By Dr. James Perkinson, Ecumenical Theological Seminary (Detroit, MI), prepared comments presented at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church’s “Social Justice Forum,” October 21, 2016 in response to the film
It was a Jewish man, Walter Benjamin, during WWII, who once said, “Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if [it] wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious” (Benjamin, 255)
Nat Turner’s spirit is buried beneath the shouts and cries (Cone, 61)
It is a deep honor to be asked to offer a few words in memory of so courageous and clear a spirit of resolve as Nat Turner. It is an honor doubly difficult to measure up to in that my skin is white and my life circumstance therefore privileged with respect to Turner’s color and condition and the people whose struggle for justice he represented with such determination and daring that it presaged the only resolution of the institution of slavery white people would accept. War. And it is a war that has never yet ceased. And so my standing here today is not innocent.
I continue to be the beneficiary of the way race has continually reorganized resources at the expense of darker skin and for the benefit of lighter skin, whatever the personal intentions of those of us involved, for more than 500 years. And what I have to say here could be better said, with more integrity and savvy, by someone who has faced the racial divide on its raw side.
Most of what I know of this on-going battle in our common life on this globe I have learned from people of color—most especially poor black folk in my neighborhood on the east side of Detroit where I have lived for more than 30 years. But also Native American folk whose refusal to disappear in spite of genocidal onslaught continues to mark this very place we stand on as a question addressed to all of us as “settlers” on someone else’s land. And not least, my Filipina wife of the last fifteen years who has taught me about the brutality of life in the only colony the US has ever officially taken.
All of that rich experience of other cultures and conditions of people confers on me a task of responsibility that does not end short of my last breath. That responsibility is to challenge other white people about this whole monstrosity of social and spiritual plunder called “white supremacy.” I do not consider it my place to tell the black community to do anything. I have neither the experience nor the moral standing to do so. Nor does any other white person.
I have been tempted, in thinking about this talk, to elaborate at some length on what it means for me as a white man to engage this task of commentary on an example that puts me and my entire social formation and history at issue and in question. But since I have written about that extensively elsewhere and here do not want to take up time with more confession, I will pass directly to the movie.
“Birth of a Nation” indeed (!)—riffing on D. W. Griffin’s 1915 original version celebrating the rise of the Klan—here we are given a glimpse of just whose womb it was that produced the wealth of the nation and perhaps even of the kind of future the country has stored up for itself.
The first thing to note for me is the response of a number of African American friends of mine who are women: who report having had to struggle mightily with themselves, God, and the ancestors, simply to decide to see the film, given the questionable circumstances of Nate Parker’s acquittal of rape charges, the testimony of abuse involving friends, and the subsequent suicide of the young woman. I don’t think it my place to comment on such, but I would encourage you to read widely on the subject if you have not. Part of the issue is recovering the powerful role of so many women in resisting slavery and refusing patriarchy—back then and in the present. Two such in Nat Turner’s insurgence were slaves named Charlotte and Lucy, who were killed for their efforts, in the aftermath. It is perhaps time for a film lionizing their rebellion.
My own people—the likely few who will venture to view the movie—will almost invariably “shout,” in nice quiet middle class voices of supposed civility—“I understand rebelling, but he killed women and children!” Yes. And that is troubling. But that concern must be met with its never-cited comparison: Andrew Jackson of Presidential repute was in a similar hour presiding over the slaughter and dismembering of more than 800 Muskogee Red Sticks Indians at the Horseshoe Bend of the Tallapoosa river in Alabama, on March 27, 1814, in which the bodies of men, women, and children were systematically mutilated, noses cut off and strips of skin peeled from limbs to be tanned and made into bridle reins (in other such “American” triumphs, male genitals were made into tobacco pouches and female vulvas into hats). I have yet to hear any of my people decry Jackson (or countless other national white heroes) as the terrorist butchers they so clearly were alongside their repudiation of Turner’s rampage.
Remarkable, in the reports of Turner’s revolt is the white press’ admission that no such mutilation was anywhere ever part of the picture. And indeed—none of the women were ever subjected to sexual violation by the men. The tactic of killing all whites he encountered, according to Turner’s white-recorded confession, was solely to shock and try to break the white mindset out of its perverse embrace of wholesale violence visited on black bodies as part of the peculiar institution’s normal “discipline.” Any subsequent iterations of the rebellion would refrain from killing anyone, except in defensive necessity.
The scene is Virginia, 1831, home of Thomas Jefferson’s beloved Monticello, where he harbored up to his last breath, 267 slaves, selling not a few south as object lessons to the rest, only ever freeing eight—and those, blood relatives fathered by rape (or its equivalent). Jefferson was instrumental in pushing for an end to the transatlantic slave trade in 1808—not out of a belated concern to end the barbarity of the Middle Passage, but precisely to secure his state’s domestic preeminence in “producing” and marketing slaves for all of the Deep South. Jefferson wanted to cut off the competition that was bringing in fresh blood from the Mother Continent by way of Charleston.
Virginia, as the authors of last year’s release entitled The American Slave Coast assert, was in the process of establishing its market dominance as the “breeding engine” for the entire slave economy, home of what they called the “capitalized womb,” black women corralled in slave quarters as “breed sows,” converting white rape into infant bodies of cash value, upon which interest would begin to be earned at birth by way of mortgages procured with banks. Jefferson would indeed brag to George Washington, that “the birth of black children was increasing Virginia’s capital stock by four percent per year” (Harris, 1).
The black body was not merely an instrument of coerced labor yielding profit once coming of age, but was itself from its first breath a major modality of currency, in a country struggling to leverage its stolen land into market liquidity. Teenage girls 12 to 18 years old were considered the prime incubation chambers by which white sperm could become black bodies and green dollars. Tony Morrison will write of the horror of the prospect, for some black mothers, as sufficient to drive them to take the lives of their “beloved” children—believing the spirit-world of heaven preferable to the living hell of a chattel-slave assembly line of rape and birth, followed by rape and birth, followed by rape and birth, interrupted by scarcely a few weeks of recovery time.
So I would rejoin my white interlocutors concerned for Turner’s tactical dispatch of white women and children: Yes, troubling, but understandable given his own incubation in a state system whereby “an entire economy,” as Malcolm Harris says, “was built on imprisoning and raping children.” (Harris, 2).
There is much more that could be said: the potency of seven men for two days of revolt, galvanizing some sixty brothers and sisters at its height, unearthing the pathological delirium founding the nation, setting an entire country on edge, from Louisiana in the South to Delaware in the North, Missouri in the West and all up and down the coast of the East, legislatures in a fervor of litigation to outlaw slave education and restrict free black assembly, white citizens in a fever of panic, raiding and ransacking black quarters, slave and free alike, mutilating, brutalizing, committing—even in the words of the white press—atrocities and barbarities unmentionable, heads on poles, a Reign of Terror paranoid in the extreme, killing more than 200 hundred in reaction, berserk even in response to the merest whisper of a black prayer in white hearing.
This latter eventuality, noted by 1861 Atlantic magazine author Thomas Higginson, in writing on the revolt, points to the other historical comment I want to remark. Suddenly after Turner’s insurgence, black Christianity itself becomes an object of terror. Prayer or perusal of scripture—engaged by black lips or eyes—occasions deep white alarm and violent suppression. This is new. Here the “Haitian nightmare’ (so-called) surfaces with a vengeance in garb of bible preacher. Some background is necessary to grasp the fright.
Typically taught in our schools about the American and French Revolutions as the quintessence of upheavals democratic and modern, we are just as typically left in the dark about the lone modern revolution actually worthy of the name. The American and French versions were mere cover for the accession to political power of middle class entrepreneurs, all too eager to slam the door on any among the poor or peasants who would seek to squeeze through. These violent outbreaks were basically bourgeois achievements. (And indeed, the American version was actually reactionary—a 13-colony break with Britain sustained precisely to maintain slavery in the face of British initiatives to abolish the same). Haiti alone—then known as San Domingo and yielding more wealth back to France than any other colony yielded to any other European power—went all the way down the revolutionary rabbit hole. From 1791, when first a mambo on a beach of Bois Caiman blew a conch shell launching the revolt, until 1804 when Jean-Jacques Dessalines first declared independence, the slaves in rebellion conducted what stands forth as the only example of a nationally successful slave revolt in human history. And at the core of its ritual invocations, its blacksmithing innovations of weapons, and its drum-rolled communications across steep mountain valleys in the land of Haiti of the “high places,” vodou granted wisdom and sanction. The word referenced the creole amalgamation of multiple West and Central African practices, annealed, in the harsh furnace of slavery’s oppression and hidden underneath a veneer of imposed Catholic doctrine, into a shared lifeway of no mean beauty and salience.
Southern plantation owners in the US freaked out, and quickly reversed their historic opposition to evangelizing their “property.” They also launched a huge and continuous disinformation campaign, judging hoodoo root-work and voodoo “magic” and all manner of spirit-traffic through possession cult and herbal concourse with the other-world “demonic” in the extreme. We inherit their assessment. By lights biblical and focused on Exodus, the Haitian Revolution was the closest thing the modern world has seen to the famed escape of Israel from Egypt—putting most Christian attempts to champion the poor to shame. No surprise either, then, that the new black republic was swiftly hit with a French lawsuit equivalent to $20 billion, processed through US courts to US benefit over the next century, squeezed with sanction, internationally sequestered by blockade and boycott, and reduced over bitter time to its status today as the hemisphere’s poorest state.
Meanwhile, plantation masters North and Protestant in the new American Republic took up circuit rider energies to convert slaves away from such “dangerous foolishness,” sure that preaching Ephesians 5 and Colossians 4 would secure their happy captives in a docile contentment with a lifetime of crushing pain given the promise of whitened souls in the blood bath of Jesus and a heavenly destiny leaving the wretched black body behind. Thus Christianity supplied a modicum of planter class hallucination, over the top of deep anxiety that “what goes round, sooner or later, comes round.”
Nat Turner and crew shattered that delirium. And what boiled its surface with rage was an even deeper delirium of masterly terror that supremacy would now face its comeuppance in a Christian-animated brew of insurgence. Here was a new read of an imperialized religion—ever since Constantine made it the acolyte of imperial designs to conquer. Constantinian Christianity had gone hyper in Columbus-and-crew aggression on native land, decimating tribes by war and disease hailed by whites as God’s “blessing” and celebrating black bodies from Afrique as the “providential” replacement force of labor to mine the silver, grow the cotton, birth the muscle, and serve the dinner. That on the contrary, the bible itself might light a fuse of insurgence, and open a heart to hear a Spirit counsel resistance and fighting, was terrifying in the extreme. The world was upside down! The apocalypse come! And white skin the target! Jesus—as champion of the lowly and the least? Blasphemy!
There is not time here to do more than caution. How are we reading the bible today in our churches? Why are we not out recruiting comrades for raids on the powers? Easy to look back and appreciate the daring from the safety of a warm pew. But whose side are we on in our own actual practice? I have not seen very many Christian feet on the front lines in the streets of this city in the confrontations I have been part of. And I, myself, am also still breathing while so many have been throttled and buried. Nat Turner, however else we may assess him, revolutionizes our reading of scripture. And asks posthumously, now what are we going to do? How far are we willing to go?
For my part in speaking to my own people, I lift up Turner’s act as clairvoyant in its augury, schooling John Brown in his severity, seeing, thirty years before its eruption, the War that Frederick Douglass would come to believe was inevitable. By compare—the collective uprising of Southampton was mild and sober in its conduct, restrained and dignified in its vision, a fanaticism merely rational and tactical when set beside the barbarity of white business as usual or the cruelty of reprisal when the white monster was provoked into action. And it entirely punctured the myth of slave felicity inside the shackle.
As black theologian James Cone has always so sharply rebuked, whenever white folks challenge black folks about black violence—whether that of Turner’s revolt in ‘31 or Detroit’s rebellion in ‘67—whose violence should we begin with? It is violence all the way up and down the social order once we get the mythology off of our eyeball. And has been from before the formal beginning of the country—all the way up to today! The question for my people is whether we are capable of ever embracing the truth of this place short of something like collective self-immolation. Watching the supremacist subtext of the nation once again rise to the surface in police response, political rhetoric, and policy enactment—in middle class incomprehension as well as extremist rage—the prospect looks bleak. In the face of such, Turner’s tranquility, despite the radicality of his act and the failure of his initiative, is instructive. Whatever our own courses of action, may we be as resolute and as composed.
Benjamin, Walter. 1969. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Walter Benjamin, Illuminations. Trans. H. Zohn, ed. H. Arendt, 253-264. New York: Schoken.
Cone, James H. 1975. God of the Oppressed. New York: The Seabury Press.
Harris, Max. 2016. “A Future History of the United States,” Pacific Standard (January 26, 2016), viewed July 20, 2017, from https://psmag.com/social-justice/a-future-history-of-the-united-states