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Saturday, September 14, 2019

September 14-15, 2019: Representing Slave Rebellions

[On September 9, 1739, enslaved African Americans began a brief but bloody rebellion in South Carolina. So this week on the 280th anniversary I’ve AmericanStudied Stono and other rebellions and contexts, leading up to this weekend post on cultural representations of such revolts.]
To wrap up this week’s series, and in anticipation of the upcoming film Harriet, brief thoughts on five examples of cultural representations of slave rebellions:
1)      Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1855): Harriet Beecher Stowe’s follow-up to Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a quite different and unjustly forgotten novel, the tale of a fictionalized escape slave and a potential slave revolt based in equal measure on Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner (Stowe even included Turner’s Confessions as an appendix to her novel), as well as other histories and stories of slavery. I haven’t read the whole of Dred since graduate school, but passages still stick with me nearly two decades later, and the novel as a whole makes for both a vital complement to UTC and a compelling contemporary representation of slave rebellions.
2)      The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967): I said much of what I’d want to say about William Styron’s controversial historical novel in the first paragraph of that hyperlinked post. Styron certainly made some troubling choices, and they deserve (indeed, demand) our attention and critique; but I am not willing to agree with the idea (advanced by some of his critics, past and present) that a white author could never write a historical novel from the perspective of an African American figure like Turner. Such an author could never have the last or the definitive word, of course—but the act itself, fraught as it may be, is not outside the bounds of historical fiction; and the resulting novel should to my mind be read and critiqued specifically, not hypothetically.
3)      The Birth of a Nation (2016): Ironically, the most recent cultural representation of Turner’s revolt, this time in the form of Nate Parker’s dramatic film, suffered from its own (far more overt and troubling) controversy surrounding its creator, which no doubt contributed to its relative lack of prominence. Perhaps for similar reasons, I haven’t had a chance to see the film yet, so can’t speak to its particular representation of Turner and his histories. But as I wrote in Thursday’s post, those histories deserve a consistent and central presence in our collective memories, and I believe both Styron’s novel and Parker’s film can (without eliding their controversies and failings) help us better engage this crucial American story.
4)      Black Thunder: Gabriel’s Revolt, Virginia, 1800 (1936): But there’s also something to be said for works that don’t come with such baggage, and Harlem Renaissance author and librarian Arna Bontemps’s historical novel about Gabriel Prosser’s thwarted revolt is one such text. I haven’t read Black Thunder since I was a teenager, but even then I was struck by its boldly unapologetic focus on and celebration of Prosser’s perspective and goals, elements that were even more striking in the 1930s (but remain so into the 21st century). Bontemps’s book isn’t as stylistically or thematically impressive and important as roughly contemporary works like Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Native Son (1939), and maybe it wouldn’t work as well in a literature class as a result; but it’s a vitally important historical novel, ground-breaking in its time and still significant in ours.
5)      Barry Jenkins on Gabriel Prosser (2019): The New York Times’s inspiring and important 1619 Project, a PDF of which is available at that hyperlink, features among its many stand-out pieces a short piece about Prosser (page 46 in that document) written by the talented young filmmaker Barry Jenkins (who is now at work on a film adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s historical novel of slavery The Underground Railroad). In just a few paragraphs, moving from Prosser’s individual identity to the broadest cultural and historical contexts for his planned revolt and then back to Prosser once more, Jenkins reminds us—as his films, like all the best cultural texts, consistently do—of how art can illuminate history. All the histories on which I’ve focused in this series need continued artistic attention, including and beyond this group of texts.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other cultural works you’d highlight?

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