If the New Nat Turner Film Is Historical Fiction, Where Should You Go for the Real Story?

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Today the film The Birth of a Nation premieres, purporting to depict the slave insurrection in Southampton County, Virginia, in August 1831, led by Nat Turner, a 30-year-old slave.

Here are some questions, with an attempt at some answers:

  1. What did Nat Turner look like?
  2. How many people died in the revolt?
  3. What role did religion play in Turner’s actions?
  4. Is the film historically accurate?
  5. What are some recommended resources on Turner and the insurrection?

1. What did Nat Turner look like?

The first photograph of a human being took place in 1838. So unless someone sat for a portrait prior to that time (or was mummified!), there’s no way to have a visual depiction of their appearance. We can only hope that someone left behind a written description.

In the case of Nat Turner, we have a fairly detailed description of him found in the National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) on September 24, 1831, while Turner and others were still fugitives. A reward notice, offering $500 ($13,000 in today’s money) described Turner as follows. These are exact quotes, under my categories:

Height and weight:

  • 5 feet 6 or 8 inches high
  • weighs between 150 and 160 pounds

Skin tone:

  • rather bright complexion, but not a mulatto,

Build and physical features:

  • broad shoulders
  • a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm, near the wrist, produced by a blow
  • rather knockkneed
  • broad flat feet

Facial features:

  • larger flat nose
  • large eyes
  • hair on the top of the head very thin
  • no beard, except on the upper lip and the top of the chin
  • a scar on one of his temples, also one on the back of his neck

Description of his movement:

  • walks brisk and active

2. How many people died in the revolt?

The trial transcript lists 55 names of white people in Southampton County who were killed during the insurrection.

The popular perception, it seems to me, is that Turner and his accomplices fought against the authorities. In reality, however, of the 55 who died, at least 17 were women and 26 were children. (Their ages aren’t listed in the trial transcript, so it’s possible that some of the “sons and daughters” I’ve counted as adults were actually children.) Most of the deaths occurred in domestic settings in the middle of the night.

Turner explained the killings in vivid detail. Here is an example:

I entered my master’s chamber, it being dark, I could not give a death blow, the hatchet glanced from his head, he sprang from the bed and called his wife, it was his last word, Will laid him dead, with a blow of his axe, and Mrs. Travis shared the same fate, as she lay in bed. The murder of this family, five in number, was the work of a moment, not one of them awoke; there was a little infant sleeping in a cradle, that was forgotten, until we had left the house and gone some distance, when Henry and Will returned and killed it. . . .

We started from there for Mrs. Reese’s, maintaining the most perfect silence on our march, where finding the door unlocked, we entered, and murdered Mrs. Reese in her bed, while sleeping; her son awoke, but it was only to sleep the sleep of death, he had only time to say who is that, and he was no more. . . .

As I came round to the door I saw Will pulling Mrs. Whitehead out of the house, and at the step he nearly severed her head from her body, with his broad axe.

Miss Margaret, when I discovered her, had concealed herself in the corner, formed by the projection of the cellar cap from the house; on my approach she fled, but was soon overtaken, and after repeated blows with a sword, I killed her by a blow on the head, with a fence rail. . . .

As a result, Turner and his allies were all either killed or executed, some of the mutilated, along with nearly 200 other African Americans (many of whom were not involved in the insurrection).

3. What role did religion play in Turner’s actions?

Antebellum slavery was evil. Full stop. It was unjustly justified by religion, which made it worse. There were beatings and rape, which were on top of the demeaning degradation of being property without freedom. Turner’s mother was tempted to commit infanticide on her baby son so that he wouldn’t have to grow up to be a slave. All of this is background for why a slave would want to revolt, and to do so with violent vengeance.

But why Turner in particular? What were his beliefs and his gifts that led this man, at this time, to lead this insurrection?

On the night he was imprisoned, Turner was given the opportunity to explain in his own words to his lawyer, Thomas Gray, what motivated his actions. The surprising answer, according to Turner, is that he believed he had been set apart by God from the beginning for a great purpose, which the Holy Spirit later revealed to be a holy war between whites and blacks.

The following is his own account of the background, with my headings.

1. Turner was regarded a prophet, set apart for a great purpose at a young age.

In my childhood a circumstance occurred which made an indelible impression on my mind, and laid the groundwork of that enthusiasm which has terminated so fatally to many, both white and black, and for which I am about to atone at the gallows. It is here necessary to relate this circumstance. Trifling as it may seem, it was the commencement of that belief which has grown with time; and even now, sir, in his dungeon, helpless and forsaken as I am, I cannot divest myself of.

Being at play with other children, when three or four years old, I was telling them something, which my mother, overhearing, said it had happened before I was born. I stuck to my story, however, and related some things which went, in her opinion, to confirm it. Others being called on, were greatly astonished, knowing that these things had happened, and caused them to say, in my hearing, I surely would be a prophet, as the Lord had shown me things that had happened before my birth.

And my mother and grandmother strengthened me in this my first impression, saying, in my presence, I was intended for some great purpose, which they had always thought from certain marks on my head and breast. . . .

2. Turner had unusual intelligence growing up, and he devoted concentrated time to religion, to prayer, and to being attentive and imaginative.

My grandmother, who was very religious, and to whom I was much attached—my master, who belonged to the church, and other religious persons who visited the house, and whom I often saw at prayers, noticing the singularity of my manners, I suppose, and my uncommon intelligence for a child, remarked I had too much sense to be raised, and, if I was, I would never be of any service to any one as a slave.

To a mind like mine, restless, inquisitive, and observant of everything that was passing, it is easy to suppose that religion was the subject to which it would be directed; and, although this subject principally occupied my thoughts, there was nothing that I saw or heard of to which my attention was not directed. The manner in which I learned to read and write, not only had great influence on my own mind, as I acquired it with the most perfect ease,—so much so, that I have no recollection whatever of learning the alphabet; but, to the astonishment of the family, one day, when a book was shown me, to keep me from crying, I began spelling the names of different objects. This was a source of wonder to all in the neighborhood, particularly the blacks—and this learning was constantly improved at all opportunities.

When I got large enough to go to work, while employed I was reflecting on many things that would present themselves to my imagination; and whenever an opportunity occurred of looking at a book, when the school-children were getting their lessons, I would find many things that the fertility of my own imagination had depicted to me before. All my time, not devoted to my master’s service, was spent either in prayer, or in making experiments in casting different things in moulds made of earth, in attempting to make paper, gunpowder, and many other experiments, that, although I could not perfect, yet convinced me of its practicability if I had the means.

3. Turner had superior judgement and skills in planning, so he devoted himself to fasting and prayer, wrapped himself in mystery, and withdrew from social relationships.

I was not addicted to stealing in my youth, nor have ever been; yet such was the confidence of the Negroes in the neighborhood, even at this early period of my life, in my superior judgment, that they would often carry me with them when they were going on any roguery, to plan for them.

Growing up among them with this confidence in my superior judgment, and when this, in their opinions, was perfected by Divine inspiration, from the circumstances already alluded to in my infancy, and which belief was ever afterwards zealously inculcated by the austerity of my life and manners, which became the subject of remark by white and black; having soon discovered to be great, I must appear so, and therefore studiously avoided mixing in society, and wrapped myself in mystery, devoting my time to fasting and prayer.

4. At the age of 17 and again at age 19, Turner says that he received revelations from the Holy Spirit.

By this time, having arrived to man’s estate, and hearing the Scriptures commented on at meetings, I was struck with that particular passage which says, “Seek ye the kingdom of heaven, and all things shall be added unto you” [Matt. 6:33]. I reflected much on this passage, and prayed daily for light on this subject. As I was praying one day at my plough, the Spirit spoke to me, saying, “Seek ye the kingdom of heaven, and all things shall be added unto you.”

I was greatly astonished, and for two years prayed continually, whenever my duty would permit; and then again I had the same revelation, which fully confirmed me in the impression that I was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.

5. Turner receives more revelations at the age of 25, witnesses miracles, and feels called by God to lead a holy religious war.

Several years rolled round, in which many events occurred to strengthen me in this my belief. At this time I reverted in my mind to the remarks made of me in my childhood, and the things that had been shown me; and as it had been said of me in my childhood, by those by whom I had been taught to pray, both white and black, and in whom I had the greatest confidence, that I had too much sense to be raised, and if I was I would never be of any use to any one as a slave; now, finding I had arrived to man’s estate, and was a slave, and these revelations being made known to me, I began to direct my attention to this great object, to fulfill the purpose for which, by this time, I felt assured I was intended.

Knowing the influence I had obtained over the minds of my fellow-servant (not by the means of conjuring and such like tricks—for to them I always spoke of such things with contempt), but by the communion of the Spirit, whose revelations I often communicated to them, and they believed and said my wisdom came from God,— I now began to prepare them for my purpose, by telling them something was about to happen that would terminate in fulfilling the great promise that had been made to me.

About this time I was placed under an overseer, from whom I ran away, and after remaining in the woods thirty days, I returned, to the astonishment of the Negroes on the plantation, who thought I had made my escape to some other part of the country, as my father had done before. But the reason of my return was, that the Spirit appeared to me and said I had my wishes directed to the things of this world, and not to the kingdom of heaven, and that I should return to the service of my earthly master—”For he who knoweth his Master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes, and thus have I chastened you.” And the Negroes found fault, and murmured against me, saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world.

And about this time I had a vision—and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened—the thunder rolled in the heavens, and blood flowed in streams-and I heard a voice saying, “Such is your luck, such you are called to see; and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bear it.”

I now withdrew myself as much as my situation would permit from the intercourse of my fellow-servants, for the avowed purpose of serving the Spirit more fully; and it appeared to me, and reminded me of the things it had already shown me, and that it would then reveal to me the knowledge of the elements, the revolution of the planets, the operation of tides, and changes of the seasons.

After this revelation in the year 1825, and the knowledge of the elements being made known to me, I sought more than ever to obtain true holiness before the great day of judgment should appear, and then I began to receive the true knowledge of faith. And from the first steps of righteousness until the last, was I made perfect; and the Holy Ghost was with me, and said, “Behold me as I stand in the heavens.” And I looked and saw the forms of men in different attitudes; and there were lights in the sky, to which the children of darkness gave other names what they really were; for they were the lights of the Savior’s hands, stretched forth from east to west, even as they were extended on the cross on Calvary for the redemption of sinners.

And I wondered greatly at these miracles, and prayed to be informed of a certainty of the meaning thereof; and shortly afterwards, while laboring in the field, I discovered drops of blood on the corn, as though it were dew from heaven; and I communicated it to many, both white and black, in the neighborhood—and I then found on the leaves in the woods hieroglyphic characters and numbers, with the forces of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood, and representing the figures I had seen before in the heavens. And now the Holy Ghost had revealed itself to me, and made plain the miracles it had shown me; for as the blood of Christ had been shed on this earth, and had ascended to heaven for the salvation of sinners, and was now returning to earth again in the form of dew,—and as the leaves on the trees bore the impression of the figures I had seen in the heavens,—it was plain to me that the Savior was. about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand.

About this time I told these things to a white man (Etheldred T. Brantley), on whom it had a wonderful effect; and he ceased from his wickedness, and was attacked immediately with a cutaneous eruption, and blood oozed from the pores of his skin, and after praying and fasting nine days he was healed. And the Spirit appeared to me again, and said, as the Savior had been baptized, so should we be also; and when the white people would not let us be baptized by the church, we went down into the water together, in the sight of many who reviled us, and were baptized by the Spirit. After this I rejoiced greatly, and gave thanks to God.

6. At the age of 28, Turner says the Spirit appeared to him, saying that the time was right to fight against the Serpent.

And on the 12th of May, 1828, 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 (the eclipse of the sun, last February), I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons. And immediately on the sign appearing in the heavens, the seal was removed from my lips, and I communicated the great work laid out for me to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence (Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam).

4. Is the film historically accurate?

Vanessa Holden—an assistant professor of history at Michigan State University who is writing a book on the role of African American women, enslaved and free, who were integral to the communal culture of resistance—expresses the historian’s dilemma when reviewing a film based on a true story:

As a historian I have long had a love-hate relationship with cinema.

On the one hand I understand that truly inspired creative work can engage with the past in ways that I as a historian cannot.

On the other I bristle when inaccuracy, even in costuming and material culture, flickers across the screen, knowing that a creative narrative can so easily become the historical narrative that the public accepts.

But when The Birth of a Nation received early critical attention and a landmark distribution deal after screening at the Sundance Film Festival, I became hopeful, not for a movie with documentary-like accuracy, but for a film that portrayed enslaved people in rebellion using dramatic license to imagine what documents do not reveal.

Now that Holden has viewed the film, however, she writes:

Parker’s film bears only a fleeting resemblance to the well-documented historical event that shocked the Old Dominion. The narrative Parker offers instead is one in which he and his cowriter very loosely borrow from some of the documents associated with the Southampton Rebellion to shape Nat Turner into a hero for a new generation. Parker’s character joins a long line of Nat Turners shaped by writers, artists, activists, and lay people into relevant role models for their times.

Leslie Alexander, a professor in the Department of African American and African Studies at Ohio State who specializes in 19th century Black culture and political consciousness, writes in her review:

Contrary to his promises of “historical fidelity,” Parker created a deeply flawed, historically inaccurate movie that exploits and distorts Nat Turner’s story and the history of slavery in America. Nearly everything in the movie—ranging from Turner’s relationship with his family, to his life as a slave, and even the rebellion itself—is a complete fabrication.

Certainly the film contains sprinklings of historical fact, but the bulk of Parker’s story about the rebellion is fictitious: Nat Turner did not murder his owner, nor did he kill a slave patroller. Turner’s rebellion was not betrayed by a young boy, or by anyone else involved in the revolt. To the contrary, the rebels fought until the bitter end. The shootout depicted in Jerusalem, Virginia, never happened, because the rebels were stopped by the militia before they ever reached Jerusalem.

The list of inaccuracies, distortions, and fabrications goes on and on.

5. What are some good resources for historical study of this event?

The best place to start is The Nat Turner Project, a free digital humanities project directed by Sarah Roth at Widener University. There you can find original documents, including newspaper accounts, trial transcripts, etc. There is also an FAQ, addressing questions like the role of religion in Turner’s revolt.

Professor Holden also recommends and describes the following resources

  • Kyle Baker, Nat Turner (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2008). This graphic novel works well in the classroom and draws its text directly from Nat Turner’s confessions. The artist’s work with the historical text gives students quite a bit to engage. The visual nature of the genre also helps students, both advanced and introductory, to wade through the 19th century language of the original text.
  • Patrick H. Breen, The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016). The most current work on the Southampton Rebellion, Breen’s book provides both a clear narrative of the revolt and a study of the trials post-rebellion.
  • Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004). Camp’s landmark work explores the ways that enslaved women were integral to their community’s resistance. Reading her work along side any of the sources here would make for great classroom discussion about the gendered dynamics of American slave rebellion.
  • Sylviane A. Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons (New York: NYU Press, 2014). This book takes a look at another significant form of resistance: truancy. Diouf’s excellent study is helpful when trying to understand the culture of resistance among antebellum slaves. It also features the Dismal Swamp, due east of Southampton County, and its famous maroon community that many feared would rise up in rebellion.
  • Kenneth S. Greenberg, ed., Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). This collection of essays includes some of the most recent work on the Southampton Rebellion in article length essays. It features fresh takes on the rebellion’s meaning and the rebellion’s events and even engages with William Styron’s novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner.
  • Henry Irving Tragle, The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material, Including the Full Text of The Confessions of Nat Turner (New York: Vintage Books, 1973). This collection of source material compiles most of the relevant sources on the Southampton Rebellion. Its easy to use transcriptions translate well in the classroom and can work as an excellent counterpart to Turner’s confessions.
  • Nat Turner and Kenneth S. Greenberg, The Confessions of Nat Turner: And Related Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996). This edition of Nat Turner’s confessions is an excellent way to engage primary material while providing students with context quickly. It includes trial excerpts, newspaper coverage, correspondence as well as the full text of Nat Turner’s jail cell confessions.

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