Heretical history

They killed him for “making insurrections and plotting to take away the lives of diverse free white persons.”

The Commonwealth of Virginia raised that charge against Nat Turner, an enslaved man who led a revolt in Southampton on August 22, 1831.

Less than a century earlier, other men challenged British hegemony. Today, we call them “forefathers” and let them march as heroes on the white sheets of our textbooks.

Who would dream of questioning George Washington’s or Paul Revere’s decency? Few will label them as murderers, but many praise their bravery, military skills and courage.

Thomas Gray, the recorder of “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” condemns Turner.

Gray defames him, saying “No acts of remembered kindness made the least impression upon these remorseless murderers. Men, women and children were involved in the same cruel fate.”

He could have written, “No acts of remembered kindness made the least impression upon we remorseless murderers, kidnappers, slaveholders or killers of dreams. Men, women and children are involved in the same cruel fate of bondage and slavery”.

He didn’t.

As for Turner’s apparitions, another star of our elementary education made similar claims.

Joan of Arc had visions. She led troops to triumphs and we call her a saint. Hey, even Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream.

John Henrik Clarke said, “The Nat Turner revolt cannot be understood out of context with the atmosphere of revolt that prevailed throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.”

Before Turner, there was Gabriel Prosser, Toussaint L’Ouverture and Denmark Vesey. Turner was not new; his tactics deserve no special condemnation. He simply understood that sometimes only fire can fight fire.

Clarke also said, “Powerful people never teach powerless people how to take power away from them.”

Maybe if we dared to see our own visions and listened to voices besides the ones that tell us to sew the red and white stripes of the flag on our backs, we could access our own revolution.

Instead of criticizing Turner, we ought to question a nation that condemns him for following its steps towards freedom. The American dream has all of us sleeping and if we continue to let it lull us we’re bound to suffocate in its pointed sheets of paper and knotted lines of history.

Toni Green is a junior English major from Brewton, Ala. She is a The Famuan’s Creative Mindz co-editor. Contact her at