Shock and Awe: Nat Turner and the Old Dominion

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Here is some news which is altogether of the moment but which I had missed. In fact, from what I can tell it’s received relatively little news attention at all beyond Richmond – and not terribly much even there. A state commission in Virginia is planning an anti-slavery monument which will be built in downtown Richmond, specifically on Brown’s Island. So far, nothing terribly remarkable. But one of the 10 figures to be honored in the monument is Nat Turner, who led the largest and deadliest slave rebellion in United States’ history in 1831.

Also honored will be Gabriel, often incorrectly referred to as Gabriel Prosser, who planned another slave rebellion in 1800 but was caught and executed before his planned rebellion began.

In the last half-century, the US has been fairly open to honoring African-Americans who played key roles in African-American history, the civil rights movement and all the other reasons we honor historical figures. Nat Turner is different. Nat Turner wasn’t a civil rights leader or anti-slavery activist. Nor was his rebellion any sort of regular military operation. Slave rebellions never are. They’re total efforts. In slave revolts, defeat on either side means almost certain death – that is almost universally true for the rebels and often for the masters. So the violence is universally brutal and unyielding on both sides.

The decision was not without controversy. Indeed, one of the people who testified against including Turner on the memorial was an African-American Professor of History at the University of Richmond and founding curator of African-American history at the Virginia Historical Society, Lauranett Lee. Lee seems to have argued against including Turner because many of his victims were women and children and because the immediate consequence of the revolt was the murder of numerous other slaves who played no part in the rebellion.

Turner raised a force of more than 70 enslaved and free blacks and killed roughly 60 whites in a spree of killing meant to rally slaves to the rebellion and terrorize Virginia’s white population. There are contemporary reports that this period of mass killing was only envisioned continuing until Turner’s force established a hold on some area of land. But our sources for the entire rebellion, as with virtually all slave rebellions, are compromised and ambiguous. Once Turner’s rebellion was stopped the state of Virginia executed 56 slaves who were believed to have participated in it. Turner himself was finally caught and executed. In addition, a far greater number of free and enslaved blacks were killed by militias and irregular paramilitaries in a mix of revenge killings, efforts to counter-terrorize the free and enslaved black population and genuine, if likely paranoid, fears of more or continued rebellions. The great majority of the black Virginians killed in the follow-on orgy of violence had no involvement in the rebellion at all.

It is difficult to overestimate the impact of Turner’s rebellion on the intensification of pro-slavery sentiment throughout the South and rising Southern resistance to the questioning of slavery in the North. The rebellion also led Southerners to significantly tighten the system of slavery during its final three decades.

Virginia had seen Gabriel’s rebellion in 1800 and Charleston, South Carolina had been rocked by the Denmark Vesey uprising in 1822. But critically, neither of these planned insurrections ever happened. The plots were uncovered before they could begin. Most of what we know about all these events either comes from whites or from the testimonies of free or enslaved blacks communicated through whites. They are often ‘confessions’ or under confinement, testimonies from people either facing death or trying to escape it. Most of what we know about Turner, his ambitions, goals, life history comes from a jailhouse interview conducted after he was captured by a lawyer named Thomas Ruffin Gray. Because of this, it is difficult to know how far along these plots were or, possibly, whether some of them were products of panics or paranoia among white slaveholders. But Turner’s rebellion was real and bloody. The write-up in the Richmond Times-Dispatch says Turner is “seen as a freedom fighter by many and a mass murderer by others.” The simple truth is that he was unquestionably both. That is how slave revolts work.

A Barbadian raises his fist while looking at a statue depicting the enslaved African Bussa breaking the chains of bondage, during the annual Emancipation Day celebration in Bridgetown, Barbados, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2006. (AP Photo/Stacey Benedict)

I couldn’t find it when I looked for it on Google. But sometime in the last year or so, I saw a photo collection of anti-slavery monuments and statues from across the Americas. Most are symbolized statues of a slave breaking chains, like this photograph of the monument to Bussa, the leader of a slave revolt in Barbados in 1816. I’m sure they exist somewhere. But this kind of memorialization is almost totally absent in the US. We have public memorials dedicated to African-Americans. In most cases, they honor figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. or A Philip Randolph, critical figures in the post-emancipation struggle for civil rights and black equality. But public memorials – ones created under the auspices of governments – about slavery itself or monuments to resistance to slavery are rare.

Memorializing Turner or other slave rebels has simply been a step too far in the US, at least until now. In a sense, this is hardly surprising. The South is covered with monuments to men who fought a war to preserve slavery. They are only now starting to come down. Most still stand.

The state of Virginia executed Turner. The state must still consider him a criminal. He hasn’t been pardoned or exonerated. Now it’s memorializing him. That is a sea change and I suspect still a highly controversial one. There are many forms of slave resistance. Most are incremental and small – what the political scientist James C. Scott called the ‘weapons of the weak.’ The most tangible. The ones we know most about is running away.

But slave revolts are inherently violent and uncompromisingly brutal. That is hard for this country, which still honors a legal continuity with a long history of slavery, to grapple with. Because coming to the terms with the brutality of slave revolts brings the brutality and violence of slavery itself to the fore in a way America has seldom publicly faced. It’s like a tight and uncompromising algebraic equation. Honoring Turner means that his actions were laudatory and merit public memorialization. But his actions involved killing families and small children in their beds. If such actions, which are normally among the worst we can imagine, merit praise and public honor, the system they were meant to fight and destroy must have been barbaric and unconscionably violent beyond imagining. Very few of us would contest this description of slavery. But bringing Turner into the discussion of public commemoration will air these issues in a new (I think very positive) and jarring way.

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