The Confessions of Nat
By Ed Krzemienski
in 1967, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner
received equal parts praise and criticism.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel presented a
fictionalized character study of the real-life preacher who led
an 1831 slave insurrection in Southampton, Virginia that ended
with the deaths of at least fifty-five whites.
the text, Styron’s Turner emerges as an apprehensive man of
destiny in the mold of the great prophets of the Bible.
(In Turner’s case, divinity appears in the form of
referred to his story as "less an 'historic novel' in
conventional terms than a meditation on history," (Styron, The
Confessions of Nat Turner, p. ix), and, in this meditative
sense, the novel serves as a character study.
almost entirely in the voice of the fictionalized Turner, with
brief entries from the actual confession presented to the
Virginia court that tried Turner, Styron recreates a life of the
slave who led the revolt.
of the more controversial aspects of Styron’s presentation of
Turner was his protagonist’s concept of freedom.
Styron does not present a primary character who yearns
for freedom, but offers a Turner who must first learn to want to
be free. Turner's
first reaction to his impending manumission illustrates this
will then at the age of twenty-five be a free man."
. . . my first reaction to this awesome magnanimity was
one of ingratitude, panic, and self-concern.
And the reasons were as simple and as natural as
a heartbeat. "But
I don't want to go to any Richmond!" I heard myself
howling at Marse Samuel . . . "I want to stay right
Tom! [Samuel's horse] Old Nat won't feel that way for .
. . long.. . . will . . . he . . . boy!"
(Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner, p.
concept that freedom was not immediately desirable by all of
those who did not possess it differed diametrically from the
most traditional view of liberty.
Most of Styron’s critics held—and hold—to the
standard Enlightened definition of liberty as first presented by
the political philosopher John Locke in his Two Treatises on
Government (1690) and reprised by Thomas Jefferson in the
American Declaration of Independence (1776).
put, for Locke and his fellow philosophes, liberty stood
alongside life and property as an unalienable natural right with
which one was born. That
a contradiction between innate liberty and the ongoing practice
of slavery received eloquent indication at the outset of Jean
Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762), with the
famous words, “[m]an is born free and everywhere he is in
Unlike his philosophical forefathers,
though, Stryon presents freedom as something that men acquired
only through knowledge—as a condition nurtured by experience
and intelligence. What
Styron argues, in turn, was that anyone of reasonable
intelligence who was bound by the constraints of slavery
attempted to escape those constraints.
In the novel, for example, Nat’s
father is shown as an intelligent man.
Stryon describes him as being "too good fo' dat low
kind of work" (Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner,
p. 133), and indicates that, because of this intellectual
capacity, he escapes his bondage.
Those of extreme intelligence, like Nat,
are destined to provide freedom beyond themselves in leading
mass movements. On
this point Styron went to great lengths to show the evolution of
Turner from an unenlightened and, thus, faithful house-slave to
an immensely intelligent radical revolutionary.
for any modern audience, Styron’s brand of reluctant freedom
struck an even more acute chord with his late-sixties
readership. Most contentious was that his portrayal of freedom as
something to be learned implied that those slaves who did not
try to escape slavery (the vast majority) did not do so because
they lacked the intelligence necessary to want
to be free.
readers in the midst of a proactive integration movement that
viewed all participants as uniformly worthy of equality, the
novel smacked a bit too much of the old-style paternalism of
Declaration of Independence.
John. Two Treatises
of Government. Eds.
Mark Goldie and John Yolton.
New York: Everyman Paperback Classics, 19
Social Contract. Trans.
Maurice Cranston. New
York: Penguin USA.
Reprint edition, 1968.
Confessions of Nat Turner.
New York: Random
House, Inc., 1967.
Krzemienski is a professor of history at Indiana
University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. He is
currently working on a book about race and college football in
the American south in the 1960s.
posted May 29, 2005
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Sex at the Margins
Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
By Laura María Agustín
This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London
* * *
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
According to the
author, this society has historically exerted
considerable pressure on black females to fit into one
of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the
Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless
Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to
white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of
those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the
relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable
temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as
an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the
characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television
shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
points out how the propagation of these harmful myths
have served the mainstream culture well. For instance,
the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for
black females to feel a maternal instinct towards
Caucasian babies. As for the source
of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their
own bodies during slavery given that they were being
auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless,
it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate
the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
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George Jackson /
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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
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January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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update 11 December 2011