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The Nat Turner Case

William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond

by John Henrik Clarke, by Lerone Bennett Jr., by Alvin F. Poussaint, by Vincent Harding, by John Oliver Killens, by John A. Williams, by Ernest Kaiser, by Loyle Hairston, by Charles V. Hamilton, by Mike Thelwell
Beacon Press, 115 pp., (paperback, $1.95) (paper)

The praise given to William Styron’s current prize-winning, best-selling novel, The Confession of Nat Turner, has been followed by strong dissent and hostility from many members of the black intelligentsia. Black writers have denounced the novel in essays and public statements; black actors have threatened to boycott the film version. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond presents the essential points of the attack. It is a book that demands attention not so much because of the questions it raises about Styron’s novel as for what it reveals about the thinking of intellectuals in the Black Power movement.

That the novel lends itself to historical or other criticism is true but irrelevant to this collection. What is at issue here is the ferocity and hysteria of the attack, which claims Styron to be a racist, a liar, an apologist for slavery, and a man who displays “moral cowardice” and “moral senility.” A few of the writers dissociate themselves from these slanders and argue that his book is “objectively” racist and ahistorical—an argument that at least makes discussion possible—but the editor, John Henrik Clarke, editor of Freedomways magazine and a member of the staff of HARYOU, is right in claiming that the authors as a group insist on the “deliberate” quality of Styron’s alleged crimes. The writers insist on most points as a group, and the essays themselves repeat one another; thus most of the criticism may properly be discussed as a collective effort.

Except for occasional entertainment, we need deal only with the essays of two young and gifted writers, Mike Thelwell, who teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, and Vincent Harding, who teaches history at Spelman College. Virtually all the serious points made in the book may be found, skillfully presented, in Thelwell’s essay, but for some suggestive material on slave religion we must turn to Harding’s. Of the rest, the less said the better.

Clarke’s Introduction begins with a quote from Herbert Aptheker: “History’s potency is mighty. The oppressed need it for identity and inspiration; oppressors for justification, rationalization, and legitimacy.” This nonsense sets the tone for the book. I should respectfully suggest that although the oppressed may need history for identity and inspiration, they need it above all for the truth of what the world has made of them and of what they have helped make of the world. This knowledge alone can produce that sense of identity which ought to be sufficient for inspiration; and those who look to history to provide glorious moments and heroes invariably are betrayed into making catastrophic errors of political judgment. Specifically, revolutionaries do not need Nat Turner as a saint; they do need the historical truth of the Nat Turner revolt, its strength and its weakness.

One might have thought that black and white Americans who are committed to racial equality would approve of the fact that William Styron, a white Southerner, has rescued the great rebel slave leader, Nat Turner, from obscurity. Instead, the claim is made throughout these essays that black America has always known of and admired the historical Nat Turner. This is pretense. When Vincent Harding, for example, writes of a Nat Turner who exists “in the living traditions of black America,” he is deceiving himself and, inadvertently, the rest of us. Certain great slave revolts in Brazil and the Caribbean have been celebrated in tales and in songs and have contributed to subsequent uprisings; but we have yet to be shown evidence that slaves and postslavery blacks kept alive a politically relevant legend of Nat Turner or of any other Southern slave leader. If Nat Turner is now a name widely known to black and white America, and if the existence of armed resistance to slavery is now generally appreciated, William Styron deserves as much credit as any other writer.

THE BURDEN of the attack on Styron’s book is the charge of historical falsification. These writers claim that he transforms Turner, the revolutionary general, into a man of indecision and even cowardice; presents slavery as a benign system and reduces the causes of the revolt to trivial personal complaints; denies the influence on Turner of the slave quarters, and makes his virtues the result of his having been a pampered “house nigger”; fails to understand the hold that Turner had on his people as a preacher; and—greatest offense of all—ignores evidence that Turner had a black wife and assigns a central role to his relationship with a lily-white Southern belle. For the most part the criticisms are historical and ideological, and only rarely aesthetic. Some critics praise Styron’s writing and see it as enhancing the ideological threat; others deride it, more or less in passing. Thelwell’s sarcastic discussion of Styron’s handling of Turner’s preaching style is a brilliant set piece on black language and deserves to be read quite apart from either Styron or Nat Turner. The social content, not the artistic performance, is, however, the issue and therefore will be my concern here.

The novel is historically sound. Styron takes liberties with fact, as every novelist does, but he does not do violence to the historical record. The same cannot be said for his critics. Thelwell criticizes Styron for denying that Virginia masters deliberately bred slaves, and refers to the incontrovertible evidence of huge slave sales to the lower South. Certainly every historian knows of those sales, and so does Styron. But had Thelwell read the historical literature carefully, he would have found there a distinction between a system of deliberate breeding and the process of transferring surplus-populations. Styron understands the distinction, which is of great importance to the moral question of slavery, but Thelwell misses it completely. There is no disagreement on this matter among historians, black and white, radical, liberal, or conservative.

William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond contains a useful appendix with the original confessions of Nat Turner as told to T. R. Gray. For clarity, since Styron’s novel has the same title as that Gray gave to the original, I shall refer to the latter as Turner’s Testimony. This historical data, Lerone Bennett, the editor of Ebony Magazine, tells us, reveal the real Nat Turner as commanding, virile, and courageous, whereas Styron makes him impotent and cowardly. The historical data reveal no such thing; in fact, they do not reveal much at all about Nat Turner’s qualities. In his Testimony, Turner naturally makes himself appear as if he always knew what he was doing, but his words merely suggest a human being who had respect for himself and no wish to bare his innermost thoughts to the enemy. The historical Turner had resourcefulness and courage as his conduct shows, but surely nothing in the novel suggests anything else. What Styron does is to give him a human complexity, attributing to Turner doubts and self-doubts, and thereby make his action the outcome of intelligent and sensitive consideration.

To this extent Styron may well exaggerate Turner’s virtues, for it is possible to read the Testimony as the reflections of one of those religious fanatics whose single-minded madness carried him to the leadership of a popular cause. Instead, Styron sees enough in the Testimony and in the events of the time to suggest that Turner may well have had a more impressive character, including a humanity and sensitivity that could sharpen his resolve to liberate his people and, at the same time, fill him with doubt and foreboding about the means. When Styron sees Turner as racked by self-doubts and unable to kill anyone except Margaret Whitehead, he does not convict him of cowardice. When it could no longer be avoided, he killed. The inner conflict and pain can be interpreted as cowardice and irresolution by those who wish to do so, but this interpretation seems to me more revealing of its authors than of either Styron or the historical Turner.

The historical record is clear enough: Turner hit a defenseless man on the head with a hatchet and could not kill him; he hit a woman on the head with a sword and could not kill her. He explains: it was dark, the hatchet glanced, the sword was dull and light. But neither darkness nor inferior weapons kept his associates from doing better. Surely a serious novelist might be moved to meditate on the reasons why this was so. And that Turner did kill only Margaret Whitehead—and then only with considerable difficulty—raises questions about human character that are appropriate to a serious novel. Yet the description of the ambivalent relationship between Turner and Margaret, which is of course fictional, has infuriated Styron’s critics perhaps more than anything else in his novel.

WHAT OF “General Nat,” about whom we hear so much? According to the Testimony, Turner met with his associates the night before the insurrection to devise a plan. Although he had brooded over his revolutionary calling for a long time, he had as yet no plan at all. Nat Turner led a slave revolt under extremely difficult conditions and deserves an honored place in our history, but there is a limit to what may be claimed for a general who on the day before he marches does not know where he is marching to. In fact, Turner had no place to go. These facts do not make Turner a fool or a madman or less than a hero; they do suggest the desperate circumstances in which he and other Southern slave rebels had to operate. If Styron’s presentation of a white-influenced, doubt-ridden Turner insults the hero, what shall we do with the historical figure of the greatest of black revolutionaries. Toussaint L’Ouverture, who enjoyed a privileged position in slavery; who played it safe while his fellow slaves sent the whole North Plain of Saint-Domingue up in flames; who, when in command, offered to deliver masses of blacks back into slavery in return for amnesty and freedom for his own officers; and who took care to lead his master’s family to safety before doing anything at all? Toussaint stands as one of the greatest revolutionary leaders in world history, but not being a statue, he had all the frailties and contradictions common even to the greatest of men.

Styron draws especially heavy fire for showing loyal slaves helping to shoot down the insurgent blacks. Relying on the authority of Aptheker, the black writers tell us that it did not happen and could never have happened. This is nonsense. Many planters claimed that it did happen, but we may dismiss their testimony for a moment. During the War for Southern Independence some loyal slaves defended their masters’ families with guns in hand, but we may put that fact aside also. When we turn from the United States, which had only small and scattered slave revolts, to Brazil and the Caribbean, where large black slave revolts were frequent, we find all the evidence we need. Armed, loyal slaves often fought against insurgents, as every historian of those regions knows. It is pardonable for Styron to take liberties with the particular history of the Nat Turner revolt, so long as he does no violence to the history of the slave revolts generally. Here, as in his handling of the rape episode, he has proved himself a better student of history than his critics.

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