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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
The story of Nat Turner had been long gestating in my mind, ever since I was a boy—in fact, since before I actually knew I wanted to be a writer. I could scarcely remember a time when I was not haunted by the idea of slavery or was not profoundly conscious of the strange bifurcated world of whiteness and blackness in which I was born and reared. In the Virginia Tidewater region of my beginnings, heavily populated by blacks, society remained firmly in the grip of the Jim Crow laws and their ordinance of a separate and thoroughly unequal way of life. The evidence was blatant and embarrassing even to some white children, like myself, who were presumably brought up to be indifferent to such inequities as the ramshackle black school that stood on the route we traveled to our own up-to-date and well-equipped edifice, with its swank state-of-the-art public-address system, very advanced for the late 1930s. Many black schools in Virginia at that time had outside privies.
Despite our own fine local facilities, Virginia—in the era of the hidebound Harry Byrd political machine—ranked in public education among the lowest of the states, down there with Arkansas and Mississippi, and the quality of instruction in the black schools had to be even worse than what we white students were given, which (except for a few individually outstanding teachers) was desperately mediocre. I was painfully sensitive to this disparity, just as I was conscious of the utter strangeness of this whole segregated world: the water fountains and rest rooms marked “White” and “Colored,” the buses in which black folk were required to sit in the rear, the theaters with blacks seated in the balconies (in the larger towns there were actually separate theaters); even the ferryboats crossing the rivers and bays enforced a nautical apartheid, with whites starboard and Negroes portside. I was perpetually bemused by this division and the ensuing isolation.
It was a system both ludicrous and dreadful, and I sensed its wrongness early, probably because of my parents, who, while hardly radical, were enlightened in racial matters, but also out of some innate sense of moral indignation. Although of course I was an outsider, I fell under the spell of négritude, fascinated by black people and their folkways, their labor and religion, and especially their music, their raunchy blues and ragtime and their spirituals that reached for, and often attained, the sublime. Like some young boys who are troubled by their “unnatural” sexual longings, I felt a similar anxiety about my secret passion for blackness; in my closet I was fearful lest any of my conventionally racist young friends discover that I was an unabashed enthusiast of the despised Negro. I don’t claim a special innocence. Most white people were, and are, racist to some degree, but at least my racism was not conventional; I wanted to confront and understand blackness.
Then there was the incomparable example of my grandmother. In a direct linkage I still sometimes find remarkable, I am able to say that I remain separated from slavery by only two generations and that I was related to and was familiar with and spoke to someone who owned slaves. Born in 1850 on an eastern North Carolina plantation, my father’s mother was the proprietress of two slave girls who were her age, twelve or thereabouts, at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. Many years later, when she was an old lady in her eighties and I was eleven or twelve, she told me at great length of her love for these children and of the horror and loss she felt when that same year, 1862, Union forces from an Ohio regiment under General Burnside swept down on the plantation, stripped the place bare, and left everyone to starve, including the little slave girls, who later disappeared. It was a story I heard more than once, since I avidly prompted her to repeat it and she, indulging her own fondness for its melodrama, told it again with relish, describing her hatred for the Yankees (which remained undiminished in 1937), the real pain of her starvation (she said they were reduced to eating “roots and rats”), and her anguish when she was separated forever from those little black girls, who were called, incidentally, Drusilla and Lucinda, just as in so many antebellum plantation novels. All of the deliciously described particulars of my grandmother’s chronicle held me spellbound, but I think that nothing so awed me as the fact that this frail and garrulous woman whom I beheld, and who was my own flesh and blood, had been the legal owner of two other human beings. It may have determined, more than anything else, some as-yet-to-be-born resolve to write about slavery.