The famed leader of a 19th-century slave uprising and his now largely forgotten followers come up for scholarly reappraisal.
Turner was 31 years old when, in the late summer of 1831, he and a band of slaves rose in rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. In 24 hours they killed every white man, woman, and child they happened upon, gathering weapons and recruits, fueled by Turner’s professed belief that God had instructed him to smash the evil institution of slavery. Editor Greenberg (History/Suffolk Univ.; Honor and Slavery, 1996) notes that the uprising cost the lives of perhaps 60 whites and “scores, if not hundreds, of blacks” summarily executed in reprisal; the ferocity of the rebellion and its suppression have lodged the event firmly in the historical literature. Even so, not much is reliably known about Turner, as several contributors remark; disagreement extends even to his name and sobriquets: “General Nat” in the case of mocking whites, “Prophet Nat” to black abolitionists and civil-rights activists. Noted historian Herbert Aptheker closely examines the rebellion itself, remarking that while there seems to be no good evidence that abolitionist literature inspired Turner to his deeds, he may have had Napoleon in mind as a model of the vengeful liberator. Much of the collection turns on the hotly contested 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron, condemned by many black scholars and activists for suggesting that Turner may have had other motives, including an unfulfilled desire for white women, and for having the gall to narrate in Turner’s voice (a device, Greenberg writes, that none other than James Baldwin suggested). Historian Charles Joyner sensibly observes that Styron “might have spared himself considerable pain and humiliation had he fictionalized more rather than less,” retelling the story of the uprising without using Turner’s name.
An illuminating stew of antebellum Southern history, ethnic relations, and contemporary social literature.