Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831)

I was surprised by how short this is—less than 20 pages, after all the attestations, certifications, and such. But then I realized I had it confused with the 1967 novel by William Styron, which I don't know. The incidents related here are certainly ripe for novelization (and a reportedly abysmal movie too just a year or two ago): 55 white men, women, and children slaughtered. Turner's dead-eyed confession is a compressed list of activities that took place on August 21 and 22, 1831. There's a sense Turner feels justified by a higher power, which he discusses as well. But much of it goes like this: "Having murdered Mrs. Waller and ten children, we started for Mr. William Williams' —having killed him and two little boys that were there; while engaged in this, Mrs. Williams fled and got some distance from the house, but she was pursued, overtaken, and compelled to get up behind one of the company, who brought her back, and after showing her the mangled body of her lifeless husband, she was told to get down and lay by his side, where she was shot dead." It's no exaggeration to call it a brutal massacre. It holds the record for numbers of victims in a slave rebellion. Interestingly, there weren't that many slave rebellions in 19th-century North America, as the Southern system was highly effective at controlling them. The savagery of this massacre, the rage it speaks to behind it, says at least as much about that system as any presumption of natural animal savagery among the slaves, which of course was the explanation given at the time. Most Roy Moore voters today doubtless still agree with that, but try to imagine how you would feel, enslaved. Inevitably, there are also questions about the motives of the lawyer who recorded Turner's confessions, a local attorney and white man named Thomas R. Gray. This text has to be taken as only a narrow window into the mind of the rebels. Gray includes Turner's spiritual beliefs as expressed, for example, but it's certainly possible he just made them and all of it up. It doesn't finally matter that much. We learn a great deal about the details of the massacre itself. It's the rage behind the incidents that's most palpable, whoever is relating the details. It took place in Southampton County, Virginia, which among other things suggests that the options for running away were limited. The slaves were very far from any place they could consider safe. The massacre appears more to be an act of righteous retribution—kill as many white people as they could before they were run to ground. And that sounds like about the way it went down. The results were as to be expected: 56 slaves executed for the deaths of 55 white people, and hundreds more lynched or violently abused. Slavery to continue for decades.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

1 comment:

  1. There's a lot of controversy ar the Styron novel, who gets to give voice to the black slave experience, etc, but I liked it. He gives Turner this literary gloss of heroic tragedy but makes it work, I thought.