January 2, 2014
In the fall of 1967, William Styron published The Confessions of Nat Turner, and it quickly rose atop the best-seller lists. A month after its release, he was honored at Willberforce University, the historically black college named after William Willberforce, a significant figure of the British abolitionist movement. The president of the college personally thanked Styron because he, a white man, had “illuminated some of slavery’s darkest corners” at a time when racial animosities were heightened and in need of repair (Styron 434). The Pulitzer Prize would soon come but so would a backlash. In short time, many blacks took umbrage with a white man’s first-person portrayal of Nat Turner, so much so that his book sparked a movement against black stories told by interlopers. But what should be the image of Nat Turner? Should it only be constructed by a black author?
The most vociferous voices against Styron’s Turner were Lerone Bennett, Jr., author of Before the Mayflower: a History of Black America; Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, a prominent psychiatrist, educator, and co-author of Bill Cosby’s Come on, People: On the Path From Victims to Victors; John A. Williams, novelist and essayist whose most notable book is The Man Who Cried I Am; and John Henrik Clarke, the pan-Africanist whose scholarship rivals that of Arthur Schomburg. Together these men, along with six others, wrote William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. It was published a year after Styron’s work and was received glowingly by The New York Times Book Review. Their condemnation was so scathing that it curtailed a movie based on the book and effectively branded Styron as a racist. The contributors’ central argument, as Clarke states in the introduction, is that “the Nat Turner created by William Styron has little resemblance to the Virginia slave insurrectionist who is a hero to his people…The motive for this distortion could be William Styron’s reaction to the racial climate that has prevailed in the United States in the last fifteen years” (Clarke vii-viii).
When I read Styron’s Confessions, I had no knowledge of the controversy. The impetus for my reading stemmed from a sympathetic profile of his life written by his daughter wherein she describes his early stardom following the publications of Confessions and Sophie’s Choice, later optioned as a film starring Meryl Strep and Kevin Kline. It also highlights the friendships he maintained with James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. As a young writer, enrolled in MFA creative writing program, I was struggling to find myself amid the din of white voices in my classes. But reading about Styron’s Confessions assuaged my apprehensions. It seemed to prove that a writer’s voice is more malleable than the color of his skin; it’s the writing that matters. If he, a white man from the South, could be rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize for reprising the voice of a black icon, surely I could assume any voice I desired. These were the ideas guiding me as I flew through the book in a week. But what if I had heard of the controversy? What if Ten Black Writers clouded my perspective? What if I declined to read it solely because Styron was white? Would I be misreading an important moment in African American literary history?
While I was unaware of the claims made by Ten Black Writers, I shared some of their concerns. The problem with Styron’s Turner is conspicuous—he sounds nothing like an enslaved African. I had read the narratives of Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Jacobs, David Walker, Sojourner Truth, Denmark Vesey, William Wells Brown, Harriet E. Wilson, Booker T. Washington, and others, but Styron’s Turner doesn’t jibe. His voice isn’t echoed in any of these texts. While there is no definitive voice of an enslaved African, James Olney asserts that there are distinct characteristics that all slave narratives possess in his essay “‘I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.” Some of these characteristics are as follows: “The theme is the reality of slavery and the necessity of abolishing it; the content is a series of events and descriptions that will make the reader see and feel the realities of slavery; and the form is a chronological, episodic narrative beginning with an assertion of existence and surrounded by various testimonial evidences for that assertion” (Olney 53). To fulfill the important task of illuminating the horrors of slavery, the author had to first assert his humanity, and this was done almost universally in the first words of the narrative. These words were “I was born” and were followed by a detailed history of the author’s home and parentage written in “plain,” unadorned language. Yet the first line of Styron’s book is inconsistent with this tradition.
Above the barren, sandy cape where the river joins the sea, there is a promontory or cliff raising straight up hundreds of feet to form the last outpost of land. One must try to visualize a river estuary below this cliff, wide and muddy and shallow, and a confusion of choppy waves where the river merges with the sea and the current meets the ocean tide. (1)
Now consider the first lines of Frederick Douglass’ narrative.
I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen my authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves ignorant. (1)
Instead of “plain” reportage, Styron’s Turner sounds like an educated man of the twentieth century or William Styron. Here he clearly failed to animate the voice of an enslaved African. The syntax, the diction, the rhythm, everything was off. True, Styron’s Confessions is not a typical slave narrative, as outlined by Olney, but it is written in first-person and shares the subject of slavery. This led me to assume that the novel would mirror elements of the tradition, but maybe this was a misread, one that caused me to review the opening page many times over before I accepted what was written.
The original Confessions of Nat Turner wouldn’t clarify my concerns either. It was transcribed after Turner’s execution which means that Turner didn’t actually “write” his narrative. The actual admission of guilt comes forward through the words of his white lawyer, Thomas Gray, who in all truth is the only person to hear Turner’s confession, offered while he was fettered in chains, no doubt beaten unmercifully, clinging to life. Thus, Turner’s Confessions is hardly a text that can be embraced. It was published to placate slaveholders who feared for their lives after hearing the news of the insurrection, assuring them that Turner’s rebellion was not part of an intricate scheme to destroy slavery. The “facts” that emerged, as a result, were not a sufficient point of departure to accurately construct Turner’s character.
My reading became more troublesome as I struggled with Styron’s purpose. If a slave narrative was intended to encourage its readers to make haste towards abolition, and Styron had already jettisoned this tradition as evident in the first lines, then why does Styron’s Turner share his story? What is the reader supposed to glean from Styron’s Turner? These questions were further complicated when I learned that Styron’s Turner was gay:
I reached up to wipe away the blood from his lips, pulling him near with the feel of his shoulders slippery beneath my hand, and then we somehow fell on each other, very close, soft and comfortable in a sprawl like babies; beneath my exploring fingers his hot skin throbbed and pulsed like the throat of a pigeon, and I heard him sigh in a faraway voice, and then for a long moment as if set free into another land we did with our hands what, before, I had done alone. (204)
The image of Turner masturbating another man wasn’t one I expected. The language is so erotic that it made me cringe. I accepted the scenes that described his lust for women, even his masters, but homosexuality upset my expectations. Attraction to or hatred of white women are consistent themes in antebellum literature, and I expected multiple allusions. There was definitely a complicated nexus of sexual relations and desire between slaves and their masters, but idea of Turner being gay was so provocative. What does his homosexuality signify? Are these lines superfluous or indicative of a larger narrative? Did Styron intend to reshape the image of homosexuality and heroism at once?
As I read further, I hoped that Styron would capture the sound and power of the black sermon at least. After all, Turner must have been a captivating preacher if he was able to incite an insurrection. My anticipation grew for 308 pages, and then Styron gives the reader Turner’s first sermon: the story of the Jews under Pharaoh’s rule juxtaposed with the obvious parallel between their own lives.
But them of you that recollects they Bible teachin’ knows about Israel in Egypt an’ the peoples an’ they had names just like us black folk—like you right there, Daniel. Them Jews haulin’ wood and pullin’ rock and thrashin corn an’ makin’ bricks until they was near ‘bout dead an’ didn’t git ary penny for none of it neither, like ev’y livin mothah’s son of us, them Jews was in bondage…You is men! You is men, my dear brothers, look at yo’selves, look to yo’ pride!” (308-10)
The sermon appears to rile the listening slaves, but it lacks complexity and adopts a common motif. Had Styron ever heard a black sermon? Did he know that he could have pulled from anything in the black oral tradition and done better—spirituals, folktales, gospel, blues? Did he do his homework? There were certainly a number of famous preachers during his time whose words he could have imbibed. Instead, what he offers is trite and uninspiring. The force and passion and imagery required to motivate one to take up arms and murder are lacking.
In the end, after reading the scenes that portray Turner as a powerless leader during the killing spree, the long passages that describe Turner’s incessant desire to masturbate, and the frequent sexual images of his fantasies with white women, I still found it worthy of appreciation. In his author’s note, Styron cautioned that the book was more “a meditation on history” than a historical novel. Because the breadth of the slave state is definitely exposed, I subscribed to his perspective. The imagery of the plantation economy is rich and the relationships between slave and master are equally telling. As for Turner, I accepted him as a work of fiction from the beginning, but without this suspension of disbelief, the novel fails.
The critics weren’t so lenient. The afterword published in 1992 with the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the book provides Styron’s personal account of its acceptance or lack thereof. Therein he soberly explains the pendulum of reactions precipitated by the novel and even concedes some of his failures, acknowledging both the validity and the absurdity of claims made by his detractors and defenders alike. The charges he lists are as follows:
I had ‘missed the beauty of the Afro-American idiom,’ that I had created an indecisive and emasculate wimp rather than the stalwart figure of history, that the text reflected an approving view of the paternalism of slavery, that my description of a fleeting homoerotic episode in adolescence meant that I regarded him as a ‘raving homosexual,’ that I had failed to give him a wife, that the secret agenda of the entire work was to demonstrate how the black struggle for freedom was forever doomed to failure… they had in common the conviction that I had somehow missed the religious and emotional center of the black experience—and they may have been right. (448)
I then read Ten Black Writers Respond to examine their arguments firsthand. What I found, virtually on every page, was the word emasculate and all its variants. “The man Styron substitutes for Nat Turner is not only the antithesis of Nat Turner; he is the antithesis of blackness,” Bennett scathes (Clarke 5). How could Styron diminish the paragon of black resistance to a wimpy figure who threw up multiple times at the sight of the carnage? Why would he portray him as a man so weak that he managed to kill only one person? Gentlemen, I wanted to say, Turner reveals this to be true himself in the original Confessions. As for him throwing up in the middle of it all, this, yes, can never be confirmed. But does this portrayal deny the fact the fifty-five whites were killed, that he constructed it all, that his rebellion remains unrivaled? Should he have single-handedly beheaded them all?
What caused the most controversy stemmed from Turner’s sexual fantasies, and I admit feeling discomforted while reading some of Turner’s graphic visions about white women. But the critics delved further. Why hadn’t Styron paired Nat with a black woman they demanded? I responded with an argument of their own: Styron didn’t stick to facts. According to the “facts” found in Gray’s Confessions, which again we are supposed to believe were transcribed by a white man of the highest moral character who really wanted to afford nigger Nat some justice, there is no evidence of a wife or intimate relationship with a woman. Turner did, however, openly refer to a number of people, namely his grandmother, mother, father, master, and disciples. So it seems that Styron did get the facts right in this instance, but the critics wanted him to do exactly what they railed against. Create a fiction, fudge the truth, but only when it serves their ends. As far as Turner’s fantasies, they seem to misread what is clearly there.
Yet still in my mind’s eye I was mounted upon her in the dust of the road, hot as a coupling fox, my excitement gathering as I conceived not of any pleasure I might cause her or myself, but only the swift and violent immediacy of a pain of which I was complete overseer, repaying her pity by crushing my teeth against her mouth until the blood ran in rivulets upon her cheeks, displaying my gratitude for that feathery compassion not by murmured endearments but by clasping my hands from underneath ever more fiercely upon the firm flesh of squirming buttocks until drawn up full against my black groin she cried out in the wildest anguish while I shot off within her in warm outrageous spurts of defilement. (265)
Turner does not wish to have sex with white women because he perversely loves them. He wants to rape them as retribution for the rape of his mother and his own enslavement. The act would be devoid of pleasantries.
The essay “History, Politics and Literature: The Myth of Nat Turner,” one of the hundreds of essays and four books solely dedicated to the controversy, confirmed my problems with Ten Black Writers Respond. Written by Seymour L. Gross and Eileen Bender, it refutes the claims espoused in the anger-ridden book, almost line by line. The article also examines how other authors have treated Nat Turner as well. For instance, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a white abolitionist who served as colonel for the first African American regiment during the Civil War, portrays Nat Turner as having,
a wife whom he could not protect from sexual ‘outrage,’ scars on his body which may have come from white hands, and a band of blacks that had been systematically brutalized from childhood’ and ‘who had seen their wives and sisters habitually polluted’ by with ravishers… (The source for these facts, it will be noted, is the passage which was later spuriously added to Gray’s Confessions.) (510)
These stretches of “truth,” offered by many respected authors, are based on words that Turner never spoke and bolster the argument that the character of Nat Turner exists mostly in lore. As a result, there have been myriad authors who have proclaimed the authenticity of their fictional Turner. Furthermore, Bender and Gross revealed that the myth of Nat Turner was not exclusive to the black community and subjected to many interpretations:
Styron’s novelistic attempt in his words is not as hostility would have it, a ‘libelous’ deviation from history into myth. It is, rather, very much a part of a tradition. Styron has ‘used’ Nat Turner as Gray, Higginson, Wells Brown and indeed, the accusing critics themselves have used him—rereading into him, and out of him, those usable truths which seemed to him to coalesce about the image he was contemplating. (510)
These ideas suggest no evil intent by Styron and challenge the fury ignited in the black community. Just because Turner’s image is a marker of change and liberation doesn’t grant one the liberty to denounce his creation if the author is white. The 60s, however, was a time when black people needed to be reminded of Turner’s revolutionary image more than any other. It was a time when we needed heroes, and we would not stand for their debasement. Because of this, I believe Ten Black Writers, and many others, wholly misread the text.
Maybe 67’ was just a bad time for a white man with Styron’s ambition. Writing about a culture foreign to you is no easy task, and I admired his attempt. 67’ marked a tremendous change in the black community. Adam Clayton Powell lost his seat in the House of Representatives. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Deadly riots broke out in Newark, Detroit, New York City, Cleveland, Washington D.C., Chicago, and Atlanta. H. Rap Brown became the head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Thurgood Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court. The Black Panther party was formed the year before. Everywhere, there were voices clamoring for equality. We were tired of waiting for something to happen. We were ready to take back what was rightfully ours. We were ready to fight to the death. The same year Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton outlined our collective demands in “Black Power: Its Need and Substance,”
Black people in the United States must raise hard questions, questions which challenge the very nature of the society itself: its long-standing values, beliefs and institutions. To do this, we must first redefine ourselves. Our basic need is to reclaim our history and our identity from what must be called cultural terrorism, from the depredation of self-justifying white guilt. We shall have to struggle for the right to create our own terms through which to define ourselves and our relationship to society, and to have the terms recognized. This is the first right of a free people, and the first right that any oppressor must suspend. (11)
In Carmichael and Hamilton’s estimation, Styron must have been the epitome of a cultural terrorist, and his portrayal of Turner was a clear means of enslaving blacks’ consciousness. A white man would misrepresent our culture no more they implored. The following year saw the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and everything spiraled out of control.
I imagine that it must have been impossible for Styron to travel the country on a book tour then. But in spite of it all, I sympathized with him. His attempt was grandiose and challenging, exactly what is needed from writers. Imagine the world without “Paradise Lost,” for example, in which John Milton’s self-proclaimed purpose was to “justify the ways of God to man” (Milton 1.25). How bold and sacrilegious and utterly amazing of him. The same applies to Styron. If a writer can’t be creative and explore the limits of his imagination then why should he write? Should writers be confined to facts and reputable sources? Should we only write what we know?
What’s even more tragic about the controversy is its vitality. In his afterword, Styron reveals the pain caused by this fact.
There is ample evidence of Nat Turner being not only unread by blacks but in perpetual quarantine…Several times I learned the dismal news that in specific courses Ten Black Writers Respond would be required reading while The Confessions of Nat Turner was not listed…as recently as the mid-1980s, Paule Marshall, a fully grown black writer and a reputable one, was quoted in The New York Times Book Review—where she was playing a game in which writers were asked to name ‘Books I Never Finished Reading’—as saying that she never even started reading The Confessions of Nat Turner since she had been assured that the work was ‘racist.’ (447)
His words made me question why I enjoyed many aspects of the book. Was it because I read it as a novel, because I didn’t have the events of the 60s guiding my response, because I didn’t limit Styron’s artistic license? Sure I had problems with the book, but were they so insurmountable that I couldn’t appreciate the beauty of his prose, even if it became the emblematic, post-war voice of the white, American male? Weren’t some of the passages masterful?
An exquisitely sharpened hatred for the white man is of course an emotion not difficult for Negroes to harbor. Yet if truth be known, this hatred does not abound in every Negro’s soul; it relies upon too many mysterious and hidden patterns of life and chance to flourish luxuriantly everywhere. Real hatred of the sort of which I speak—hatred so pure and obdurate that no sympathy, no human warmth, no flicker of compassion can make the faintest nick or scratch upon the stony surface of its being—is not common to all Negroes. (257)
In these lines Styron navigates the complexities of hatred which to be fully appreciated should articulate the perspectives of both the hater and the hated, the slave and his enslaver. In this instance, Styron assumes the voice of Nat Turner to insert the voice of his master who rationalizes why he is worthy of hatred but not universally. These words are not Turner’s and clearly Styron’s response to the wrongs of his ancestors as well as the wrongs witnessed during his time. The irony is not lost then that his writing about hatred harbored in 1831 would mirror the hatred he would face upon publication.
If he had to do it again, I wonder would he consider his efforts worth their consequences. Sure he won the Pulitzer, but he lost the respect and readership of many African Americans in the process. It may be presumptuous, but the controversy surely troubled him for the rest of his life. It may even have been a factor in his demise and led to the bouts of depression he would later suffer. In his memoir Darkness Visible, he vividly described each episode, but his daughter wonders if the process liberated him completely, fearing that he may have died a fractured man.
The last six years of my father’s life were an ongoing disaster. Mass General, New York-Presbyterian, N.Y.U. The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, the New Milford Hospital, Windemere, and Bethel. Zoloft, Cymbalta, Sinemet. Klonopin, Effexxor, and Nardil. ECTs, MRIs, radiation therapy. Feeding tubes, throat-suction devices, twenty four-hour-nurses. It was cavalcade of emergency room and rehab centers, treatments and second opinions, drug-induced mania alternating with the horrific, grinding boredom of sitting, paralyzed, while life drained away from him. (58)
My support for Styron’s work begs the question then: does my reading lessen my blackness? If blacks aren’t reading Styron’s book, then what are we reading? I had been an English Literature major and was required to read authors from various centuries and literary movements ranging from Beowulf to Achebe. The exposure made me the reader and writer I am today. Who would I be then if I only read authors of a particular race or genre? The answer is simple enough. I would be unrealized.
There is nothing wrong then with African Americans reading white authors, even if they are verifiable racists. Take the example of the Joseph Conrad and The Heart of Darkness. The book is without a doubt a symbol of imperialism, and he had proven on many occasions that he was a racist. Does that make it worthless? Even the misgivings about V.S. Naipaul’s misanthropic personality don’t diminish his writing. What then about books written by white authors with blacks as their central characters? If they are off limits, that prevents a reading of Shakespeare’s Othello. This strand of logic also creates a problem for black authors who write about other cultures. Baldwin’s Another Country and Caryl Phillips’ Cambridge would be prohibited as well. Moreover, should we not read books that shed light on our questionable pasts? That eliminates The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, a fictionalized account of black slaveholders. Is there something in our lens that prevents us from appreciating the breadth of literature that the world affords? I would like to think this isn’t the case, that we aren’t so crippled by our past that we can’t appreciate art. But what if we are? What then are we reading and how does it shape who we become?
This is an introduction to my exploration of what African Americans read and misread in literature, film, music, and art. For a sneak peak at the epilogue, click here.
Carmichael, Stokely and Chales V. Hamilton. Black Power. New York: Random House, 1967.
Clarke, John Henrik, ed. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. Boston: BeaconPress, 1968.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. New York: Penguin, 1982.
Gross, L. Seymour and Eileen Bender. “History, Politics, and Literature: The Myth of Nat Turner.” American Quarterly (1971): 487-518.
Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” The Riverside Milton. Ed. Roy Flannagan. Boston: Hougton, 1998.
Olney, James. “‘I Was Born”: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.” Callaloo 20 (Winter, 1984): 46-73.
Styron, Alexandra. “Reading My Father.” The New Yorker 10 Dec. 2007: 50.
Styron, William. The Confessions of Nat Turner. New York: Vintage International, 1993.
Turner, Nat. The Confessions of Nat Turner. Ed. Thomas Gray. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.