Scholarly but accessible and nicely written study of the many roles the 19th-century insurrectionist Nat Turner has played in popular culture and memory.
Nat Turner and a band of slaves—some sources say no more than 40, others 100 or more—rose against their masters in Tidewater Virginia in August 1831. According to one contemporary witness, writes French (Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies/Univ. of Virginia), Turner convinced his followers that “there were only 80,000 whites in the country, who, being exterminated, the blacks might take possession.” This witness, a Richmond-based journalist named John Hampden Pleasants, created an influential view of Turner as charismatic, dictatorial leader of a sheeplike bunch of followers; he called him “General Nat,” imagining him to be a martinet of the barnyard, of only local interest and importance. “In establishing Turner as the mastermind,” writes French, “Pleasants limited the extent of the conspiracy to the reach of his voice”—though, in fact, Turner’s call to rebellion spread far, and long after his death. French examines numerous narratives, among them the challenging eyewitness account of one “Beck, a slave girl,” who revealed that the insurrection had been carefully planned by many participants for more than a year; the reverberations of the Turner uprising in John Brown’s abortive raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, which Abraham Lincoln characterized as “an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among the slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate. In fact, it was so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough that it could not succeed”; and, of course, William Styron’s famed, controversial novel Confessions of Nat Turner and a subsequent film version that never saw light because, Styron claimed, “Black Power” protests killed it—later amending his claim to say that the box-office failures of Hello, Dolly! and Dr. Dolittle bled the parent studio dry, “and Nat Turner was the casualty.”
An illuminating exegesis on slavery and American popular culture alike, and a well-done expansion on Kenneth Greenberg’s collection Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory (Feb. 2003).