Thursday, September 12, 2019
September 12, 2019: Slave Rebellions: Nat Turner
[On September 9, 1739, enslaved African Americans began a brief but bloody rebellion in South Carolina. So this week on the 280th anniversary I’ll AmericanStudy Stono and other rebellions and contexts, leading up to a weekend post on cultural representations of such revolts.]
On one challenge and one benefit to remembering the rebel leader as an American hero.
A few weeks back, a scholarly friend on Twitter shared a Virginia license plate that offered a tribute to Nat Turner, leader of a late August, 1831 slave revolt that became one of the largest and most significant in American history (I can’t find the image now, but the plate read something like NATTRNR). Another academic Twitter friend responded, asking (in implicit conversation with the ongoing debate over Confederate memorials in Virginia and beyond) why they aren’t statues and tributes to Turner throughout the state, memorializing him as the revolutionary leader and figure that he quite literally was. The presence of all those white supremacist neo-Confederate tributes offers one clear explanation for that absence, of course—communities that for a century honored men who committed treason in defense of slavery weren’t likely to have also honored enslaved revolutionaries. But while those white supremacist perspectives of course remain (DUH, said 2019 America), our communities and collective memories have certainly moved beyond them in all sorts of ways. So should we erect Nat Turner statues throughout Virginia?
In a moment I’m going to make the case that we should do so, but it’s important to note that the question is a complex and fraught one, for one particular reason that differentiates this revolt from the others about which I’ve written this week: Turner and his fellow rebels killed many of the white families at the plantations where they stopped to free enslaved people, with the revolt’s white casualties eventually numbering 60 men, women, and children (including ten under the age of five). It appears that these murders were not incidental but purposeful, and in fact exemplified one of Turner’s central goals for the revolt (as he would later recount them in the controversial document The Confessions of Nat Turner): he hoped not just to gain freedom for enslaved African Americans, but also and perhaps especially to spread “terror and alarm” among the area’s white population. That goal makes Turner quite literally a terrorist, and while he and his fellow rebels committed those acts of terror in direct relationship to an entirely understandable cause, they nonetheless purposefully and consistently committed them. To my mind, that makes Turner distinct from a parallel revolutionary leader like Harriet Tubman, who certainly was willing to fight slave-owners but did not (as I understand the history at least) make killing them a central priority alongside freeing enslaved people.
So the story of Nat Turner is, to put it succinctly, not without its controversies and horrors. But of what historical figure can we not say the same? Abraham Lincoln, to cite one relevant example, ordered the mass hanging of 38 Dakota Native Americans during the Civil War, a history that we certainly should remember much more consistently but that does not (I would argue) mean the Lincoln Memorial or other such tributes are not appropriate. To be sure, statues or memorials to Turner would need to include the violence of his rebellion (just as memorials to Lincoln should mention his complexities more fully than they currently do). But in the multi-century battle against slavery, a battle that culminated quite directly in the Civil War, Turner and his fellow rebels comprise one of the most striking and successful acts of resistance and revolution. If we want to represent that battle as a defining history of American inclusion (and I certainly think we should do so), then yes, Nat Turner needs statues and tributes as a complex but crucial leader in that fight.
Last rebellion tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?