One of the most highly anticipated films of 2016, The Birth of a Nation, hit theaters nationwide on October 7, and it couldn’t have come at a more relevant time. With uprisings against police brutality and racism from San Diego to Charlotte happening at the very hour, it’s only fitting that the 19th century’s most earth-shattering rebellion against systemic oppression and injustice was finally given a proper big screen adaption. The name of the movie may strike some as being rather odd, considering The Birth of a Nation is most commonly associated with D.W. Griffith’s landmark racist motion picture released 100 years ago. That movie attempted to rewrite the era of Reconstruction as one in which the formerly enslaved Black race causes the destruction of noble, white civilization in the South, and only the exalted Ku Klux Klan can restore order. The new Birth of a Nation’s director and star Nate Parker (who plays lead insurrectionist Nat Turner) was not unaware of the irony of having his own project, which tells the story of Nat Turner and the slave insurrection against white domination he lead, sharing its namesake with a film that was the antithesis of his own. Because of Parker’s Hollywood epic, now people are more likely to come across the story of Nat Turner whenever they research the 1915 white supremacist cinematic fantasy. Starring alongside Parker are Gabrielle Union, Aja Naomi King and Armie Hammer. Fox Searchlight bought the rights to distribute the independently-produced film for a reported $17.5 million after the incredible buzz surrounding the movie upon its January, 2016 premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. It received by far the warmest reception of any of the movies shown at Sundance, garnering a standing ovation from the audience at the film’s close.
Nat Turner’s rebellion occurred precisely 185 years ago in August, 1831 near the small community of Jerusalem in Southampton County, Virginia. Probably the best 19th century narrative of Turner’s life and the insurrection he led was given by the abolitionist minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1861, the first year of the Civil War. Higginson went on in 1862 to serve as colonel of the first “officially recognized” (by the U.S. government) Infantry composed of people of African descent – the 1st South Carolina Volunteers – which was composed of Black men who’d fled enslavement in Florida and South Carolina. (The actual first Black regiments which were formed in New Orleans and Kansas were not recognized as legitimate by the U.S. government because the Secretary of War required so-called “Colored” regiments have a white man as their colonel.) Higginson’s account, titled simply “Nat Turner’s Insurrection”, appeared in The Atlantic in August of 1861 and has been the standard-bearer ever since. Much of the following narrative is derived from the Atlantic piece, as well as from PBS as well along with Nat Turner’s “confession” of November 5, 1831.
Nathaniel “Nat” Turner was born into slavery in Southampton Country on October 2, 1800, his surname ‘Turner’ being the same as his legally-recognized owner at the time Samuel Turner. What little we know about Nat Turner comes from the reported “confession” he made to publisher Thomas Gray on November 5, 1831 shortly before his death. While some with justification question the accuracy of this confession, considering the circumstances that brought it about, it’s probably the most reliable evidence we have to go by considering most of what was being printed in the press at the time was largely unsubstantiated propaganda based on fear. From the earliest days of his life, according to Nat Turner’s confession, he possessed the unique gift of being able to receive visions he believed were signs from God: visions of life, blood, death and Heaven, visions which led many people, Black and impoverished white alike, to refer to him as “the Prophet.” Some whites described Nathaniel as saying that “he had too much sense to be raised, and if he was, he would never be of any use as a slave.” Unfortunately there is very little record of his early childhood, but many reports later emerged testifying to his having intense burn marks etched deep into his skin as well as the presence of a large knot on his right arm, injuries he’d received as a condition of his enslavement. Such physical abuse was among the overall intolerable conditions of enslavement in Virginia and elsewhere in the southern United States, conditions that drove Nathaniel to flee his overseers in 1821 at the age of 20. It was a prophetic vision he received shortly afterward, instructing him to “return to the service of my early master”, which convinced him to return.
On May 12, 1828, Nat Turner received a vision which proved to be the most important of all.
I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sons of man, and that I should take it on and fight the against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching, when the first should be last and the last should be first.
The time was close at hand when he and the rest of those who were enslaved, shackled and oppressed would rise up and free themselves from the grip of the Serpent using whatever means were at their disposal. Or as the Book of Matthew says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” He was told he was to wait, however, for several signs that would signal to him when the time was ripe and “I should prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own weapons.”
The first sign came in February of 1831 when the mighty sun was fully eclipsed by the moon, and the final sign came on August 13 when “there was an atmospheric disturbance in which the sun appeared bluish-green.” And so it happened on the night of August 20 that 31 year old Nat Turner came upon six other enslaved men of the local community in the nearby woods, and together they hatched a plot to destroy their masters and overseers. Along with Nathaniel, the six other plotters were Henry, Hank, Nelson, Sam, Will and Jack. The seven men were in the woods for a period of eleven hours having a sort of barb-e-que discussing various plans and courses of action before it was finally “agreed that we should commence at home on that night, and until we had armed and equipped ourselves and gained sufficient force, neither age nor sex was to be spared: which was invariably adhered to.” At 2:00 A.M. on Sunday, August 21, the seven men set out to execute the operation, entering the master and his family’s house in the dark of night. On paper, Nathaniel Turner was at this time under the ownership of a child by the name of Putnum Moore. The household in which this young child lived belonged to his stepfather Joseph Travis. The entire family was slaughtered in their sleep.
From the Travis household the rebel band preceded from one white oppressor’s home to the next, killing every white person they came across and taking their horses, guns and ammunition. With every household the number of men joining in the insurrection grew. In the words of The Atlantic, “The troop increased from house to house, — first to fifteen, then to forty, then to sixty.”
“In one thing they were humaner than Indians or than white men fighting against Indians, — there was no gratuitous outrage beyond the death-blow itself, no insult, no mutilation; but in every house they entered, that blow fell on man, woman, and child, — nothing that had a white skin was spared.”
This was to be their strategy only until their army had been equipped well enough and had grown large enough to carry out a war of liberation. Even the Richmond Enquirer, which was certainly incredibly hostile to the rebellion, noted in the aftermath that
“indiscriminate massacre was not their intention, after they obtained foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm. Women and children would afterwards be spared, and men also who ceased to resist.”
As word spread to the surrounding Virginian communities by a few whites who’d managed to escape the bloodshed, the story of the emerging terror caused such a fearful state of panic in the hearts of white homeowners that most of them fled for their lives, leaving behind their homes, farms and most importantly their slaves. As word of the rebellion spread in the areas surrounding Jerusalem from one source to the next, the stories became more exaggerated and outlandish. Soon it seemed the entire nation was under the belief that “a thousand or 1,200 negroes” were on their way to slaughter any white they laid eyes on.
If there’s one fear that seemed to stick out most when it came to white America’s conscience (guilty conscience, that is), it’s a fear that made itself apparent in every single account of the event – one that frightened them even more than death itself. It was one that in the end turned out to be completely unfounded. In a piece written by the senior editor of the Constitutional Whig on August 25, he noted,
“They [the insurgents] set no fire to no houses, and as far as is known, committed no outrage on any white female. What the ulterior object was, is unknown. The more intelligent opinion is that they had none…”
Apparently in the white mind the demand for freedom and liberation from bondage meant nothing to the Black mind. The only motive to rebel against the most brutal and unjust system of enslavement ever known to man, the whites rationalized, was to have sex with white women. * So widespread was this concern that three decades later Wentworth Higginson felt compelled to write in his Atlantic article,
“These negroes had been systematically brutalized from childhood; they had been allowed no legalized or permanent marriage; they had beheld around them an habitual licentiousness, such as can scarcely exist except in a slave state; some of them had seen their wives and sisters habitually polluted by the husbands and the brothers of these fair white women who were now absolutely in their power. Yet I have looked through the newspapers of that time in vain for one charge of an indecent outrage on a woman against these triumphant and terrible slaves. Wherever they went, they went for death, and that was all.”
Nat Turner and the 50-60 men who’d joined the rebellion continued on for some time without challenge for around 36-48 hours. His strategy of striking fear into the hearts of whites so that they would run in fear was going according to plan. But it wasn’t long before white fear gave way to white rage, and the same rallying cry of white supremacy that previously erupted into race riots across the Northern states and later became the central doctrine of the Confederate Army (and its spawn the Ku Klux Klan) went into full effect. Whites from surrounding areas, and some from out of state, formed into numerous loosely-organized vigilante packs intent on destroying Black lives. In addition to these groups there were over a thousand state and federal troops who formed militias to hunt down and break up the slave insurgency. This they would accomplish through means of unmitigated terror, in the words of white sources themselves, terror that was by no means limited to actual participants in Nat Turner’s rebellion. The punishment was to be meted out to all people of Black heritage, enslaved and ostensibly ‘free’ alike.
In a hastily written letter dated August 27 by the senior editor of the Richmond Constitutional Whig, who was himself serving in one of the white militias, the editor wrote that the militias were responsible for scenes that “are hardly inferior in barbarity to the atrocities of the insurgents…” Two days earlier he’d written, “At the Cross Keys, summary justice in the form of decapitation, has been executed on several men suspected of taking part in the Rebellion.” And in an alarming letter written by one Reverend G.W. Powell, the reverend testified, “There are thousands of troops searching in every direction, and many negroes are killed every day: the number will never be ascertained.” No one was as alarmed by the number of enslaved Black people being murdered as the slave owners, albeit their concern was for obviously selfish reasons. The reality that innocent Black people were being killed by these mobs never crossed their minds, but they were certainly outraged by the amount of money they were losing every time an enslaved person was killed. And so they petitioned the state legislature of Virginia to see to it that they were compensated for any losses to their earnings caused by the vengeance of the white militias. The legislature dutifully obliged.
The violence was merciless. For just but one example there was one day a Black man in Duplon named Antonio who was legally owned by a white man named J. Staley. Antonio was approached by one of the white militias and was at gunpoint ordered to confess to being a lead conspirator in the uprising, a charge which Antonio vehemently denied. In response the militia “shot several balls through him, quartered him, and put his head on a pole at the fork of the road leading to the court.”
In the end there were about 55 white casualties resulting from Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Not coincidentally, about 55 Black men were eventually arrested (those who weren’t killed outright, that is), charged and executed as being conspirators or accomplices. Additionally, at least 200 (and probably a lot more) Black residents of Virginia were killed in so-called “retaliation” for the white lives lost. In this case however, “retaliation” was the common white practice of slaughtering dozens of innocent Black families to “retaliate” for what a few Black men were accused of doing.
Amazingly there was just one person in all of this who was nowhere to be found after the militias succeeded in crushing the rebellion; that was Nat Turner. Two months passed without the slightest sign of the prophet, who was the most wanted and most feared Black man in all of the United States. Then finally, on October 13, 1831, a white man by the name of Benjamin Phipps, who was wielding a loaded shotgun, came across Nat in the very woods where plans for the uprising originated and were mapped out by him and his co-conspirators in August. Turner had been hiding the entire two months in what was described as a cave, only emerging from it at night in order to find food. Unfortunately he was armed with only a “small light sword” which he was forced to drop by the shotgun-wielding Phipps. He was soon apprehended and carted off to jail in Jerusalem. Never was there any doubt that his sentence was going to be execution.
As he awaited his trial in a jail cell, a publisher named Thomas R. Gray was granted permission to interview Nat Turner on November 5 for a planned publication, The Confessions of Nat Turner, a publication whose purpose was to satisfy white curiosity as to what the reasoning was behind Nat Turner’s rebellion. They hoped that learning this would enable them to take whatever repressive steps were necessary to ensure there would never be another one. As Gray wrote in the introduction to Confessions, the “public curiosity has been on the stretch to understand the origin and progress of this dreadful conspiracy, and the motives which influence its diabolical actors.” Throughout the intro Gray wrote about “the motives which governed [the conspirators]” as if it were really some great mystery why people consigned to the status of human chattel would be motivated to rebel against their overlords. Gray and the rest of white Southern society had convinced themselves through years of propaganda that slaves were not smart enough to yearn for freedom from tyranny, that the enslaved were satisfied being enslaved.
Nathaniel Turner’s only regret in the end was that he and his co-conspirators did not succeed in their mission, and because they did not succeed he felt he shared in the burden of responsibility for the wave of white terrorism that befell his people in the aftermath. When asked by Gray if he still believed his mission was one from God, Nat answered with a question to Gray, “Was not Christ crucified?”
The confession was used in the trial to convict Nat Turner, although the defendant pleaded “not guilty.” In the end, Nat always knew that the cause was just. The all-white (as all were back then) jury unanimously found the defendant “guilty” and he was sentenced to die by hanging. At 12:00 noon on November 11 Nat Turner was hanged, his body then skinned by surgeons to be used in “scientific research” in what can only be described as part of a truly sadistic ritual. The threat that Turner posed in the minds of white Americans was not the least bit diminished by the Prophet’s earthly end however, for they perceived the possibly and threat of Black Rebellion around every corner. Sometimes it was real. Other times it was imagined. What is certain is that this irrepressible fear led them to seek out punishment on the entire Black population of the United States. Nat Turner’s widow was repeatedly tortured for years after her husband’s death. According to The Atlantic, “Men were tortured to death, burned, maimed, and subjected to nameless atrocities.” Overseers whose job it was to oversee the enslaved from sun up to sun down singled out those they believed were untrustworthy or not sufficiently docile and subjected them to an inordinate amount of lashings, all in an attempt to break their spirit and remove any trace of rebelliousness or sense of self-worth they might have possessed. This terrorism wasn’t relegated to Virginia where the uprising occurred. As far away as Georgia “several slaves were tied to a tree, while a militia captain hacked at them with his sword.”
Instead of taking this opportunity to question some of their long-held beliefs or maybe taking into consideration the dehumanizing effects enslavement was having on an entire people, the whites of the U.S. doubled down on their oppression of Black people, determined to quash anything that could be perceived as threatening to not just the system of slavery but to the prevailing order of white supremacy. At the time they truly believed this unjust order could forever stand. But 185 years after his physical body was exterminated, it is Nat Turner whose spirit of rebelliousness in the face of what seemed to be insurmountable oppression lives on. He has become an icon and a martyr in the international struggle for liberation against oppression.
As for Nate Parker’s extraordinary film, the powers that be did everything they could to ensure that its impact was negligible, digging up past allegations about the director (which were never proven) to tarnish the entire project. The Birth of a Nation is unlike other Hollywood movies dealing with slavery in that they usually have to include a “white savior” character in the storyline somewhere to make it more appealing (in the studio’s view) to the general audience. This is what Danny Glover was told in plain terms when he tried to produce a movie about the Haitian Revolution. There are no white saviors in Birth of a Nation. Those who would dismiss it as “just another slave movie” miss the point, that this is the story of Nat Turner leading an insurrection to defeat the white power structure. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when, after killing the plantation master, Nathaniel wakes his mother to inform her that she is now free, that she won’t have to return to the fields any longer. The opinions shared in the mainstream press outlets, which were heaping praise on the movie earlier this year before they turned decidedly negative, shouldn’t be the decisive factor in the film’s overall impact. Its success is critical to ensure that such a powerful and some might even say subversive film doesn’t become the last of its kind.
*As if this weren’t outrageous enough, the same Constitutional Whig editor also attempted to rationalize slavery in his own county by insisting that
“the owners of slaves in this county are distinguished for lenity and humanity. Cotton and corn are the staples here, and the labor of attending to these is trifling compared with what is necessary in other parts of the state.”
One wonders, if the labor truly was as easy in his county as he insisted, why couldn’t he and his other white brethren be bothered to do it themselves?