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 …
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An Exchange on “Nat Turner” November 7, 1968