This Black History Month I’m Grateful for Nat Turner
"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 sins of men,
and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was
fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first…
And by signs in the heavens that it would make known to me when I should
commence the great work, and until the first sign appeared I should conceal it
from the knowledge of men; and on the appearance of the sign… I should arise
and prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own weapons."
Nat Turner was one of the scariest men in American history. He
was perceived in his time as an unparalleled threat to American slavery and
White supremacy. Turner’s attempt at creating a slave rebellion forced the
South into an unprecedented series of responses and helped pave the way for the
Nat Turner was a slave preacher who was convinced that he
was chosen to be a Moses for his people. His desire to free Blacks from slavery
erupted into the most violent American slave rebellion of the 19th
century. Turner’s followers killed
around sixty Whites and it took military action to subdue then execute Turner.
This short burst of violence had dramatic long term consequences for this
For decades, slave holders had manufactured the image of the
“happy darky”, proclaiming that Blacks were happy as slaves because servitude
suited their temperament. The increase of Black Christianity during the Second
Great Awakening reinforced the notion that slave owners were involved in a
process of civilizing their slaves, to the good of all. Turner’s use of the
Biblical story of Exodus to proclaim liberty for his people was a rude
awakening for the country and, for many, began disabusing the happy darky image
for good. Of course, the value of Christianizing slaves was also questioned.
In the backlash to Turner’s insurrection, southern Whites
imposed incredibly harsh restrictions on both slaves and free Blacks. In this
climate, many Blacks lost their rights to have independent church services, own
guns and work for hire. For Blacks, reading, learning to read and teaching
others to read became criminal offenses. This wasn’t the only possible outcome
though. In Virginia, the governor talked about abolishing slavery in the state.
The state legislature even voted on a bill that would have set that process in
motion. It is clear that only the fear of additional rebellions prompted such
public consideration of abolition.
When Virginia failed to end slavery, the abolitionist
movement across the country became increasingly convinced that the South would
never end slavery voluntarily. It is this fact that began radicalizing
anti-slavery forces some twenty years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin put a
sympathetic face on slaves. The prospect of violence as the necessary solution
to slavery began with David Walker’s Appeal but became a thought provoking
reality because of Nat Turner. His insurrection helped prompt Bloody Kansas,
John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and ultimately, the Civil War itself.
Today I am grateful for Nat Turner. You should be too.