Thursday, October 27, 2016

More on Nat Turner

[The Tocqueville series will continue next week.]    

 Because I was under pressure to write a piece on The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s film about Nat Turner, I based my critique almost entirely on Nat Turner’s confession, which is linked I the original piece two years ago.  But because I did want to find out how much truth there was behind various other aspects of the film, I checked four books on the rebellion out of the library.  One thing in particular shocked me.  It turns out that the massive reprisals against innocent black people—free and slave—which Parker describes in the closing caption never took place.  Parker evidently wanted to insist that more black people than whites were killed as a result of the rebellion, but that was not true.

     Although Turner’s rebellion took place in a relatively remote area of southern Virginia, contemporary sources about the rebellion and its aftermath were quite rich.  As Alexis de Tocqueville, who was traveling through North America at the time of the rebellion and referred to it in Democracy in America, reported, every hamlet in the United States had at least one newspaper.  It is no exaggeration to compare the impact of Turner’s rebellion to 9/11, at least within Virginia and nearby North Carolina.  The newspapers wrote a lot about it, the story was picked up all over the country, and local authorities investigated it quite thoroughly—although they did not, learn very much about Turner himself, making his confession by far the most important source that we have.  Thus my reading has developed only one significant fact about Turner’s life before the rebellion: that he was in fact beaten by his master about two years before the rebellion for having stated that the slaves should be free. While the story of his baptism of a white man is true,  there is no evidence that he was punished for it.  In other respects the historical record turns out to be much more vague than the movie suggests.  Cherry, portrayed in the film as Turner’s wife, is only one of several women who may have actually been his spouse.  There is nothing at all in the record about any outrages perpetrated on her, as the film depicts.  Nor could I find anything about his preaching, and specifically to confirm that he had told other slaves to be content with their lot and obey their masters, as the film shows.  The key question of the reprisals, however, was exhaustively researched in a 2004 book by David Allmendinger, Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County.  

         The story that about 100 slaves or free blacks had been killed was originally popularized, it turns out, by the Massachusetts white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in his newspaper The Liberator some weeks after the massacre.  It probably drew on some statements made at the time by local Virginians that were misinterpreted.    Theodore Trezvant, a storekeeper, apparently wrote a letter to a newspaper on September 5, about two weeks after the insurrection, stating, that, and claimed to know of 22 specifically killed by “scouring parties.”  John Hampden Pleasants, a Richmond newspaperman, wrote on September 6 that 25-40 blacks, or possibly more, had been killed without trial in circumstances of “great barbarity.” Garrison in the Liberator raised the estimate to 100 later in the month, and by 1861, Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote of “many hundreds” as he tried to rally support for the civil war in the North   Allmendinger found that a number of black people were indeed summarily executed—but almost all of them were in fact part of the rebellion. 
According to Allmendinger’s very careful researches, the tax rolls for St. Luke’s Parish, which seems to include the whole area of the rebellion, show a loss of 107 slaves from 1831 to 1832 of which he says 42 probably died as a result of the rebellion including the 18 who were  executed after a trial.  (The slave population was slowly declining in this part of the country at that time as many slaves were sold to owners in the Deep South.) 12 more were transported outside the 10 had been killed during the uprising including 3 who died in captivity after wounds. Two of those were decapitated and count as “atrocities,” the word that General Eppes, the commander of forces deployed to suppress the rebellion,  used.. The other 7 of these 10 could also be counted as atrocities since they had been captured and were killed on the spot.  All these people were actually involved in the rebellion.  Various other observers or later researchers—including Thomas Gray, Turner’s interrogator—concluded that between 3 and 6 completely innocent black people had been killed.  The 42 dead compares to 55 white victims of the massacre that Turner led.  Local authorities faced pressure from some of their white fellow citizens to make further reprisals upon the slave and free black population, but having interrogated the captured rebels—including Turner—they concluded that they had all the guilty men and resisted that pressure.  The rebellion did lead to some executions or killings in neighboring North Carolina in response to real or fancied slave conspiracies there, Contemporary reports confirm only three such deaths, but by 1839 some authors were speaking of 15-20.  There seems in any case to be no detailed contemporary evidence that 1-200 black people were killed “for no reason but being black,” as Parker’s movie states.

The shock of the rebellion had interesting political consequences.  Sadly, although Turner had been a slave, it led to new restrictions on free black people in Virginia and a number of other southern states.  But it also led to a full scale debate in the Virginia legislature on the abolition of slavery, which many delegates regarded as a great evil that was bound to lead to further outrages like the Turner rebellion.  Abolition had the support of a substantial minority, but that was all.  The post-revolutionary idea that slavery was an evil that could and should die out was not yet dead in Virginia.  During the next 25 years a new generation of white southerners abandoned that tradition and insisted that slavery was a necessary and positive good, one that needed to be expanded, not abolished. Secession, the civil war and abolition resulted.

Something has happened over the last half century among much (but hardly all) of the black intelligentsia of our nation, and many white intellectuals have eagerly followed in their wake.  To begin with, their identification with their oppressed forebears and their resentment of all whites tarred with the brush of slavery or collaboration with it has become more intense.  Although the northern states abolished slavery in the wake of the American Revolution and became the home of an active abolitionist movement and eventually fought a war to end slavery, historians (many of them white) now accuse them of collaboration with the peculiar institution in all sorts of ways, including the acceptance, by Harvard Law School, of a bequest from a southern slave owner.  But more importantly, Parker clearly sees history as a mine from which to draw inflammatory material to arouse racial resentment today.  Because blacks have been oppressed, he seems to think, he is free to spread any particular stories of oppression he chooses, making them far more inflammatory than historical fact would admit.  And following in the tradition of Stokely Carmichel, H. Rap Brown and the Black Panthers, Parker seems to feel there is something sacred about black rage that justifies making Nat Turner, who responded to slavery with the murder of 55 people in their homes and their beds without regard to age of sex, into a hero and in some sense a role model.  He said as much to Anderson Cooper in a  60 Minutes interview.   Parker has grown up in a relatively advanced society (albeit not one free from racism), received his higher education at the expense of the public, and has pursued a film career.  All that was possible because men in other age of all races found ways of living together that did not involve acting out violent rage.  Our survival as a nation still depends on recourse to law.


ed boyle said...

I read of recent problems in universitires regarding creation of safe spaces as a step backwards towards segregation and this, ironically, voluntarily on the part of minorities. Apparently young blacks, perhaps living away from home and neighbourhood for first time in a truly integrated environment feel uncomfortable with themselves in a majority white middle class environment. Perhaps the young white people are similarly immature and unused to young blacks. Neighbourhood and school integration is not as far advanced as one could hope in most metropolitan areas. University is therefore the best place for future young professionals to get to know people from different etniic groups, previously segregated by parental housing choice. If these young black people prefer self segregation to humour, adjustment in daily life due to perceived conscious or subconscious petty white bigotry in language or habits then how will they be able tointegrate/assimilate themselves into professional life after college. We have heard of sexual harassment for the slightest hints taken the wrong way in the work place. Imagine fear of any communications whatsoever with minorities at work, etc. because a lawsuit could occur, job loss, etc. due to perceived racism.

Analyzed in terms of generational theory, people need to go through fire of crisis to create bonds. Massive unemployment and competition between all people creates individual stress throwing people back into dependency on ethnic group identity. When jobs are plentiful one hardly fears but nowadays few see a rosy future. So will this crisis we need to bond us together be a crisis against an outside force, a full employment crisis war, getting all black and white into uniform together as in WWII or a civil war crisis of sorts tearing us apart along ethnic or perhaps class lines? Bernie or Trump or Clinton? Bernie's idea was a class war, Trump's an ethnic and class war and Clinton's a foreign war. The problem is to find the right enemy the country can unite against.

I personally find lots of truth in what Bernie and Trump have said as it is channelled against long term establishment policies which got us where we are, bank exploitation by debt, job export, mass immigration, warmongering. If Clinton is elected the situation will continue and worsen. Whether a banking crisis(china, italy, deutsche bank)or a security crisis( syria, spratleys) will trigger some global general crisis we cannot know. But she is not for heading the ship of state in a safer direction away from icebergs but increasing the speed. She trusts the direction and ideology which got us here. Unfortunately for everyone more war, debt just leads to civil breakdown in all societies (bubble bursts, markets fall, unemployment explodes in EU, Asia,USA)which would lead to a global trade war, bloc formation in eurasia, breakup of EU. So the logical conclusion of clinton's election is a more radical choice from both left and right next time than bernie and trump. QE doubling down and more war was the wrong answer then and will just make the situation worse. If the USA turns into Venezuela then the classes, races will be fighting for groceries, jobs and safe spaces in universities will be a nice memory of happier times.

Bozon said...

Great post, and bold position to take, even though true, it seems to me.

I have tried to deal with this race matter on my blog by placing it into a larger and more complex picture of lower classes and of civilizational issues, where race is relevant but not the main type of cultural or political criterion.

I have read an article that indicates that even Jefferson either back pedaled, or was hypocritical all along, about the institution….

“The post-revolutionary idea that slavery was an evil that could and should die out was not yet dead in Virginia. During the next 25 years a new generation of white southerners abandoned that tradition and insisted that slavery was a necessary and positive good, one that needed to be expanded, not abolished. Secession, the civil war and abolition resulted…” DK

See: Smithsonian Magazine, Henry Wiencek, "Unmasking Thomas Jefferson", October 2012, p. 40.

Jefferson kept his slaves because they were profitable to have and to keep, and in a rustic colonial setting, that was not something to lightly forego where it had long been a part of the cultural and economic landscape.

All the best

Skimpole said...

"Birth of a Nation" has been criticized elsewhere for its aesthetic and historical flaws. But the Allmendinger book you cite wasn't published in 2004 as you state, that is more than a decade before Parker started filming, but in 2014, or nine months before Parker started filming, a movie that he had been developing for several years. The book is still bubbling through the historical journals. So Allemdinger's argument that there wasn't a reign of terror against innocent African-Americans is less an unrefuted fact that Parker ignored for ideological reasons, as an interesting historical argument that other historians have just started examining. And it's vacuous to end your distaste for Turner with the declaration: "Our survival as a nation still depends on recourse to law." Certainly in Massachusetts. But what law did Turner have any recourse to?

David Kaiser said...

Skimpole, Turner had recourse to no law, although he did pass up an excellent opportunity to flee to the North (by his own account) where he could have become an abolitionist like Frederick Douglass. But the kind of murderous rebellion he led could not possibly have done anything but get a lot of people killed, as it did--and a similar rebellion today would do the same.