From Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, and Ossie Davis to Alice Walker, Kanye West and Nate Parker, Nat Turner has captured many people’s imagination. Yet 185 years after his death, the thirty-one year old General Nat or Old Prophet Nat, as he was known to the enslaved community, remains as mysterious as ever.
The leader of the most famous slave uprising in the history of the United States has been the subject of newspapers and scholarly articles, books, plays, a documentary, and a feature film, but his personality and his ultimate intentions are still enigmatic and subject to often contradictory interpretations-and passions. An appalling fictional first-person narrative about his life, for instance, ignited a ferocious controversy during the Black Power years.
To find out more about the man and his legacy, here are a few leads.
The American Antiquarian Society and the Lapidus Center have partnered to create a digital exhibition, “Revisiting Rebellion: Nat Turner in the American Imagination“. Using print and manuscript collections at the Antiquarian Society and the Schomburg Center this exhibition explores portrayals of Turner in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Depictions often reveal less about who Turner was and more about the zeitgeist in which a given Turner was created. The bookends of this exhibition are the two “confessions”: one from 1831 and the other from 1967 when William Styron created the most controversial version of Turner to date. These works, as well as a sampling of Turner portrayals in the 136 years in between, are classified into six categories suggesting the range of characterizations of this controversial figure. Works might characterize Turner a number of ways that contradict one another as they imagine, in the words of Kenneth Greenberg, “the most famous, least-known person in American history.”
Thomas R. Gray. The Confessions of Nat Turner,The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, VA. (Baltimore: Thomas R. Gray, 1831). These “confessions” made to Gray were presented during Turner’s trial, which took place on November 5. Historians have long questioned the veracity of parts of the document.
Herbert Aptheker. Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion. Together With The Full Text Of The So-Called “Confessions” Of Nat Turner Made In Prison In 1831 (New York, Humanities Press, 1966). Extended essay, large number of sources, and annotated bibliography. Aptheker’s MA thesis was the first scholarly treatment of the revolt.
John Henrik Clarke, ed. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968). Essays on Styron’s dreadful 1967 novel,The Confessions of Nat Turner, which won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Eric Foner, ed. Nat Turner (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1971). Provides a variety of sources from 1831 to the 1960s, analysis, and a bibliography.
Henry I. Tragle, ed. Nat Turner’s Slave Revolt, 1831: A Compilation of Source Material (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1971). Tragle offers the largest collection of documents on the events.
Mary Kemp Davis. Nat Turner Before The Bar Of Judgment: Fictional Treatments Of The Southampton Slave Insurrection, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999). Analysis of 19th and 20th centuries novels. Davis is interested in the silence about the role of women in the revolt by contemporaries and novelists.
Kenneth S. Greenberg, ed. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion In History And Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). Eleven essays by scholars and interviews with William Styron and Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint.
Scot French. The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004). Examines the various perceptions of Nat Turner over 200 years.
David F. Allmendinger Jr. Nat Turner And The Rising in Southampton County (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University press, 2014). Uses little-known local sources and presents the stories of the white families victims of the revolt.
Patrick H. Breen. The Land Shall Be Deluged In Blood: A New History Of The Nat Turner Revolt (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). A narrative account that interprets the enslaved community’s response through the lens of double consciousness.
Digital Collections at The New York Public Library.
Transcript of Charles Burnett’s documentary Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property
Nat Turner: Rebel and Prophet.Turner came to believe he was a prophet, but only reluctantly, and he hesitated to launch his rebellion for a decade after he was called by God in a spectacular vision. Meanwhile he wrestled with a prophet’s dilemmas.
Anthony Kaye and Thulani Davis engage in a fascinating conversation placing Nat Turner in a broad context of biblical prophets and African American religion, slave rebels and slave rebellions across the Atlantic world.
What did Nat Turner Look Like?
“He is between 30 and 35 years old, 5 feet six or eight inches high—weighs between 150 and 160, rather bright complexion but not a mulatto—broad shouldered—large flat nose—large eyes broad flat feet—rather knock-kneed—walk brisk and active—hair on the top of the head very thin—no beard except on the upper lip, and the tip of the chin—a scar on one of his temples produced by the kick of a mule also one on the back of his neck by a bite—a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm near the wrist produced by a blow.” Description of Nat Turner, September 14, 1831. Eric Foner, Nat Turner (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1971).
“The prisoner Nat, alias Nat Turner, was set to the Bar in custody of the Jailer of the County- and William C Parker is by the Court assigned Counsel for the Prisoner in his defence- and Merewether Brodnax Attorney for the Commonwealth filed an Information against the prisoner, who upon his arraignment pleaded not guilty.- The Court after hearing the testimony and from all the circumstances of the case are unanimously of opinion that the prisoner is guilty in manner and form as in the Information against him is alledged [sic], and it being demanded of him if anything for himself he had or knew to say why the Court to Judgement and execution against him of and upon the premises should not procede [sic]. he said he had nothing but what he had before said- Therefore it is considered by the Court that he be taken hence to the Jail from whence he was taken therein, to remain until Friday the 11th day of November instant, on which day between the hours of ten oClock in the forenoon and four oClock in the afternoon he is to be taken by the Sheriff to the usual place of execution and then and there be hanged by the neck until he be dead- And the Court valued the said slave Nat to the sum of three hundred and seventy five dollars-” Governor’s Office, Letters Received, John Floyd, Record Group 3, Library of Virginia. See Original documents.
Nat Turner was estimated at $375 or $13,900 today. His bible is on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. His sword is held by the Southampton County Historical Society.
Nat Turner Lives On
Charity Bowery. “The brightest and best men were killed in Nat’s time. Such ones are always suspected. All the colored folks were afraid to pray in the time of the old Prophet Nat.” Lydia Maria Child, “Charity Bowery”, The Liberty Bell (Boston: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1839). Bowery was born enslaved in Edenton, North Carolina, ca. 1774.
William Wells Brown. “He impressed his image upon
the minds of those who once beheld him. His looks, his sermons,
his acts, and his heroism live in the hearts of his race, on every cotton, sugar, and rice plantation at the south.” William Wells Brown, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (New York: Thomas Hamilton, 1863). Brown was a runaway, abolitionist, and writer, born enslaved in Kentucky, ca. 1814.
Frederick Douglass. “Remember Denmark Vesey of Charleston; remember Nathaniel Turner of Southampton; remember Shields Green and Copeland, who followed noble John Brown, and fell as glorious martyrs for the cause of the slave.” “Men of Color, to Arms” Douglass’s Monthly, March 21, 1863.
Thomas Fortune “Nat. Turner was a black hero. He preferred death to slavery. He ought to have a monument. White men care nothing for his memory. We should cherish it.” New York Age, January 12,1889. Fortune was a journalist, writer, civil rights leader, and founder of New York Age. He was born enslaved in Florida in1856.
Daniel Goddard. “The Nat Turner insurrection in Virginia and the Vesey uprising in Charleston was discussed often, in my presence, by my parents and friends. I learned that revolts of slaves in Martinique, Antigua, Santiago, Caracas, and Tortuga, was known all over the South. Slaves were about as well aware of what was going on, as their masters were.” WPA Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina Narratives, Volume 14, Part 2.Goddard was born enslaved in South Carolina in 1863.
Malcolm X. “I read about the slave preacher Nat Turner, who put the fear of God into the white slave master. Nat Turner wasn’t going around preaching pie-in-the-sky and “non-violent” freedom for the black man.” Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X As Told to Alex Haley, 1965.
Stokely Carmichael. “They can’t tell you about the Nat Turners and the Denmark Veseys, can they? Can they? They can’t tell you about them because they were fighters who beat up all kinds of white folk who were trying to make ’em slaves. That’s why they won’t tell you, ’cause they want you to keep on being slaves. They want to define your very actions. It ain’t going to happen today!” Speech at Garfield High School, Seattle, Washington, April 19, 1967.
Ossie Davis. “Nat by whatever name we called him, or dreamed of him, or told stories about him, Nat was our secret weapon, our ace in the hole, our private consciousness of manhood kept strictly between us. Our sacred promise to ourselves that someday… somehow… we would all rise up, black and beautiful, and throw off our Tomish ways, and stand up against the white man like men, even if it cost us our lives!” “Nat Turner: Hero Reclaimed”, Freedomways, Summer 1968.
Maya Angelou. “We were maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher that we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous.Then I wished that Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner had killed all whitefolks in their beds.” I know Why The Caged Bird Sings, 1969.
I came as Harriet Tubman, I put the truth to Sojourner
Other times, I had to come as Nat Turner
They tried to burn me, lynch me and starve me
And America is now blood and tears instead of milk and honey
The youngsters who were programmed to continue
F*****g up woke up one night digging
Paul Revere and Nat Turner as the good guys
Who Will Survive in America, 2010.
Think of how
the legal lynch mob
so long ago
tore Nat Turner’s body
and made “money purses”
from his “hide.”