November 11, 2011. It will be remembered by many of us as the day Carolina beat Michigan State in the inaugural NCAA Carrier Classic on the deck of the Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Others of us still remember the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 when the armistice ending the first World War went into effect. Armistice Day, now Veterans Day, means more, of course, than just a basketball game.
In my family we remember that day also as St. Martin’s Day. We remember my father, who would have celebrated his 101st birthday last Friday.
But a Durham-based author says that November 11 this year was important for another reason.
Sharon Ewell Foster, author of “The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part One: The Witnesses,” reminds us that this year marks the 180th anniversary of the slave rebellion led by Turner. Beginning in August 1831, Turner and a small band of followers moved from farm to farm in Southampton County, Va. — just across the line from Northampton County, N.C. — freeing the slaves and killing men, women, and children in slave-holding families.
After being captured, tried and convicted, Turner was hanged on November 11, 1831. Later, his body was beheaded and quartered. The authorities tried 45 slaves and five free blacks. Of the slaves, 18 were convicted and hanged, 15 were acquitted, and the others, though convicted, were spared. Only one of the free blacks was convicted and hanged. Many other blacks, including those who had nothing to do with the rebellion, were beaten, tortured, and killed.
Ever since then, Americans have debated the question of whether Turner was a terrorist, an early version of Osama bin Laden, or the hero of an unsuccessful, but justifiable, effort to liberate slaves from a brutal and indefensible system. Whites in the South during the 1830s were repulsed by the brutality of Turner’s rebellion. Their reaction sparked a wave of fear that led to more oppressive laws to govern the activities of blacks, both free and enslaved.
Although Foster’s new book is fictional, it tells the story through the voices and experiences of Nat Turner, his owners, other slaves, and slave owners. Foster shows the challenges faced by slave owners, some of whom were so poor they could barely put food on their own tables, much less care for their slaves.
In one very poignant scene, an older enslaved woman rescues her cruel mistress from certain death by the Turner rebels. She had raised that now cruel woman from childhood and still loved her for the little girl she had once been.
Foster’s research in Southampton County found a number of errors in William Styron’s novel, “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” and other popular history versions of Turner’s rebellion and trial. For instance, the basic historical record of Turner was the original “Confessions of Nat Turner” written in 1831 by Thomas Gray, who claimed to be Turner’s attorney. Foster found that Gray was not Turner’s attorney and that Turner never confessed or pleaded guilty. Foster says, “My literary journey has been to find the real Nat Turner, a peaceful and devout man prior to the revolt, not the one created for the press.”
Some have criticized the author of “The Help” for trying to write in the voices of black servants. Here is an opportunity to read the work of a gifted African-American writer who tells her story effectively and sympathetically, using many voices, both white and black. It is a story well worth reading, whatever label you decide to put on Nat Turner.
— D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TVs “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch/. This week’s (Friday, November 18, and Sunday, November 20) guest is Clyde Edgerton, author of “Night Train.”