The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
In 1967, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, a fictional account of the Southampton slave uprising of 1831, became FrontPage news. While the book received the Pulitzer Prize, the attempts of a white writer to imagine the thoughts of the most famous slave insurrectionist brought Styron immediate and bitter criticism. Black critics, in particular, charged that Styron imposed baseless sexual and psychological motivations upon Turner.
In the author’s note, Styron refers to Nat Turner simply as Nat (Mandel 144). Is this familiarity by the author part of intuitive white condescension and adherence to southern racial etiquette? Is this reference and the entire book an unconscious attempt to keep Nat Turner in his place – to emasculate him? Would the novelist expect Nat Turner to address him as Mr. Styron? Perhaps no one can ever know the answers to these questions. Yet, they are raised to indicate the potentially profound difficulties that are inherent in Styron’s undertaking.
Styron may be guilty of projecting on to Nat Turner many of the classical white stereotypical notions about black people (Sievers 117). Some novelist is not suggesting that Styron intentionally wished to malign the character and historical significance of Nat Turner. However, through his imaginations he unwittingly has selected the types of psychological material which appear to emasculate and degrade Nat Turner and his people (Bryer & Hatem 86). In so doing, the author must accept the responsibility for whatever part his book will play in perpetuating the racist myths of the white society. Since this book has been dubbed an historical novel many of the readers will accept the author’s freedom of imagination as fact. Thus, the psychological impact on the American public of this widely publicized literacy work will be considerable.
The Confessions of Nat Turner seems to reveal some obvious and some subtle manifestations of white racist attitudes.
First, almost all of the important and influential persons in the protagonist’s early developmental years were white. Even Nat Turner’s mother is given a secondary and insignificant role (Andrews et al. 108). Instead, those who are portrayed as being most crucial are Miss Nell, Miss Emmeline, and Marse Samuel. All the people he seemed to worship were white. Were there no influential or worthy black people in his life? From the standpoint of current psychological theory one would expect that whatever greatness and strength of character Nat Turner possessed would stem primarily from his early rearing with his mother and father. Yet, the wonderings of Styron’s mind seem to focus mainly on his relations with white people. Is this because of a commonly held racist view that a Negro who achieves must be primarily doing so because of his associations with whites? This somewhat disguised theme of white is right can be seen in other basic aspects of The Confessions.
Nat Turner as a literary character seems to be quite white (Paris 241). His speech sounds more like Styron’s than of a heroic black slave of nineteenth-century America. In fact, in many places the writer’s imagination seems to run wild. For example, here is Styron’s Nat Turner as he waits on a deserted plantation,
Now, looking down at the shops and barns and cabins and distant fields, I was no longer the grinning black boy in velvet pantaloons; for a fleeting moment instead I owned all, and so exercised the privilege of ownership by unlacing my fly and pissing loudly on the same worn stone where dainty tiptoeing feet had gained the veranda steps a short three years before. What a strange, demented ecstasy, how white I was, what wicked joy. (232)
Is this really American black protagonist speaking, or is American witnessing some sort of vicarious and prurient joy which Styron experiences by projecting this type of imagery into the mind of Nat Turner?
American hero is also portrayed as a house nigger possessing the full range of currently popular and usually overgeneralized feelings of self-hatred, anti-Negro attitudes and a desire to be white which psychiatrists tell them plague black people in a racist culture. However, Nat Turner was a unique and great individual (Pearce 37). It could be that what really distinguished him was the fact that he was not indoctrinated with the psyche of a house nigger. It is just as reasonable, from a psychological viewpoint, to speculate that he did not hate his blackness and that it was self-love that made him a revolutionist revolting against the abominable institution of slavery. There is certainly little in the original confessions of logical role of a house nigger or Uncle Tom. In his book Contempt and Pity Michael Scott says, “Styron’s reconstruction of events is an example of the stereotyped belief that black people rebel primarily because of an unfulfilled psychological need to be white and not because of a sense of their own inner dignity” (175). This notion is the self-flattery of the oppressor who cannot imagine that a black man could want to be anything unless it is an emulation of him. And, it follows naturally that if the black man cannot be like the white man then he must certainly yearn for the white woman with an erotic-religious fervor which implies that salvation itself must lie in her loins. This idea is another major psychological theme of The Confessions. Styron presents a Caucasian stereotype of the black man’s innermost desires, which is to sexually possess a white woman. This is what the white racists have been telling the black man for centuries.
Why does the author choose to depict Nat Turner as a celibate pining for white women? There is at least one historical account which indicates that he was married to black slave girl (Meyer, 145). In the original Confessions there is nothing to suggest that their protagonist or his followers were desirous of sexually possessing white female flesh! In fact, Turner and his troops did not sexually molest or rape any white woman whom they had slain or encountered. As anyone acquainted with the behavior of conquering soldiers will testify, this is amazing self-restraint for a band of drunken and undisciplined black troops. Why didn’t these white-women-hungry slaves take advantage of their opportunity? Why does Styron in his tale go so far in distorting the actual historical facts?
The author takes the one recorded fact, that the only person Nat Turner actually killed himself was Miss Margaret Whitehead (Rushdy 78), and uses this to spin an enormous tale of Turner’s overwhelming, erotic, and quasi-religious attachment to this young girl and her whiteness. In the novel, even as Nat Turner is going to his death he is still languishing for her white body. In fact, the writer makes it appear as if American black rebel’s strength and wish to revolt somehow stemmed mainly from his associations (both real and fantasized) with Miss Margaret. On the last page of the novel as Turner is being led to his execution he is quoted as saying, “I would have done it all again. I would have destroyed them all. Yet I would have spared one. I would have spared her that showed me Him whose presence I had not fathomed or maybe never even known” (Styron 428). Readers see propagated the hackneyed racist belief that Negroes who are strong, successful, and masculine must also want to possess a white woman in order to give final sanction to their manhood. Why are not the author able to imagine that Nat Turner had a young, feminine, beautiful, and courageous black woman who stood by his side throughout his heroic plan to revolt against slavery?
Styron’s selection of factual and psychological material speaks for itself. It speaks for itself again when American read that the closest their black rebel comes to a realized sexual experience is through a homosexual one with another young black slave. What is the communication here? Naturally, it implies that Nat Turner was not a man at all. It suggests that he was unconsciously really feminine.
In summary, as one ponders these and other words attributed to Styron, as explore the glossy surfaces and the ambiguous substructure of The Confessions, it becomes painfully clear that this semi-fictional work and its author’s gratuitous comments are indeed part of long rehearsal in tragedy. But it is also evident that Styron – true to one element of the tragic figure – speaks and writes without comprehension of either the meaning of the drama, or the profound and bitter depths through which America continually moves towards the creation of a thousand Nat Turners more real than his could ever be. For he is obviously convinced that he has discriminately glorified the Nat Turner of history, that he has built this strange black mystic into a true hero, and that he has thereby attained the right to judge other dark rebels and their role in America today.
As a conclusion, Nat Turner’s revolt had an important message for his day and an even greater message for today’s generation. That message in part is that no people should ever forget or forgive slavery and humiliation. Instead of recognizing Turner as the genuine radical that he was, white writers, like William Styron, the author of The Confessions of Nat Turner, have distorted his message and downplayed his rebellion.
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Meyer, Howard. 1967. Colonel of the Black Regiment: The Life of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, New York.
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Pearce, Richard. “William Styron.” Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 1971.
Rushdy, Ashraf. Neo-Slave Narratives. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
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Scott, Daryl. “Contempt and Pity.” University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
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