Nat Turner and Unpaid Labor’s Spiritual Contribution
Over 100 years after the first, the American film industry has given us a second film titled The Birth of a Nation. The first by director D.W. Griffith bares no semblance of the truth about Black people and White people in the aftermath of the Civil War. It used false caricatures of blacks and whites. These caricatures said the blacks are less than human and were to be feared. and must be dominated. The caricatures said the whites are the only humans in the United States. And as the only humans, they were justified in dominating black people; and in doing whatever was necessary to protect themselves against the blacks.
The second Birth of a Nation is written, directed, and produced by Nate Parker. He also stars in this film based loosely on the true story of Nat Turner. Nat Turner led a slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. The dramatization of Nat Turner’s life takes up many themes, including everyday slave life in the early 1800’s, the slave and master relationship, Christianity and its role in slavery, love and marriage of the enslaved, slave abuse, the economy of the plantation, slave auctions, and the role of the rape of enslaved black women as a possible justification for the revolt by their black men. It goes on to “chronicle” the indiscriminant killing of many ‘innocent’ black people by whites because of the revolt. Based on what we know about the enslaved’s value to slave owners, Unpaid Labor believes that the lynching sequence after the revolt probably didn’t happen. Black slaves were among the most valuable assets; thus slave owners were clearly not interested in losing slaves and their valuable labor.
D.W. Griffith’s portrayal certainly hit its mark. It painted a false picture that supported the idea that blacks did nothing to contribute to our country. It supported the continued mistreatment of black people as a group. That false picture and the mistreatment of blacks by our government and all of society would continue. It would not start to be different until the early 1960s.
Nate Parker’s portrayal certainly hit its mark by sparking our curiosity about a man willing to die for his freedom and that of others. What of this history? What of this man? Who was he that as a slave we should care about him 185 years after his death? Why did he do it? How is it that it is his Bible that is now a treasured artifact of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History & Culture? One has only to read his confessions “as fully and voluntarily made to Thomas R. Gray” to discover a man of unusual intellect and singular focus. No caricature here!
His confessions begin as follows:
“SIR, --You have asked me to give a history of the motives which induced me to undertake the late insurrection, as you call it--To do so I must go back to the days of my infancy, and even before I was born. I was thirty-one years of age the 2d of October last, and born the property of Benj. Turner, of this county. In my childhood a circumstance occurred which made an indelible impression on my mind, and laid the ground work of that enthusiasm, which has terminated so fatally to many, both white and black, and for which I am about to atone at the gallows.”
Reading on, one discovers a man who was a child of superior intellect who never knew a time when he did not know the alphabet. One discovers a man of fasting and prayer who knew the scriptures. One discovers a man with a religious calling. One discovers a man with an inquisitive mind, an observant mind, and a man of moral excellence. One discovers a man with a lifelong purpose. One discovers an enslaved man who was never a slave.
What of The Birth of a Nation? The truth is that true versions of those caricatures created by D.W. Griffith were contributors to a nation that benefits even today from their Unpaid Labor. What of The Birth of a Nation? The truth is that Nat Turner and the many nameless and faceless Nat Turners in our nation’s history were true men and women. It is their contribution that is the indispensable factor in the United States becoming the most successful nation in modern history. A blood stained bible on the capital mall is a fitting tribute to him and to their contribution.
Click here to read Nat Turner's confession as told to Thomas R. Gray.