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In America 1831, there was no sign of slavery ending. Nat Turner, a 31-year-old slave seen as a genius by many, was in belief that he was a prophet, and that it was god’s plan for him to revolt against and kill the whites in order to end slavery. He grouped up with others and created a rebellion that lasted only a few days but ended with the deaths of 55 to 65 men, women, and children. Of the 55 – 65 people that were killed, many were children too. Opinions over the years, decades and centuries vary about Turner. Hero or villain? Savior or scourge? Was he insane? He reportedly had a vision about the rebellion shortly before launching it. Maybe he was ‘mad.’ Slavery might do that to a person. He actually may have been all of the above.
In order to truly understand Nat Turner’s action you have to place yourself into the psychic of a slave in America during the 1400 to 1800s. If one believes that men and women can be used as “beasts”, murdered and raped then one cannot truly offer a perspective. One must understand the series of traumatic events that led up to the uprising. The slave owners had forced African Americans into slavery generations after generations. Tortured and abused men, women and children every single day of their lives, and it was never questioned but when the slaves decided to rebel, they were suddenly “madmen”. If you believed that it is your right to destroy family, whole families, why would you not believe it was your right to destroy a race and put an end to it once and for all?
Nat Turner led his warriors into a battle they could not win, but their sacrifice was aimed at future generations to stand against a brutal psychotic system of human bondage. In 1831, Nat Turner led this historic uprising in Southampton County, Virginia. The fighting only lasted about two days before it was suppressed by slave owners, and their pro-slavery flunky militias. Many people were killed, including the greatest number of white fatalities in any slave rebellion in the history of the United States. Nat Turner was clearly trying to send a message.
There was nothing rational about the institution of race slavery in America. Turner’s campaign was not inspired by madness, but by the power of the human spirit to oppose brutal injustice. Race slavery was an institution of mass insanity approved by barbarous law and uncivilized nightmarish tradition. The excuse used by prejudiced propaganda that people who carried out armed attacks against the institution of slavery were “mentally unstable”, is irrational. This excuse is very interesting because the treatment of slaves in America was perhaps the most psychotic behavior of barbarism known to man. Slaves were brutally beaten, tortured, and burned alive, cut into pieces, and made to even hate themselves. After slaves were hanged, sometimes “just for fun”, pieces of their bodies were removed and kept as “souvenirs”. What kind of insanity is that? Nat Turner was inspired by the Bible and led a slave revolt that killed dozens of pro-slavery whites.
Turner is a hero in that he saw injustice and inequity in the existence of slavery and he sought to do something to end a barbarous social and economic practice that has existed in various forms throughout the history of all mankind. Slavery is not unique to Turner or America. It comes into existence because of economic need for growth and development and inequities between stronger and weaker social groups. Turner’s methods were barbaric but no more so than the methods that create any form of slavery of any kind. Yes, innocent people were murdered as a result of Turner’s actions but in the scale of human history and the history of slavery itself a very small event. Like all heroes Turner was tainted with both good and bad, weaknesses and strengths.
People, especially Whites, tend to get hung up on the fact that Nat, and his followers, killed women and children in their quest for freedom. But the same people forget and/or disregard the fact that Whites were brutally killing (in addition to rapping, mutilating, and generally treating like animals) African-American women and children for generations before Nat Turner came along. Nat also witnessed the brutality of slavery his entire life before deciding to try and do something about it. Moreover, one could, in fact, argue that Nat was simply taking an eye for an eye (one lives by the sword so one dies by the sword). Even if one considers all of the slave rebellions put together, African- Americans still only killed a small fraction of Whites, compared to the hundreds of thousands of Black people who were killed during slavery, reconstruction, all the way up until the civil rights movement.
Remembering Nat Turner is not a celebration of violence or vengeance. Calling him a hero for instigating violence is not hypocritical. A humble man of God, Nat Turner gave his life for the dream of bringing liberation to more than two million slaves. His story and rebellion aren’t solely about slavery but fighting against oppression for one’s freedom – and the length to which man, woman or child will go to regain it, once taken. If ever there was a just war, Nat Turner’s holy war against slavery was just that — a just war of liberation.
A man of courage and conviction, Nat Turner deserves a place in the monuments honoring emancipation.
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