Ben Parten on America’s Other Founding Father: Nat Turner

In the 2014 film Top Five, Chris Rock’s character has set out to make a film called Uprize, about the Haitian Revolution.  He sees it as his way of changing his image and being a more serious artist, rather than merely the star of a series of ludicrous comedies about a bear who becomes a cop.  Little does he realize that much of America has little appetite for a movie that’s basically about black people killing a bunch of white people.  It doesn’t “play in Peoria.”

Ironically, two years later brought The Birth of a Nation, director Nate Parker’s ambitious attempt to tell the story of another slave uprising: the 1831 revolt led by Nat Turner in Virginia. The movie met with a relatively chilly reception at the box office, perhaps due in part to negative coverage of the director, who was charged (and acquitted) of sexual assault years earlier.  However, African American viewers reportedly made up a large proportion of audiences in theaters, and the movie still doubled its budget, with admittedly modest $16.8 million take at the box office.

Clearly, some viewers were interested, and others were not. It is perhaps safe to say that many in the #AllLivesMatter crowd may not have been extremely enthused about watching a movie about angry, aggrieved black people taking violent revenge on the white population.

Of course, Parker’s film raised eyebrows in another way.  He audaciously borrowed the title of the film from D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 epic Birth of a Nation, which portrayed Reconstruction as a parade of horrors under “Negro rule” and painted the Ku Klux Klan as the rescuers of white womanhood.  It was a bold and creative choice; Parker seemed to be implying that the Turner rebellion, though violently suppressed, was the founding moment of the African American community as a nation of its own. In that sense, Turner was just as much a founding father as Jefferson or Hamilton.

Indeed, Americans have never been able to reconcile themselves completely to the moral valence of slave rebellion. We applaud George Washington and his ragtag revolutionaries for overthrowing oppressive rule by means of violence–war–but the idea of slaves (who were vastly more oppressed than white colonists under British governance) taking up arms and launching a bloodbath of the kind envisioned by John Brown may still put some ill at ease.  Thus, Nat Turner remains one of the most powerful and polarizing figures in American history–as well as one of the most mysterious.

In the latest episode of our sister podcast Doomed to Repeat, we delve into the rich history of Turner, his rebellion, and how it has been remembered and interpreted over the years. Nic sat down with historian Ben Parten at the Georgia Association of Historians conference to talk about Turner’s origins and motives, the way his story has been recorded and reinterpreted by the likes of Thomas Ruffin Gray and William Styron, and why this American radical remains captivating to us today.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University. His work deals with media, law, and the political culture of the modern United States. He has previously received a Consortium for Faculty Diversity fellowship, an ACLS-Mellon postdoctoral fellowship, and the American Baptist Historical Society’s Torbet Prize. His work has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, Technology and Culture, and the edited volume Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

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