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Opinion

Nat Turner: Reclaiming the Legacy of an American Hero

By Jean McGianni Celestin

Jean McGianni Celestin is a writer who focuses on the intersection of race with culture, sports and politics. Follow him @LiberatedKing

Throughout history, the powers of single black men flash here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness.” (W.E.B. Du Bois)

 

Nat Turner article pic1The Smoke-Screen of America’s History

There is a horrible crime taking place inside America’s classrooms and in many arenas where information is disseminated. The nation’s rugged journey through an indecent past has been transcribed into a magical story that buries the horrors African-Americans have been forced to endure for more than 400 years.

It is not just a case of historical malapropism either, but pure propaganda. A premeditated rewriting of a script that is both inaccurate and disempowering for blacks.

By the time most Americans are old enough to sit through their first history lesson, they are indoctrinated with a sanitized version of what came before them. They are taught, for instance, that Thomas Jefferson was a great man and architected the engines of modern democracy, and that Abraham Lincoln freed blacks from bondage with the stroke of a pen. Both men are Christ-like figures in the American psyche and are commemorated at the National Mall for being true American heroes.

One man’s hero is another man’s villain, so heroes are, as Earnest Hemingway once said, “sort of necessary.”

Hemingway was a novelist though, so he knew how to craft stories to make them seem and sound like he wanted them to. He created heroes out of villains, and vice versa; and it seems as if many historians have applied the same finesse to American history.

The unbearable truth is that Jefferson owned more than a hundred slaves as a leading figure of “The Enlightenment,” one of whom was a 14-year old girl named Sally Hemings, who he eventually impregnated six times. He was also cognizant of the sin of being both a slave owner and an advocate for democracy, and believed the two ways of life would eventually lead to damnation.

In 1781, Jefferson wrote: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

As for Lincoln, he himself admitted that he believed blacks were inherently inferior to whites, and never thought they could amount to the same level in society. “I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race,” he proclaimed during his fiery debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858. He didn’t even think they should have the right to vote or serve on juries.

Some have rightly argued that Lincoln’s anti-slavery stance was driven by political calculus more than it was compelled by moral qualities; more out of fear of the country splitting apart than out of compassion for Africans being brutalized on America’s plantations. In any case, in April of 1862, when Haitian President Fabre Nicholas Geffard offered to send a white man as the republic’s ambassador to meet with him, a journalist named James Redpath recorded President Lincoln as saying: “You can tell the President of Hayti that I shan’t tear my shirt if he sends a nigger here!”

These are hardly the words of a Great Emancipator or someone blacks should emphatically endear, right? Yet, these facts about him are deliberately kept out of mainstream curricula and out of the Hollywood portrayals as seen recently in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Not enough of us know of these inaccuracies and omissions to challenge myth posturing as fact. History is the writer’s playground after all, because knowledge is more than simply information—it is also power. Hence why so many black people today know very little about their original ancestry.

The records were destroyed for a reason.

One could almost stand on any street corner in America today and ask every random person they see if they know who Gabriel Prosser, Charles Deslondes or Denmark Vesey is, and it’s almost certain that an overwhelming majority will have had never heard of them.

Men like them have been intentionally left out of the conversation and out of the cinematic revisions of American society. In every way imaginable, they’ve been excluded from the collective narrative of the African experience in the Western Hemisphere or are, at best, reduced to having been troublesome properties who hatched up their own harebrained schemes for revenge.

It is difficult to find a photo or sketch that accurately depicts any of them, much less an unadulterated biography. The script-doctors understand the power of imagery. Nothing is more powerful than putting a face to a name.

Prosser, Deslondes and Vesey represent the awful reality a nation wrestling with the symptoms of a barbaric past continuously refuses to face. They don’t fit into the pageantry of becoming the greatest nation in the world. They’d only ruin the parade. They would force us to ask too many questions that might make villains out of so many of America’s heroes. And after more than a hundred years since their existence and sacrifices for independence, it is perhaps why mythical creations like Django Unchained are welcomed into the Box Office while Danny Glover’s reenactment of the Haitian Revolution struggles to secure proper funding.

But do the research and you’ll find that their stories were just as epic and heroic as William Wallace in Braveheart.

On those same corners of American society however, Nat Turner is an exception. There is some notoriety to his name, although public knowledge of who he was is still thin. But in some circles, Turner is an icon, revered and immortalized the way Che Guevara is. And yet, this isn’t saying much. Most of the reverence for Nat Turner can be found in activist circles rather than the mainstream. In some places, particularly schools in the South, he is remembered as a savage.

Born in captivity on October 2, 1800 in Southampton County, Virginia, Turner’s perpetual importance in history was destined from the beginning. He was born the same year Thomas Jefferson ran for president as well as when plantation owners 70 miles north in Richmond discovered Gabriel Prosser’s plan to liberate his fellow slaves. There is something profoundly discerning about being reared in the midst of those two historically-significant moments. It is as Turner himself remarked some 28 years after according to Stephen Oates’ book, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion: “I heard a loud noise in the heavens.”

His legacy would be deafening indeed.

Nat Turner article pic2

Like many African-American heroes before and after, Turner saw the contradiction of American Democracy in black skin all too clearly. A child prodigy with superior intelligence even amongst whites, Turner tasted the convenience of privilege early on. Albeit from the closely-guarded proximity of a slave, he was allowed to interact with white children and was considered “exceptionally” bright by other slave owners in the area. Yet, for all of his gifts, he couldn’t rise above the deprecating condition of being black in America. Turner was left to languish in the vicious cotton fields of his master’s plantation as an adult.

Even so, he became a preacher and traveled with his owner, Benjamin Turner (and later his son, Samuel) to spread the Gospel across the slave-addicted South. He was obedient and waited for his pie in the sky like other “good” slaves did in those days. But after repeated disappointments and the realization that he would remain enslaved forever, Nat Turner did what any human being in such ungodly circumstances should have done: he revolted and attempted to free every slave in Southampton County.

Imagine the trauma he must’ve endured. The patience one would have to demonstrate to attempt to save so many lives.

As the story goes, Turner’s rebellion resulted in more than 60 white casualties—a substantial enough figure to send shockwaves across a country dependent upon a docile slave population to further its economy.

By the end of the uprising, Nat Turner was tried, hanged and his body was dissected. They skinned him and “made grease of the flesh,” according to writer, William Sidney Drewry. But in the aftermath, Turner’s actions had struck the cord he was aiming for.

Unlike Prosser, Deslondes and Vesey, whose insurrections were eventually sabotaged by other slaves fearful of white reprisal, Turner succeeded. Even if he didn’t live to see freedom in the flesh, he continued the tradition of revolution many before him had exhibited.

As renowned historian and scholar, Lerone Bennett, Jr., put it: “Nat Turner reminds us that oppression is a kind of violence which pays in coins of its minting. He reminds us that the first and greatest of all gospels is this: that individuals and systems always reap what they sow.”

But American history doesn’t really tell us any of this. The use of coded language like Insurgent, Rebel, Conspirator and Radical to describe the Nat Turners of the world sends an entirely different message. It also gives the false sense that these should-be heroes were just angry, ax-wielding men who didn’t have a plan beyond killing their white masters.

 

The Degrees of Separation

Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Charles Deslondes and Denmark Vesey were probably closer than historians realize. While they lived in different times and states, they all carried the same burden. It’s more conceivable than not that they might have known about of each other’s movements.

It is believed that Prosser was heavily influenced by the success of the Haitian Revolution, which was still in process when he mounted his own campaign to freedom; as was Deslondes, who was born into slavery in Haiti before being brought to Louisiana. In 1807, President Jefferson passed a law that prohibited the importing of slaves into the country, but this was partly because of the revolt in Haiti. America didn’t want its treasured labor class being influenced by the Haitian revolutionary spirit.

Vesey had strong ties to Haiti as well and planned to sail back to the independent nation with his followers on military ships sent by Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer.

Furthermore, according to historian, Douglas Egerton, Vesey was likely a descendant of the Coromantee People—a group from present-day Ghana known for organizing slave revolts. Nat Turner’s maternal grandmother, Bridget, was also of Coromantee-descent before she was kidnapped as a teenager by slave traders and taken to America.

The uprisings Prosser planned in Richmond, that Deslondes orchestrated on the German Coast of Louisiana, which Vesey organized in Charleston, South Carolina, and Nat Turner carried out in Southampton weren’t as isolated as the reconstructed American chronicle conveys. Communication among slaves was the primary domestic threat in those days, so Nat Turner could’ve easily read David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World,and Walker could have also been motivated to write it, in part, after learning about the Prossers, Deslondes and Veseys of the frontline.

This isn’t fantasy when one considers the men and women like Harriet Tubman who roamed the

backwoods and dense forests of the South, and built underground railroads that freed thousands. The lives of these heroes are unexcavated.

The more revolutionary a black man and woman seemed to have been, the less he or she is likely to be celebrated with in America’s textbooks. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a prime example of this. He is beloved across the globe because so many of us only know him through the safe lenses of I Have A Dream.

But King was a lot like Nat Turner: passive and long-suffering, until he realized freedom is to be taken, not asked for. Read Where Do We Go From Here or Why America May Go to Hell, which he never got to deliver due to his assassination. (In 1968, King had an approval rating of only 30% when he was murdered.)

In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin aptly wrote: “In the United States, violence and heroism have been made synonymous except when it comes to blacks.” This is a cold and calculated reality and the reason the stories of Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Charles Deslondes and Denmark Vesey need to be told. But more importantly, it proves just how vital it is for black people to reclaim ownership over their collective past. Because if not, the next generation will be doomed and will have been left with nothing and no one to inspire them.

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Feb. 28, 2013

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