[Marxism] Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at osu.edu
Sat Feb 7 09:21:50 MST 2004

_Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property_ (Dir. Charles Burnett, 2002): 
<http://www.newsreel.org/nav/title.asp?tc=CN0150> & 

The _Richmond Enquirer_ on Nat Turner's Rebellion (Virginia, 30 
August 1831), from Henry Irving Tragle, _The Southampton Slave Revolt 
of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material_, Amherst, University of 
Massachusetts Press, 1971: 

Thomas R. Gray, "The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the 
Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va.," Baltimore, 1831. 

Joshua Coffin, _An Account of Some of the Principal Slave 
Insurrections_, NY, The American Anti-Slavery Society, 1960: 

Harriet Ann Jacobs, _Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written 
by Herself_, Boston, 1861, Chapter XII "Fear of Insurrection": 

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "Nat Turner's Insurrection," _Atlantic 
Monthly_ 8 (1861): 

*****   February 10 at 10 p.m.

NAT TURNER: A Troublesome Property
by Frank Christopher, Charles Burnett and
Kenneth Greenberg
Co-presented by KQED/San Francisco

A "troublesome property" for his master, Nat Turner has remained a 
"troublesome property" for historians, novelists, dramatists and 
others who have struggled to understand the leader of the famous 1831 
slave rebellion. Using an innovative approach that combines 
documentary techniques, dramatic filmmaking and historical 
methodology, this program explores how the many meanings of Nat 
Turner remain critical to understanding the racial history of our 

<http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/guide.html>   *****

*****    The New York Times
February 7, 2004
Nat Turner in History's Multiple Mirrors

On Nov. 11, 1831, the slave Nat Turner was hanged in Jerusalem, 
Southampton County, Va., for leading a shocking revolt against 
slavery. . . .

Scholars are still digging for answers about Turner. How widespread 
was the revolt? How did Turner plan it? How authentic was the famous 
jailhouse confession he made to Thomas R. Gray, a white lawyer and 
former slaveowner who took it upon himself to seek an accounting from 
Turner. Was the rebellion inspired by religious visions, as claimed 
by Turner?

One of the newest books about him, "The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner 
in American Memory" (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), by the historian Scot 
French, marches Turner through the prism of various eras, from the 
18th century to today. Mr. French, a professor of African-American 
studies at the University of Virginia, offers several narratives that 
dispute Gray's account, drawing, for example, on oral traditions in 
Southampton's black community and on testimony from the trials of the 
accused rebels.

He also shows how the very idea of the dangerous, rebellious slave 
was prefigured in warnings by men as different as the black 
abolitionist David Walker and Thomas Jefferson, so that when Turner 
arrived on the scene he already fit certain ideological templates.

And Mr. French shows that while many black intellectuals now insist 
that Turner is clearly in the tradition of American freedom fighters, 
during more politically cautious eras black leaders pointedly ignored 

"Your version of history can give us some insights into how you see 
yourself," Mr. French said in an interview. "It's not simply a 
black-white divide. It's ideological. How are you mobilizing history 
in your own world?"

That multifaceted identity is literally visualized in the new PBS 
docmentary, "Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property," by using five 
different actors to dramatize the various ways Turner has been seen. 
The film presents Turner through the eyes of the white abolitionist 
Harriet Beecher Stowe, the black playwright Randolph Edmonds and even 
Gray, who wrote "The Confessions of Nat Turner," based on what Turner 
supposedly told him.

This approach to history, which focuses on what is called "social 
memory" or "public memory," takes for granted that different groups 
construct different versions of the past. The competing versions are 
passed down through museums, books, commemorations, films and oral 

Each generation then decides whether to embrace the accepted truths 
or to challenge the orthodoxy.

"A lot of it is about who has cultural authority at any given 
moment," Mr. French said. "To accept Nat Turner and place him within 
the pantheon of American revolutionary heroes is to sanction violence 
as a means of social change. He has a kind of racial consciousness 
that to this day troubles advocates of a racially reconciled society. 
The story lives because it's relevant today to questions of how to 
organize for change."

Revisions in the public's understanding of figures like Christopher 
Columbus, events like the bombing of Hiroshima and the American Civil 
War and the fate of Native Americans all owe something to this 
process of challenging the conventional history. Yet some historians 
complain that at some point including everyone's perspective has a 
downside: that too much attention to "social memory" can degenerate 
into an endless parade of historical accounts without any cohesion.

Such ambiguity does not trouble Kenneth S. Greenberg, an historian at 
Suffolk University in Boston and the co-producer of the PBS 
documentary. "All of my work doesn't present a Nat Turner or the real 
Nat Turner," he said.

The documentary, for example, dramatizes a sexually charged scene 
from the 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Confessions of Nat 
Turner" by William Styron. The Southern-born Mr. Styron imagined a 
Turner who desired white women, especially one Margaret Whitehead, 
who, according to Gray's account, was the only white to die by 
Turner's own hand. As they take a walk, a lustful, tormented Turner 
fleetingly ponders abandoning his rebellion for just a few moments of 
sex with the blond teenager.

Mr. Styron's novel came out at the height of the black power movement 
and was fiercely denounced by some black intellectuals, who wrote a 
book of essays criticizing the novel and organized to stop a film 
version of the book. Critics complained it advanced the old 
stereotype that black rebellion is fueled largely by black men's 
desire for white women. They also objected to the fictional Turner's 
disdain for his fellow slaves.

In the documentary, Mr. Styron argues that he made Turner more heroic 
than he really was and tried to humanize him. But critics dismiss 
that explanation. The actor and civil rights activist Ossie Davis, 
who is also in the film, responds that Turner was already human 
enough. Whites, he said in an interview, have often looked upon black 
rebels "as demons and subhumans."

The refusal of the film to present a straightforward account of 
slavery has troubled some people who viewed the it at earlier 
previews. "Our view is that the film is a continuing white 
misrepresentation of the life and career of Nathaniel Turner of 
Southampton," said Rudolph Lewis, the editor of "ChickenBones: A 
Journal" an educational Web site that explores black culture 
(nathanielturner.com). "From my view, Turner was a man of God, and he 
was responding to the immoral aspects of Virginia slavery," said Mr. 
Lewis, a librarian who lives in Baltimore and conducts his own 
research on Turner.

Charles Burnett, the director, is not surprised by that response. "We 
don't put our perspective in the film," he said. "Some people want it 
to be more Nat Turner, liberator and hero. We knew that it was going 
to cause a debate." The filming in Southampton brought to the surface 
many of the opposing views and resentments of the residents, he said. 
Many people, he said, were reluctant to speak on camera about the 
racial differences.

"The Nat Turner rebellion is almost like the epicenter of racial 
violence in American history," Mr. Greenberg said. "There are 
separate black and white folk memories of Nat Turner to this day."

Mr. Greenberg edited "Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and 
Memory" (Oxford University Press, 2003), a collection of scholarly 
work on Turner. One study views Turner as a leader in his community, 
another sees him as marginalized by his religious fanaticism.

Mr. Greenberg notes that no one even knows Turner's real name, what 
he really looked like or what happened to his body (he was apparently 
decapitated and his body skinned). He explores an interpretation of 
one description of Turner as evidence that he was a mulatto fathered 
by his master. "You learn a lot more about the world around him," he 

To the historian Edward L. Ayers, dean of the College and Graduate 
School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, what's 
important is to "put the documentary record out there." He applauded 
Mr. French for doing so. "It makes more evidence available. It looks 
at the role that race has played, that gender has played, that 
regionalism has played."

Mr. Ayers said the way that public memory or official versions of 
history are constructed is now becoming more transparent because of 
the Internet. He has assembled an Internet archive that displays the 
records for every person in two counties, one in the North and one in 
the South, during the Civil War (valley.vcdh.virginia.edu). Mulling 
that material, he said, shows the messy business of how history is 

In the case of Turner, Mr. Greenberg said, "We know the truth we tell 
will fade away," he said. "Whatever truths we've subscribed to are 
not the truths our children and grandchildren will subscribe to."

<http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/07/arts/television/07TURN.html>   *****

Scot French <http://www.virginia.edu/history/faculty/french.html>, 
_The Rebellious Slave: The Image of Nat Turner in American Memory_: 

Kenneth S. Greenberg 
<http://www.cas.suffolk.edu/history/greenberg.html>, _Nat Turner: A 
Slave Rebellion in History and Memory_: 

* Bring Them Home Now! <http://www.bringthemhomenow.org/>
* Calendars of Events in Columbus: 
<http://www.freepress.org/calendar.php>, & <http://www.cpanews.org/>
* Student International Forum: <http://www.osu.edu/students/sif/>
* Committee for Justice in Palestine: <http://www.osudivest.org/>
* Al-Awda-Ohio: <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Al-Awda-Ohio>
* Solidarity: <http://www.solidarity-us.org/>

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