Have you ever heard of Nat Turner? If you *are* familiar with Nat Turner, I’d be really interested to hear what you learned about him and how you felt about him when you learned about his 1831 Slave Rebellion.
I can’t remember if I originally heard about Nat Turner in a history class or much later when I started doing research on my own. Either way, I remember thinking he was cold-blooded. During his revolt, he led about 70 slaves to kill about 60 White people. They went to homes and murdered men, women, and children...with an ax.
Nat Turner was eventually caught and executed. White militias went to great lengths to find him. They ended up killing 120 slaves and free Blacks in the process and, ultimately, executed 56 slaves for their role in the uprising. To me, those actions seemed justified. It seemed unnerving to have someone that brazen out there killing “random” people.
Juxtapose that with slave owners.
At the same time Nat Turner went on his killing spree, the slave owners he was killing were enslaving 2 million people. Because slaves were their “property,” slave owners took liberties to skin them alive, pour hot tar on them, “quarter” them, dismember them, whip them with chains, rape the women, sell them, work them innumerable hours without pay, separate their families, lynch them in the town square, and force them to watch their friends and neighbors be lynched so they wouldn’t want to step out of line. Slave owners even took their own children to watch the “festivities” and made postcards out of the lynchings.
However, unlike Turner, no slave owner was ever convicted for their crimes. Ever. No slave owner was even sought out. In fact, we lauded (and still laud) those people as heroes for the many other things they did in their life. What we deem as their “successes” allow us to excuse their insane treatment of people. What’s strange is that I have always been troubled by Nat Turner and the potential ripple effect of his actions, but never near as troubled by the slave owners.
Don’t get me wrong...I’ve always thought slavery was wrong, but when I read the history books, slavery comes across like a thing of the past: Millions of human beings were tortured and killed...the Emancipation Proclamation was issued...slaves were freed. Thank you, next.
Why did I feel so at ease about the fact that Nat Turner was executed for his actions and just as at ease that no slave owner (then, or even now) faces any repercussions for his?
The reality is, our history books focus on the detrimental impact Nat Turner had on White people and the potential destruction he could have caused had he not been stopped. William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Confessions of Nat Turner (which wasn’t written or dictated by Turner at all), presents Turner as having sexual fantasies about a White woman, which helped drive his killing spree. Styron’s book, along with his bias, influences and informs what is written in our history books.
Let’s think for a minute… What if, instead, throughout our whole lives we had read about Nat Turner’s amazing courage and bravery in opposing a system that was brutally torturing and killing millions of people? What if we had read about Turner risking his own life to make slave owners take notice so that they would possibly change their treatment of people? What if we had read how insane it was for people to own and brutalize people and how crazy it is that they have never been held accountable for their actions?
White privilege is embedded in the way we read history and what we read influences our thoughts and actions. White privilege leads me to take my history at face value and never question the angle from which it is presented. White privilege tells me that “Give me liberty or give me death!” is only a phrase that can be applied to some people...because if it applied to all of us, wouldn’t Nat Turner be the poster child?