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Nat Turner Revisited
On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the most controversial historical novel in memory, the author of The Confessions of Nat Turner speaks of a novelist’s duty to history and fiction’s strange power not only to astonish but to enrage
October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
Color and its tragedy, in this troubled year of 1992—which so resembles the troubled year of 1967—has made me think often of James Baldwin and the stormy career of The Confessions of Nat Turner. Naturally I didn’t create the book with a political or social agenda in view, but as Georg Lukâcs points out, historical novels that have no resonance in the present are bound to prove of only “antiquarian” interest; certainly in the back of my mind I had hoped that whatever light my work might shed on the dungeon of American slavery, and its abyssal night of the body and spirit, might also cast light on our modern condition and be understood by black people, as well as white, as part of a plausible interpretation of the agony that has bound the present to the past. But while the book remains alive and well and widely read by white people, it is, as I say, largely shunned by blacks, sometimes with amazing hostility neither articulated nor explained, as if the admonitions of those ten black writers a generation ago still provided a stony taboo. I am less bothered by this boycott in itself—for despite what I’ve just said, I am far from believing that my book, or any novel, has any real relevance to the contemporary crisis—than the way in which it represents a continuation of that grim apartness that has defined racial relations in this country and that seems, from all signs and portents, to have worsened over the twenty-five years since The Confessions of Nat Turner appeared. That year much of Newark and Detroit burned down; this year the fires of Los Angeles seem anniversary fires too cruelly symbolic to accept or believe.
It was typical of Jimmy Baldwin’s intransigent spirit that he never truly abandoned hope. I doubt that he would give up hope, even today. A recent essay on Baldwin quoted some brave and lovely words of Jimmy’s that reminded me of the time when he and I, with our boundless and defiant ambitions, were both setting out to break through the imprisoning walls of color and into the alluring challenge of alien worlds: “Each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black, and black in white. We are part of each other.”