Last month on these pages we mentioned Nat Turner, a slave preacher and self-styled prophet who, in 1831, led Virginia’s only “successful” slave revolt. By successful we mean merely that unlike every other slave revolt before or since, Nat Turner’s actually went beyond the planning stages. In fact, in just twelve hours he and his men killed fifty-five white people, including children, in Southampton County.
This observation sparked a furious set of rebuttals from reader Michael C. Lucas, who worried that our post demonstrated insufficient “empathy considering the innocent whites and/or blacks who were subsequently murdered because of [Turner's] actions.” While I disagreed for reasons I made clear at the time, the discussion raised interesting questions, such as, How should slaves like Turner have resisted their enslavement if not by violent means? Lucas responded, “There were many cases of manumission of slaves and the free black population was established, so there were possibilities.”
This, I believe, demonstrates insufficient empathy for the enslaved. Regardless, it appears that Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic is now taking up this question directly: Was Nat Turner Right? The discussion is already cruising at altitude. Here’s Ta-Nehisi and a commenter:
TNC: I have a much easier time with the idea of rebellion, than with massacre. And at the same time I’ve come to a place where I wonder what right any participant in system of perpetual violence (which is what the slave society was) has to object to the steps taken by those whom he or she would visit existential violence.
But bluntly: Does someone who would sell off your mother, father, your children, who would subject your family to the perpetual threat of rape and torture have the right to object to the methods taken by those who would seek to free themselves?
Nat Turner allegedly claimed that he killed children because they would grow up to be slavemasters. This might sound horrible–except it’s actually true. In Foner’s introduction he says Turner, at the time of the rebellion, was “owned” by an infant.
Does that help some?
EVILCORNBREAD: Well, they _probably_ would have grown up to be slavemasters. He didn’t know that to be true, and to be judge jury and executioner based on an assumption doesn’t strike me as justifiable regardless of the situation. Understandable, perhaps.
As to your other question, I’d say no, they do not have that right. But those that are truly innocent (children and, arguably, women) do have the right to object.
IMAGE: From Nat Turner by Kyle Baker (2006)