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.