his religious fanaticism to a deadly level. But, let us go over the facts.
Nat Turner was a slave who led a rebellion against slave-owners in Southampton, VA. It began on August 22, 1831. He surrendered to Benjamin Phipps on October 30, 1831. Much of what we know of Nat comes from an interview with him dictated by Thomas R. Gray after Nat gave himself up.(1) Gray describes Nat as thus:
“He is a complete fanatic, or plays his part most admirably. On other subjects he possesses an uncommon share of intelligence, with a mind capable of attaining any thing; but warped and perverted by the influence of early impressions. He is below the ordinary stature, though strong and active, having the true negro face, every feature of which is strongly marked. I shall not attempt to describe the effect of his narrative, as told and commented on by himself, in the condemned hole of the prison. The calm, deliberate composure with which he spoke of his late deeds and intentions, the expression of his fiend-like face still bearing the stains of the blood of helpless innocence about him; clothed with rags and covered with chains; yet daring to raise his manacled hands to heaven, with a spirit soaring above the attributes of man; I looked on him and my blood curdled in my veins.”
According to Gray’s account, Nat Turner was born into slavery on October 2, 1800. In Nat’s words, at a young age it was recognized that he was gifted.
“‘The manner in which I learned to read and write, not only had great influence on my own mind, as I acquired it with the most perfect ease, so much so, that I have no recollection whatever of learning the alphabet–but to the astonishment of the family, one day, when a book was shewn me to keep me from crying, I began spelling the names of different objects–this was a source of wonder to all in the neighborhood, particularly the blacks–and this learning was constantly improved at all opportunities.'”
When he reached adulthood:
“‘…Having arrived to man’s estate, and hearing the scriptures commented on at meetings, I was struck with that particular passage which says : “Seek ye the kingdom of Heaven and all things shall be added unto you.” I reflected much on this passage, and prayed daily for light on this subject–As I was praying one day at my plough, the spirit spoke to me, saying “Seek ye the kingdom of Heaven and all things shall be added unto you. [Gray interjects]Question–what do you mean by the Spirit. Ans. The Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days–and I was greatly astonished, and for two years prayed continually, whenever my duty would permit–and then again I had the same revelation, which fully confirmed me in the impression that I was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty……
And on the 12th of May, 1828, I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first. Ques. Do you not find yourself mistaken now? Ans. Was not Christ crucified. And by signs in the heavens that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work–and until the first sign appeared, I should conceal it from the knowledge of men–And on the appearance of the sign, (the eclipse of the sun last February) I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons.”
It’s around here in the narrative that Nat details the plan and execution of the insurrection. It goes on for multiple pages. If you have any interest in reading it the link is at the bottom of this blog. Nat ends his confession with, “I am here loaded with chains, and willing to suffer the fate that awaits me.” (1)
Nat Turner was sentenced to be hanged. He was executed on November 11, 1831. In the words of the magistrate recorded in Gray’s Confessions,
“Borne down by this load of guilt, your only justification is, that you were led away by fanaticism. If this be true, from my soul I pity you; and while you have my sympathies, I am, nevertheless called upon to pass the sentence of the court. The time between this and your execution, will necessarily be very short; and your only hope must be in another world. The judgment of the court is, that you be taken hence to the jail from whence you came, thence to the place of execution, and on Friday next, between the hours of 10 A. M. and 2 P. M. be hung by the neck until you are dead! dead! dead and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.”
Although Gray’s account is by far the most complete account we have of Nat Turner, there were many newspaper articles written about him and his insurrection. One of the earliest stated:
“Disagreeable rumors have reached this city of an insurrection of the slaves in Southampton County, with loss of life, in order to correct exaggerations, and at the same time to induce all salutary caution, we state the following particulars.
An express from the Hon. James Trezevant states that an insurrection had broken out, that several families had been murdered, and that the Negroes were embodied, requiring a considerable military force to reduce them.
The names and precise numbers of the families are not mentioned. A letter to the Post Master corroborates the intelligence. Prompt and efficient measures are being taken by the Governor, to call out a sufficient force to put down the insurrection and place lower Virginia on its guard.
Serious danger, of course, there is none. The deluded wretches have rushed on assured destruction.
The Fayette Artillery and the Light Dragoons will leave here this evening for Southampton; the artillery go in a steamboat, and the troop by land. (Constitutional Whig of Richmond, Virginia, August 23, 1831.)
Garrison wrote his thoughts about it in The Liberator. In it, he blames Turner’s insurrection on the oppressive slaveholders – no mention is made of Nat possibly being a fanatic, but he declared that such violence was natural on the part of people who have been kept oppressed and ignorant for so long:
“The insurrection of the blacks in one of the counties of Virginia, and the indiscriminate massacre of the white inhabitants, an account of which will be found in another column, furnish a subject of serious reflection. It certainly is an awful warning; and they indeed must be fool-hardy, who despise its admonition. The good man must shudder at the recital of the outrage, whilst the Christian philanthropist feels that renewed exertions are necessary to prevent one oft-recurring evil, by the suppression of another, whose long endured existence diminishes our sensibilities, and makes us think of it but too lightly, until a day of tremendous retribution approaches, and the curse of inhumanity recoils to plague the offender.
We sincerely hope that the account we have published will prove exaggerated. It affords us no pleasure to record the details of a slave insurrection, attended as it always is and inevitably must be with murder and most foul outrage. But it does astonish us that they who are most exposed to its violence, adopt such inadequate measure to prevent it, and rely upon the ignorance of the slave, for protection against those terrible calamities, which the brute passions, fostered by that very ignorance, are sure to produce when roused into action. Let our Southern Brethren do more to enlighten their slaves and they will do much to protect themselves. Let them introduce, a system of gradual amelioration, and emancipation. Let the black be taught that the white man does not recognize an indisputable power over body, mind and soul, – that he acknowledges the evils and injustice of slavery, and is willing to aid, so far as his duty to himself, his neighbor and his God will justify his conduct, in producing its ultimate extinction.
What forbids the passage of a law that every child born of a slave, shall be free, and educated at the public expense? These children might be taught to work on plantations, and their superior value, as free and independent laborers, would be more that equivalent to their wages.
We wish that the people of the slaveholding States would think more of the subject. Slavery, in this country, cannot exist forever, and they who feel its curse fall heaviest, should surely not be the last to attempt a remedy for the evil.” (The Liberator. Pg. 2. Boston Transcript. Sept. 3, 1831. No 36.)
When Nat was captured, he was described as thus:
“Gen. Nat. The following is a letter from the Post Master at Jerusalem, Va, to the editor of the Norfolk Beacon, dated October 31:
Gentlemen – Last night the 30th inst. About 9 o’clock, the news reached our little village that Gen. Nat was taken alive. He reached this place, well guarded to day, at a quarter after 1 o’clock, and was delivered into the hands of James W. Parker and James Treznant, gentlemen justices, and after one or two hours close examination, was committed to prison. During all the examination, he evinced great intelligence and much shrewdness of intellect, answering every question clearly and distinctly, and without confusion or prevarication. He acknowledges himself a coward, and says he was actuated to do what he did from the influence of fanaticism: he says the attempt originated entirely from himself, and not known by any other Negroes but those to whom he revealed it a few days before, and then only 5 or 6 in number; he acknowledges now that the revelation was misinterpreted by him, and says it was revealed to him not to follow the inclination of his spirit-he is now convinced that he has done wrong, and advises all other Negroes not to follow his example. He was taken about 12 o’clock on Sunday, in a Cave that he had just finished and gotten into; and while in the very act of fixing the bushes and bows to cover him, a gentleman by the name of Benjamin Phipps, walked up near the spot, and was only led to examine it by accidentally seeing the bush shaken; after removing the covering he discovered Nat, and immediately pointed to kill him with his gun, but he exclaimed ‘don’t shoot, and I will give up,’ he then threw his sword from the Cave, that being his only weapon, and came out, and went with Mr. Phipps until they reached some other gentlemen, when after staying at the Keys all night they proceeded here to-day. Respectfully, T. TREZNANT, P.M.” (The Liberator. Pg. 2. Nov. 19, 1831. No 47.)
The Richmond Whig contains a letter from Southampton Co. (Va.) dated Oct. 31, 1831, giving an account of the capture of Nat Turner, from which is taken the following extract:
Nat seems very humble; willing to answer any questions – indeed, quite communicative, and I am disposed to think, tells the truth. I heard him speak more than an hour. He readily avowed his motive; confessed he was the prime instigator of the plot, that he alone opened his master’s doors, and struck his master the first blow with a hatchet. He clearly verified the accounts which have been given of him. He is a shrewd, intelligent fellow; he insists strongly upon the revelations which he received as he understood them, urging him on and pointing to this enterprise: he had taken up the impression, that he could change the aspect of the weather, and produce a draught or rain, by the efficacy of prayer; that he was in particular favor with Heaven, and that he had often mentioned it to his few associates, that he knew he should come to some great or very bad end. His account of the plot exactly corresponds with that of the other leading men who were apprehended. He denies that any except himself and five or six others, knew any thing of it. He also says, that a day in July was fixed upon, but that when the time arrived, they dreaded to commence it. He seems, even now, to labor under as perfect a state of fanatical delusion as ever wretched man suffered. He does not hesitate to say, that even now he thinks he was right, but admits he may possibly have been deceived. Nevertheless, he seems of the opinion, that if his time were to go over again, he must necessarily act in the same way.
He denies ever having been out of the county since the insurrection, and says that he intended to lie by too better times arrived. (The Liberator. Pg. 2. Nov. 19, 1831. No 47.)
Granted, many of the above excerpts were taken from newspapers sympathetic to slave owners. Garrison got his news from those same sources because, well, slaves didn’t have their own newspapers. It should be noted that Nat Turner’s descendant, Bruce Turner saw his ancestor as someone who, “Saw an opportunity to try to correct something that was an extremely bad evil.” He believes Nat Turner was a freedom-fighter who started a movement that helped end the institution of slavery. “Prior to the insurrection, slave owners actually believed that the slaves were happy in their condition,” he says. “Nat Turner changed that.”(2)
Whether Nat Turner’s rebellion actually did some good in the grand scheme of ending slavery is difficult to say. Certainly the immediate aftermath was incredibly painful for black people around Southampton. Around 60 white people were killed in Nat Turner’s rebellion, but the immediate aftermath saw a slaughter of over twice that many black people – many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion.
In the words of Thomas Wentworth Higginson in an article written 30 years after the insurrection:
But the immediate danger was at an end, the short-lived insurrection was finished, and now the work of vengeance was to begin. In the frank phrase of a North Carolina correspondent,—“The massacre of the whites was over, and the white people had commenced the destruction of the negroes, which was continued after our Men got there, from time to time, as they could fall in with them, all day yesterday.” A postscript adds, that “passengers by the Fayetteville stage say, that, by the latest accounts, one hundred and twenty negroes had been killed,”—this being little more than one day’s work.
These murders were defended as Nat Turner defended his: a fearful blow must be struck. In shuddering at the horrors of the insurrection, we have forgotten the far greater horrors of its suppression.
The newspapers of the day contain many indignant protests against the cruelties which took place. “It is with pain,” says a correspondent of the National Intelligencer, September 7, 1831, “that we speak of another feature of the Southampton Rebellion; for we have been most unwilling to have our sympathies for the sufferers diminished or affected by their misconduct. We allude to the slaughter of many blacks without trial and under circumstances of great barbarity….. We met with an individual of intelligence who told us that he himself had killed between ten and fifteen….. We [the Richmond troop] witnessed with surprise the sanguinary temper of the population, who evinced a strong disposition to inflict immediate death on every prisoner.”
There is a remarkable official document from General Eppes, the officer in command, to be found in the Richmond Enquirer for September 6, 1831. It is an indignant denunciation of precisely these outrages; and though he refuses to give details, he supplies their place by epithets: “revolting,”—“inhuman and not to be justified,”—“acts of barbarity and cruelty,”—“acts of atrocity,” —“this course of proceeding dignifies the rebel and the assassin with the sanctity of martyrdom.” And he ends by threatening martial law upon all future transgressors.
In the words of an eye-witness:
I am indebted to my honored friend, Lydia Maria Child, for some vivid recollections of this terrible period, as noted down from the lips of an old colored woman, once well known in New York, Charity Bowery. “At the time of the old Prophet Nat,” she said, “the colored folks was afraid to pray loud; for the whites threatened to punish ’em dreadfully, if the least noise was heard. The patrols was low drunken whites, and in Nat’s time, if they heard any of the colored folks praying or singing a hymn, they would fall upon ’em and abuse ’em, and sometimes kill ’em, afore master or missis could get to ’em. The brightest and best was killed in Nat’s time. The whites always suspect such ones. They killed a great many at a place called Duplon. They killed Antonio, a slave of Mr. J. Stanley, whom they shot; then they pointed their guns at him, and told him to confess about the insurrection. He told ’em be didn’t know anything about any insurrection. They shot several balls through him, quartered him, and put his head on a pole at the fork of the road leading to the court.” (This is no exaggeration, if the Virginia newspapers may be taken as evidence.) “It was there but a short time. He had no trial. They never do. In Nat’s time, the patrols would tie up the free colored people, flog ’em, and try to make ’em lie against one another, and often killed them before anybody could interfere. Mr. James Cole, High Sheriff, said, if any of the patrols came on his plantation, he would lose his life in defence of his people. One day he heard a patroller boasting how many niggers he had killed. Mr. Cole said, ‘If you don’t pack up, as quick as God Almighty will let you, and get out of this town, and never be seen in it again, I’ll put you where dogs won’t bark at you.’ He went off, and wasn’t seen in them parts again.” (3)
Nat needs to be remembered. Slaves tried to fight back; they were killed. I ask you to consider the ways it is possible to protest injustice. What is more unjust than slavery? Yet words and petitions were never enough. David Walker’s Appeal was censored(4), The Liberator was censored (5, Under “Incendiary Publications”) But then violence, too, failed according to Nat’s story. But when looking at the revolutions in France, Haiti, and even the United States, you can’t say violence never works. Did not our country go to war when every other means of petition failed? What does our own Declaration of Independence say?
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security…
…In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
What more can we ask of the slave? What is in our Declaration that was not ten times worse for the slave? And yet Nat Turner was demonized. And the people of color in our nation today, when wishing to draw attention to the wrongs done to them, are told they are unpatriotic for protesting like our founding fathers did, and the avenues available to them for protest are subsequently barred from them, like the NFL not contracting Kaepernick, or players being fined if they kneel in peaceful protest.
I’m not saying I condone violence, or want it to happen, but at what point is enough enough when faced with your brothers and sisters being killed in their own backyards, like Stephon Clark was, and justice never being done? Could we at least not demonize oppressed people who turn to violence as the only means they see to effect change? How about we try listening to each other before it gets to that? Oh, but like Malcolm Jenkins’ sign said,