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Wm. Styron Plays With Creating History

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron; and William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, edited by John Henrik Clarke

By Clyde Lindsay

Mr. Styron's novel has been given a Pulitzer Prize. Considering the wide critical success the book enjoyed, this result was foreseeable. Most of the novel's acclaim is explained to be due to these virtues: the human validity of its hero, the historical veracity of its factual information, and the merit of its social impact.

One point must be clearly made before a valid consideration of this novel can be undertaken. Today a novel on any phase of the black revolution is de facto propaganda and allegory, whatever the author's disposition toward his subject matter may be. In consequence, aesthetic considerations must take second place to the social and political ones in criticizing such a book. With artistic considerations aside, Mr. Styron's novel is little more than an attempt to demean Nat Turner and the black people. The book fails to make good its claim to historical veracity and perpetuates a large number of anti-black myths and assumptions.

Careful reading of the book causes one to question Styron's ideals. For example, Styron continuously points out the excesses of callousness and cruelty practiced by a minority of slave owners. However, I looked in vain for a condemnation of slavery as an institution, or even a bare implication that black people would have been better off as free men than as slaves.

Fabrications

The range of fabrications and inaccuracies is large but the following are among the more important.

First, Styron totally demeans Nat Turner as a human being and individual. The real Nat Turner's wife was taken from him and sold to another plantation by Turner's owner. In a manner chillingly reminiscent of this slaveholder, Styron refuses to admit her existence and proceeds to misrepresent Turner's entire family life.

Second, the author implies that Turner's influence over the other blacks was the result of his status as a house slave.

Third, as a totally gratuitous addition, Styron has Turner spend two-thirds of his life lusting to rape a white girl, any white girl.

Fourth, Styron's Turner is a remarkedly implausible minister.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the author betrays an unremitting contempt for black people throughout the book.

1) Turner's Family Life

Styron's hero is an unwed celibate, his one and only sexual experience being with another black man. He has a Moynihan-style one-parent family. His mother is much contented with her life as a house slave. He leads a life of loneliness and frustration during his childhood, thoroughly cut off from other children his age. He receives all of his education from whites.

By contrast the historical Turner is known to have had a wife and reported to have had a son. Rather than growing up in a Moynihan-model A.D.C. family, Nat Turner knew and loved both of his parents and his grandmother. He was taught to read by his parents. He was regarded with awe and respect by the slaves in the area from the time he was a child.

2) Turner's Ability to Lead

When four years old, Turner was able to recount events that occurred before his birth, events that he could not possibly have known by normally explainable means. Since black people believed in the efficacy of the spirit world, this act established a large amount of respect in the minds of all those blacks who heard of it. Turner was well on his way to leadership in the black community before he was five years old.

Far from the lonely, white-dominated childhood of Styron's hero, Nat Turner was asked to plan and particiuate in his elder's theft raids against white slave owners.

The expeditions Turner planned were successful. This gave the blacks a confidence in his intelligence and judgment. His legitimacy as a leader was clearly not dependent on his attachment to the "master" and his own status as a "house nigger." Add to this the fact that the blacks were overawed by his ability and desire to read and we have a somewhat more logical leadership figure than is presented in Mr. Styron's Turner.

According to his original confessions, Nat Turner was aloof, but it is clear that he was not removed from, and contemptuous of, his fellows. Indeed, had he in truth been as contemptuous of blacks as Styron portrays, he would hardly have been called on to plan or partake in the theft raids they conducted. Furthermore, he would have been distrusted, disliked, and excluded. In fact, his childhood and youth would have been as desperately lonely, unhappy, and soul-twisting as was that of Styron's creation.

3) Turner as a Minister

There is no evidence of any kind that Turner or any of his men lusted for white women. From the visitations he described and the rhetoric he used, even through the white lawyer who took down the confessions, one can recognize Turner as a black Spiritualist minister.

Styron exhibits little knowledge and less affection when it comes to black institutions, specifically the church. Since Styron has contemplated this book since 1948, and spent eight years in the actual writing of it, it is singular that he devoted no attention at all to he Spiritualist sects, of which Turner was clearly one of the more outstanding members. Styron's character is not even well enough acquainted with the church's rhetoric to speak in the vernacular. He constantly refers to "visions" from Heaven. Modern black clergy would refer to the same Occurrences as visits from the Spirit or the Holy Ghost, and in the original confessions, Nat Turner uses the term Spirit throughout. Styron's hero preaches only once in the entire book and then very poorly. Black ministers preached as often as they could gather a crowd and they preached well, well by black standards I mean here, or else the people looked for a minister who could preach. Styron's Turner could not have gathered a following large enough to raid a watermelon patch.

The true Nat Turner continuously prayed to his congregation, as witness the following quote from the original confessions: "Knowing the influence I had obtained over the minds of my fellow servants (not by means of conjuring and such like tricks--for to them I always spoke of such things with contempt), but by the communion of the Spirit whose revelations I often communicated to them and they believed and said my wisdom came from God."

4) The Motives and Motivations of the Slaves

Styron's perceptions of black people are interesting. There is no historical evidence whatsoever that Turner or any of his men had sexual interests in white women. However, in the entire book, which spans the length of his life, only three black women are shown. The first is Turner's grandmother, a freshly captured slave who dies at age 14 after giving birth to Turner's mother. The grandmother is portrayed as a noble, if bestial and uncomprehending, savage. Turner's mother is shown as an ignorant, narrow, self-satisfied women. Not only is she proud to be a house slave of the Turner family, she accepts being raped at the point of a broken bottle by a drunken white overseer and then, immediately afterwards, sings contentedly to herself while preparing dinner. The third women is a postitute about whom Turner has masturbatory fantasies. Once.

The black men in the book are of similar caliber. For example, the reader meets only one free black man, and instead of living in the city as custom, common sense, comfort, and economic necessity would dictate, this man and his family are starving to death in the impoverished countryside. The man's only apparent function in the story is to show the inability of blacks to live without the guidance of white people and to verbally excoriate Nat's excessively cruel master. By contrast, the slaves are somewhat better fed and generate an aura of contentment. I noticed that some of the slaves suffered under cruel masters. I noticed that the author deplored cruelty to slaves and condemned cruel slave masters. I noticed that every single one of the slaves who joined Turner did so because he sought revenge for past wrongs inflicted by cruel masters. Not a love of freedom, not to relieve family or friends from the evil burden of slavery, only for revenge. Every single one.

One wonders what the real Turner's motivations were.

"At this time I reverted in my mind to the remarks made of me in childhood, and the things that had been shewn me--and as it had been said of me in childhood by those by whom I had been taught to pray, both white and black, and in whom I had the greatest confidence, that I had too much sense to be raised, and if I was, I would never be of any use to any one as a slave. Now finding I had arrived to man's estate, and was a slave, and these revelations being made known to me, I began to direct my attention to this great object, to fulfill the purpose for which, by this time, I felt assured I was intended."

In other words, Nat Turner could not stand to be a slave himself; and he felt a sacred mission to free his people.

It is intriguing to note that, in his entire adult life, Styron's hero performed only two creative acts; the first was to plan the revolt, the second was to build a flush toilet for whites. The relationship between this Turner and the man who spoke the above words would be interesting to establish.

Styron's Prejudices

Basically, this book is simply the author's personal opinions, prejudices, and fantasies about black people. The hero is the ubiquitous white anti-hero of the present-day novel with the predictable gamut of problems--e.g., homosexual tendencies, a childhood of unhappiness, and adult life dominated by self-doubts and self-hatred, etc.

This is a very basic insult. The skeleton of the true Turner, a black man, can be clearly discerned in the original confessions. That Styron made no attempt to include a portion of Turner's own viewpoint in the novel's hero is nothing less than a denial of Turner's basic worth and separate personality. It is to say that he is not fit to appear, even marginally, in the novel that bears his name.

If Styron wishes to maintain such a web of fabrications and fantasy, it is no more than his own personal problem and more susceptible to pity than censure.

However, this conglomeration of fantasy and distortion has been labeled as literature and accepted as history; this has not been allowed to go unchallenged.

For the purpose of destroying the novel's pretensions to literary or social merit, ten black writers have written criticisms in William Styron's Nat Turner, Ten Black Writers Respond (Beacon Press, $1.95). All of the criticisms are worth reading closely, the most incisive being those by Lerone Bennett, Vincent Harding and Mike Thelwell. The writers are thorough going and competent; among them they do a far more definitive delineation of the book's absurdities and fabrications than I have done here. I recommend them to your attention.

Though the ten writers form the vanguard of Styron's critics, he has some rather imposing figures among his supporters, including, for example, Michael Harrington, Eugene Genovese and Norman Podhoretz. In the debate that has developed, several indicative themes occur constantly: What was Turner really like, and who shaped him more, white people or black? What were his motives? Just how bad was slavery, really, and just how much of a people were black people?

As mentioned above, Nat Turner is a figure of great symbolic significance in the present struggle for black freedom. To write about him and his revolt now, in present-day America, is to write propaganda and allegory. It is to make a de facto attempt to influence the thinking of contempory blacks and whites on a vital segment of black history and thus influence the final outcome of the present struggle.

Defining History

Black people of today and, increasingly, whites as well, are aware that blacks have a separate, distinct, continually evolving history and culture. The problem before the black man today is not whether he has a separate place in the spectrum of humanity, that question was settled long before Leif Erikson was born. Rather it is the precise size, shape and depth of that place that concerns us now. We fully recognize that the validity, character, and depth of the black experience is utterly independent of white reactions, definitions or interpretations.

To a majority of whites, this fact is unpalatable. They must define for us that niche, or rather, the non-existence of that niche. By "they" I now mean primarily the white intellectuals mentioned above, and others of similar persuasion, as well as those who are their predecessors, and those who will undoubtedly follow them. Rather than be independent, dynamic and creative people, we are to be shackled by the history they create for us. We are to be black Anglo-Saxons, clumsily and eternally attempting to emulate white ideals and society. This is a slavery every bit as foul and intolerable as that extant in Turner's day.

The basic issue centering around The Confessions of Nat Turner is who shall define the black identity--blacks or whites? Today we are still involved in an Abolitionist movement; however, now we must abolish intellectual and cultural slavery, rather than chattel slavery, and we today meet this challenge with the same knowledge and determination our forefathers expressed in the following quote from an editorial of the Colored American, October 5, 1839:

"As long as we let them think and act for us, as long as we will bow to their opinions, and acknowledge that their word is counsel and their will is law; so long they will outwardly treat us as men while in their hearts they still hold us as slaves."

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