Through his teaching of the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831 Virginia, author of Black Avengers in the Atlantic Culture Grégory Pierrot shows how the historical (white) legitimization of Black revolts remains dependent on their judged reasonability.
If I have learned anything from teaching African American literature at a university in the United States, it is that there is no teaching literature without teaching history: the earliest texts on the syllabus, poems, personal narratives, sermons, speeches, short stories from the 18th century routinely refer to the horrendous quotidian lives of people kidnapped as children, who walked hundreds of miles of unknown land to see the ocean for the first time — only to cross it in the pestilential hold of a ship with hundreds more like them, chained to each other, covered in each other’s filth, dragged out every once in a while by men demanding on them in a strange tongue that they dance and act merry, raped, beaten, mutilated, when they weren’t killed and thrown overboard. Those who weren’t were then beaten some more, sold to other humans who forced them to work for free, in mines, in fields, in factories, on ships, in houses, and amongst those who managed to survive, a precious few somehow put their experience to paper, or just as often, had it done by a white man or woman vouching for their honesty. They did so with some hope of redress, individual or collective. They wrote with purpose, with the idea that their testimony might sway readers into actively opposing slavery: a fundamentally political endeavor.
The University of North Carolina’s “North American Slave Narratives” collection houses over a hundred of slave narratives, a mosaic of individual stories making for a pixelated view of an intrinsically overwhelming global system that was the Atlantic slave trade. The material is not easy to read, not just because of its horrendous content: college students in general and white ones in particular easily fool themselves into believing that they know about slavery — that sin of the American past they glossed over in some history class not too long ago. Slavery was bad, and now it’s over: the aesthetic and rhetorical value of those texts can be explained, discussed, and one might even come to appreciate them. But the urgency at their core, as experience has taught me, is not so easy to convey. This is a testimony to the power of fiction and what narrative holds over the transmission of facts: we should consume our literature and entertainment with a hefty dose of fact, but also reflect on the way narrative artifice constructs what we think of as fact.
About a month into the course, we move on to Thomas Gray’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, an account of Nat Turner’s short-lived 1831 uprising in which a group of enslaved people rampaged through a corner of Southampton County in Virginia, killing some 60 people on their way to Jerusalem, Virginia. They never reached that holy land or its armory: within two days white militias formed and crushed the rebels and a score of other people with no other relation to them than the fact that they were Black, eventually capturing the revolt’s leader. Gray was supposed to be on Turner’s defense team: he interviewed Turner in jail, turned in the report to the court as Turner’s testimony and then made a pretty penny publishing it. Turner was hanged in Jerusalem, his body decapitated and flayed.
Something peculiar happens when we read Gray: students who have been silent until then stir. They cannot wait to speak. And they all have the same thing to say: this text, more than any other, touches them. One moment — and it is always the same moment — horrifies them: when Turner and his companions decide that “no age nor sex was to be spared,” and they spare not. In the first house they visit, they kill the parents and children in their sleep, and return when they realize they forgot to kill an infant. They do not spare it either.
The conversation that ensues invariably centers on the same topics: how can anybody feel justified in killing a baby?
What answers one can muster to this question point to the fact that, in Turner’s world, the norm for that category of people he did not belong to — white people — was to consider the killing of Black babies justifiable. Discomfort with Turner is not predicated on ignoring this: rather, more often than not, it channels a kind of disappointment that in these extreme circumstances, Turner did not temper the absolute equality of revenge with a dash of the redemptive magnanimity. Some students resent a hero you cannot root for until the end; others seem content with jumping on the chance to righteously berate an enslaved Black man two centuries after his execution for daring to invoke Jesus to kill. The very idea of it! Only a few months ago, journalist and commentator Charles Blow echoed just this line of thinking in a puzzling string of tweets in April 2019. Meaning to reflect on the media treatment of white supremacist killers, he offered Nat Turner as an example of a “black serial murder (sic)” having achieved “folk hero status.” As he attempted to explain himself in the heated exchange that followed, Blow explained his choice of words as an effort to “save space,” unwittingly illustrating exactly the unique standards we bring to bear on Black liberation politics.
Turner does not meet the standards of Martin Luther King Jr., the man we’ve been taught to revere ahistorically as a model for activist leadership at all times, especially if said activism concerns people of color. The unspoken, unquestioned assumption is that non-violence, espoused in Gandhi’s footsteps, is the only truly moral approach to fighting for one’s rights: to accept to be beaten into victory. It should be telling that such expectations are attached to virtually no one else in a similar situation in human history. The national spirits of Great Britain, France, and the U.S., to cite the three most prominent nation-states forged in the Age of Revolution are rooted in uprisings whose violence has been retroactively justified by its results: the end of absolute monarchy, the end of feudalism, the end of… taxes. Of course the Terror during the French Revolution is not exactly celebrated, and some people frown on regicide, but these phenomena have been well circumscribed over the years as anomalies of sorts, not so much the revolution as the revolution run wild. The violence meted by North American settlers in their war against the English crown is routinely excused as a warranted response to tyranny, obfuscating in the same movement the historical and present record of violent settler colonialism. Though interpretations may vary depending on political bias and time, the general understanding in both cases is that violence is always regrettable, but sometimes it is reasonable: in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), Lord Byron famously asked: “Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not/Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?” The question, reprised by the likes of Frederick Douglass, is and was somewhat rhetorical. Those who know this, it is implied, do not remain bondsmen long; they live free or die trying, and in hindsight, all are welcome to lament individual deaths, in the understanding that they’re trumped by the ultimate common good.
What of Turner then, reworded in Gray’s text? There appears to be something profoundly irksome about the way Turner uses scripture, though with the slightest push back, anyone will admit this seeming hypocrisy to be typical of the entire European settler colonial project in the Americas. When it comes down to it, at the heart of the outrage lies the killing of a necessarily innocent baby. It has to do with responsibility, then — individual and collective — and it has to do with what actions are morally acceptable. It has to do with justice, which arguably drives all freedom struggles; it betrays an anxiety related to the moment and silently evokes a history of racial injustice, and related white anxieties: if and when the logical backlash for the gross treatment of Black people comes, in the form of revenge or revolution, will I, innocent babe, be spared?
Unsurprisingly, nations struggle with seeing principles of justice applied to those they enslave — and one of the ways they circumscribe justice as it applies to others is precisely through words. How the logical contortions necessary to denying justice come to pass as rational thought deserve a closer look — they are essential to the history of the age, and theirs is that winding path we call culture. Words matter as much as deeds, when they shape not only how we see history but also how we conceive of politics. In writing, the revolted slave has been exceptional or absolutely evil: any narrative trick to ensure the very notion of slave violence be approached from the point of view of the individual rather than the collective, and discussions of justice and retributive violence boiled down to revenge and atrocity when Afro-descendants are concerned. Literature has been a crucial tool in this process, and in particular a genealogy of literary Black avengers — from the likes of Aaron in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (1594) by way of Frederick Douglass’s Madison Washington, The Heroic Slave (1852), or Herman Melville’s Babo and Atufal in “Benito Cereno” (1855), to the U.S.-toppling revolutionaries of Black Power era potboilers such as Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chester Himes’s Plan B (1983), or John A. Williams’s underrated Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (1969) — that I have written about in my recent book, The Black Avenger in Atlantic Culture (2019).
What is revealed in discussing Turner and the often staggering self-righteousness of Gray is an idea central to modern politics: to the extent that it can be discussed, legitimate violence is the province of citizens and their representatives; it is proof of belonging. What is so terrifying, what is outrageous about the slave revolt and its current equivalents (say, the riot or the intifada) is how truly and profoundly violence at the hands of not-quite-citizens upends — if temporarily and symbolically — the social, economic, racial order. When non-citizens become violent, they operate a reversal of values; they turn the world upside down, enact a carnival of sorts. No wonder then, the drama and fiction of the nations most involved in Atlantic slavery are replete with efforts at exorcising the possibility of slave revolt, at canceling it as an idea, developed side by side with modern notions of freedom and individual agency.
Revolutions appear to ride on collective chaos, sounding a cacophony of the people. That cacophony is always violent, often merciless, and more than a little giddy; a bacchanal that can always be portrayed as grotesque and nihilistic. Indeed, it is those things arguably because it takes place beyond accepted systems of taste, measure, conventions, and justice. It happens because those systems have failed to account for those who rise, and those who rise in return who flip them upside down. Yet in 1789, even French peasants could conceive of themselves as French: if not quite citizens, at least potential ones belonging to the same broad community as their social betters. In any case, the new system argued as much in hindsight, even as a popular mass movement gave way to bourgeois rule. For all the changes attached to the revolution and its aftermath in France, Europe and around the world, the century of regime change that followed it in France somewhat tempers our consideration of it as a clean break. France turned away from the Revolution of 1789 and then returned to somewhat milder forms of it, as if to temper the original outrage. For radical change in the Age of Revolutions (1774-1849), we have to turn to France’s West Indian colony of Saint-Domingue, where in the long decade between 1791 and 1803 formerly enslaved people rose up, defeated the armies of the three most powerful countries of Europe (France, Spain, and the U.K.) and forced the world to reckon with their humanity, freedom, and independence. That the Haitian Revolution used to be routinely elided in historical studies of the period is in part a function of the narrative tradition that also presents Nat Turner as a monstrous anomaly.
This tradition has roots in early modern revenge drama, but for our purposes here we can look just as far as the development of the Atlantic slave trade, and the novel terms it applies to age-old discussions. In the modern era, the assault on absolute monarchy in Great Britain first and then in France was rooted in notions of citizenship inherited from Antiquity: violence was justified through claims of equality for all citizens, a leveling of social hierarchy which, for being revolutionary, only turned part of a world upside down. The language of slavery summoned by Enlightenment thinkers and activists from John Locke to Jean-Paul Marat did not only ignore actual slavery: it was arguably predicated on it, or on the distinction between the unjustifiable oppression of white European citizens and the legal and warranted enslavement of Black African peoples increasingly portrayed as less than human. For Locke, channeling Aristotle, some are natural slaves and others natural masters; beyond this, slavery is justifiable as the result of just war: those who start conflict on specious bases, are defeated and enslaved rather than killed. They cannot complain; their being alive is a clause in a contract of sorts they have no right to break. There is no compassion to have for such people. But if one can rightfully be enslaved, there must be wrongful enslavement as well: this is where the import of literary things gets interesting.
It might seem counterintuitive that so many European texts from the 17th century onwards would feature variations on the following scenario: a noble, exceptionally honorable African is treacherously kidnapped into slavery by despicable Europeans and taken to the Americas. There, faced with the utter inhumanity of the system, he tries to organize other slaves and revolt, but they fail him, and he dies fighting alone, a tragic hero. This is the story of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) and its popular theatrical adaptations and imitations throughout the 18th century, a long series of extraordinary, singular Black avenging heroes. Short of the final death, one should recognize its echoes in blaxxploitation films and in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012): a line of Black heroes in the white West, would-be leaders left to fend for themselves, cheered on, cried for, identified with by white audiences, then and now. They put in relief the issue of legitimate violence and offer a key to the way it functions: in text after text, every single variation on this character is defined as an honorary white person, a potential citizen. Prince Oroonoko not only looks white, “his nose rising and Roman,” he has learned honor from a French teacher. Black avengers are extraordinary for being worthy of white respect, that “one in ten thousand” that would appear to belie white prejudice. Except they serve the opposite purpose: Black avengers, in their extraordinariness, are meant to contrast with the other enslaved.
The issue is not enslavement, but rather that such great individuals should never find themselves surrounded by rabble. Enraged at seeing his enslaved companions flee the field of battle, Oroonoko, as if quoting Aristotle, declares them “by nature slaves.” Forfeiting violence is no virtue here: it is evidence of intrinsic inferiority. But Oroonoko’s solitary violence, if heroic, cannot possibly yield liberation. Thus the narrative structure also undermines the very idea of Black liberation politics: with the group unable to deliver the collective violence that would make such a movement a political one, we are left with the justifiable anger of the enslaved individual, something we can understand and even condone to the extent that it does not threaten the system. Oroonoko and Black avengers are trying to right personal wrongs. In this way, it is telling that Oroonoko dies, where Django doesn’t: the former dies for thinking of mass movement, the latter doesn’t because his action is so unabashedly individualistic that it never represents a threat to the system. Have I mentioned that before he dies, Oroonoko kills his wife and unborn son? The horrible scene, drowned in the hero’s tears, is presented as a terrible demonstration of love. It would appear that sometimes, killing a baby is just what the narrative calls for.
These fictional Black heroes have routinely bled into reality throughout the years, and whether we know it or not, the epidermic reaction to Turner I described above is intrinsically historical. Developments in Black avenger tales throughout the 18th century betrayed an anxiety among European observers that slavery would bring about massive retaliation. French philosophe Guillaume-Thomas Raynal and novelist Louis-Sébastien Mercier penned visions of an African Spartacus, an avenger of the new world who would turn slave societies upside down and throw off the white yoke. When that movement came in Saint-Domingue, its utterly political character overwhelmed the reductive narrative frames that had been designed to contain it. It turned out that Blacks, however diminished by the deadening system of slavery, could nevertheless make politics more radical than even their enlightened French counterparts had. Still, the formerly enslaved had leaders, extraordinary figures one could try to recuperate into the old mold: such was the case with Toussaint Louverture, the revolution’s foremost military and political leader, who rose to become the island’s governor before dying imprisoned in a French jail. His own tragic ending fit Black avenger patterns so well one might think the success of the revolution was a narrative faux pas: and yet, the revolution triumphed, and in 1803 Napoleon’s troops withdrew, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, general-in-chief of the Indigenous Army, declared independence from France, returning to the island its native name of Haiti.
“Violence,” Frantz Fanon tells us, “hoists the people up to the level of the leader.” Though we like to sum up history in a list of singular names, it was the throng of anonymous Haitians who defeated the French, and they did it the only way they could, rendering, in Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s immortal words: “to these true cannibals — war for war, crime for crime, outrage for outrage.” Dessalines was a statesman: he, like all others, recognized the collective will of this “people of no common cast” only to draw the covers to himself. But the fact remains: Black Caribbeans and Americans had achieved precisely that which the entire Atlantic world had conspired to prevent. This did not stop the cultural exorcism: in fact, it enhanced it. The Haitian Revolution became the unspoken bogeyman of revolutions, tied as it was to rising notions of racial difference. European revolutions opposed factions, but this one, supposedly, had fundamentally and irredeemably pitted races against each other. In months following independence, Dessalines ordered the killing of hundreds of French people remaining on the island, an act used to this day to dismiss the revolution wholesale. Unsurprisingly, a recurring image in the thousands of pages written against the Revolution in the past 200 years is a white baby, allegedly impaled by Black revolutionaries and used as a kind of standard. And so, if rationally the revolution could be understood, here also the alleged issue was the assumed lack of equivalence between the original wrong and retaliation: how to identify, how to agree with a movement bent on wholesale slaughter? Defending the revolution became tantamount to accepting white extermination.
Rightly so. The Haitian Revolution did indeed eradicate whiteness, though not white people, as many would have it. It did so literally, that is symbolically and rhetorically, by declaring in the Constitution of 1805 that all Haitians, no matter their complexion and origins, were Black. Performed as an antidote to late 18th century racist discourse, this defiantly color-blind (take that, France) declaration of humanity generated hope for many, but also a model to annihilate and crush for the entire white world. The omnipresence of Haiti in 19th century racist science is evidence of how dedicatedly and thoroughly this experiment had to be punished so that white supremacy might perdure, and more importantly, that it might perdure unseen, unaccounted for, humanity by default. In this worldview, not just Haiti and Black agency, but the Haitians themselves and those who would emulate them, are an insult to propriety that must be dealt with. So when we consider Nat Turner, I like to tell my students to pause for a second to bask in luxury. Blackness was the contribution to discourse the enslaved made in the short instant they could afford to pause, when they could turn away from binary choices to a wealth of words. They gave us something we can discuss: text, rhetoric, a speech act, the magic that is politics when it can pretend to
turn one thing into another through timeless words rather than timely deeds. This, the words we weave to dress up naked acts, along with the luxury to sit comfortably and discuss the morals of having to kill to be free without ever having to make that choice, is the wealth they left to those of us who can, or think we can, afford it. Let us never look down on those who cannot. ■