Throughout the colonial period and the time leading up to the American civil war, one of the most important and controversial topics facing Americans was the idea of slavery. The notion of slavery is an odd and incredibly horrifying concept, that one man can own another man, or two men, or an entire family, just because of the color of their skin. No doubt the idea was racist and repulsive, but to many Men and Women in history, across the country and across the world, slavery was just a part of everyday life: they knew no different.
So when those people who were being stripped from their homeland and brought over on ships to be sold at auction to the highest white bidder, began to question the sacredness of this terrible operation, it should have come as no surprise when a rebellion ensued like that of Nat Turner in South Hampton County, Virginia in August of 1831. Stephen B. Oates’s account of this gruesome slave rebellion was put into text in “The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion. Oates’s description of this important fragment in American history comes in a prologue, four parts, and then an epilogue in which he tells the story of the time leading up the rebellion in South Hampton County, the rebellion itself and the time after it, along with his journey through the city and how he acquired his information for the book. In the conclusion of his piece, Oates establishes the claim that to many African-Americans, now and in the past, Nat Turner is somewhat of a heroic figure and a freedom fighter in a dark period for this enslaved people.
Oates, a white man, stated in the opening of his book that he wanted to “produce a biographical and historical narrative that would be as realistic and fair-minded as I could make it. ” But Oates failed at this attempt, but not on the side of diminishing blacks, but instead he took more of a “white man’s fault” route. In his story, though he was trying to be as fair and equal as possible, he portrayed the white man as the wrongdoer, and the black slaves as the victims. But Oates’s claim that Nat is perceived as a “martyred soldier of slave liberation” is what separates this story from others.
In my opinion, Oates is right on track. Nat Turner began his life as a slave, yet he was very intelligent, learning how to read and write and a young age, even with no former education. He grew up under several masters, including Samuel Turner whom which he gets the last name turner, but lived in South Hampton County for his entire life up until the rebellion. Nat’s life was that of any other slave living in this time period, working the fields, doing household chores, and even running errands for his master later in his life.
Nat grew up incredibly religious and this quite possibly could have affected Nat’s decision to start a rebellion. Nat began to have “visions” and “sings from god” which were telling him that “the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first. ” (The Confessions of Nat Turner) Leading up to the rebellion, Nat made sure that his plans stayed secretive, relying on a need to know basis for rallying information.
Nat planned carefully and intelligently, strategizing every part of the insurgence that was to arise. Nat’s observance of a solar eclipse was his last clue to start the rebellion. A week later, on August 21, it began. “It was sometime after midnight. With a slight wind murmuring in the darkness, the slaves set out by the light of a torch, moving through the woods toward the Travis farm-the first target in their holy war against the white man. ” (pg. 69) The rebellion ended with nearly 60 whites dead, including men, women and children, but the loss for the whites was much more than that.
Nat’s rebellion showed that the “dumb negroes” surrounding the white society were not as dumb as once believed, in fact, some were quite brilliant, and Stephen Oates supported this idea throughout the book. Telling the story behind the scenes of how the insertion developed, and how the slaves could think for themselves and design the plan without the help of outside forces, an idea that many whites refused to believe in the time following the rebellion. Though Nat was finally captured, and in turn tried, then executed, the battle that he won was much greater than his own life.
Nat is without a doubt a “freedom fighter” and although his fight ended in blood, it was necessary at the time to help to end the continuance of such a cruel and inhuman practice. Slavery in itself was much more horrifying than every white death that ensued following the rebellion combined. Oates’s assertion that Turner’s rebellion was the first war against slavery is incredibly accurate, except in one sense, one does not need to be African-American to agree with this claim.
Though an African-American could view slavery as a much more personal subject, because it affected and enslaved many of their own ancestors, one does not need to be black to understand how terrible slavery actually is. Any single person who can assess slavery with an open mind and completely unbiased will see that the suggestion that one person can own another person solely because of the color of one’s skin is completely inhumane, and it’s absolutely no surprise that those who were being enslaved decided to react.
Nat did in fact commit a crime, he started a rebellion that ended in the deaths of numerous innocent people, but he was only acting this way because of how whites were acting towards him. In some ways Oates is in fact creating a racial divide in his legacy of Nat Turner by saying that only African-Americans regard Turner as a hero, but he is not doing this intentionally. He is saying this with the mindset of a man living in the 1700’s when people hated slavery but only because they were worried about slavery affecting their own lives, and not seeing its overall immorality.
This racial divide was not intentionally put into place during his work, but Oates still touched on the subject of a difference between blacks and whites. Still, in my opinion, Turner was only an enslaved, African-American man who wanted equality and decided to react with the same amount of hatred and severe measures as what slavery and white people had showed him. Nat was a freedom fighter indeed, he started the fight for freedom for blacks in America, he started the fight that would help to build a better country, and started the fight that would make America a much better place.