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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
But the prevailing tone was strident and crude, sounding very much like the agitprop flatulence of the 1930s. Over the entire enterprise hovered the spirit of the historian Herbert Aptheker, the official United States Communist party “theoretician,” who had done pioneering work on Nat Turner and American slave revolts in the 1930s and 1940s. A militant quotation from Aptheker set the tone of the book. Aptheker’s work had been ground-breaking and useful at a time when Negro history was almost totally neglected, but it was badly skewed by party dogma; his thesis that the institution of slavery was threatened by constant rebellion simply did not, and does not, hold up under scrutiny. He underestimated slavery’s suffocating might. My own view, shared by many students of the history of slavery, was that the institution in the United States was almost uniquely despotic, a closed system so powerful and totalitarian that organized insurrection was almost entirely precluded, though, of course, rebelliousness on an individual level was always present.
This overview necessarily dominated my Nat Turner. Aptheker, upon whose preserve I had so seriously poached, was incensed by my book and for a while trudged around the university circuit preaching a gospel in which I was cast as one of the supreme liars ever to write about American history. (He never seemed to grasp the fundamental fact that I had written a novel.) It was unfortunate that in Ten Black Writers Respond so many recklessly unprovable allegations were made; they were also written in shabby and slipshod rhetoric that even permeated the essays of well-thought-of black figures like the political scientist Charles V. Hamilton and the psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint; the impression left upon many people (including myself and those sympathetic to the black cause) was of intellectual squalor. For me the most frustrating aspect of Ten Black Writers Respond was that writing filled with so much overheated absurdity should have acquired real authority in black America, causing my work to be lodged in a kind of black Index Expurgatorius from that point on, along with such overtly racist novels as The Clansman and Mandingo. Lest such a notation appear overstated, I would point out ample evidence of Nat Turner’s, being not only unread by blacks but in perpetual quarantine. This came from reports filtering back to me from black studies programs in the years up to the present. Several times I learned the dismal news that in specific courses Ten Black Writers Respond would be required reading, while The Confessions of Nat Turner was not listed. This has echoes of Alice chatting with the March Hare. I have often felt perversely gratified that my work could inspire such fear, though scarcely such stunning mindlessness.
Baldwin encouraged me to do what at first caused me hesitation: to take on the persona of Nat Turner and write as if from within this black man’s skin.
In my few ill-considered public appearances that year, when I was unwise enough to accept invitations to defend my fictional choices in front of predominantly young black audiences and tried to show the inner logic that dictated my interpretation of Nat Turner and some of his relationships, the result was disastrous. Writers of novels should never defend themselves, but this was a somewhat special case. In these often raucous sessions, where the gathering was drenched with hostility, I would attempt to explain why I had made certain decisions. I observed, for example, that in the matter of one of the most inflammatory issues—that of Nat’s wife—the ten black writers had simply got it wrong. There was no documentary evidence of a wife, or the equivalent, and if there had been, my conscience would have compelled me to give him one, even though as a novelist I had no such strict obligation. Likewise Margaret Whitehead. A careful reading, I insisted, would show that Nat’s motivation was complex, flowing from a relationship containing hatred as well as love, but not the simpleminded lust claimed by the critics. This made little impression, the response was pitched between sneering disbelief and incomprehension, and for the first time in my life I began to share the clammy chagrin of those writers and artists who have stood before whatever intimidating tribunal, hopelessly defending their work to cold-eyed political regulators. By this time I was being stalked from Boston to New Orleans by a young dashiki-clad firebrand, who unnerved me. Somewhat belatedly, I realized that Nat Turner was not, in this case, an aesthetic object but a political whipping boy—the most prominent one that the black activists possessed at the moment—and I quickly backed off from public view, letting others act as counsel for the defense.