Nat Turner’s Confessions: Defying Black Autobiographical Norms
The tradition of black autobiography has held “a position of priority” (Gates, 1) in the African American community for centuries, beginning with traditions of oral storytelling and continuing with more contemporary voices such as Maya Angelou and bell hooks. These stories are unique and differ in important ways from white autobiographies, as the black writer has a an obligation as a “member of an oppressed social group” to remember that his “self” is actually part of a “larger whole,” or that his story must echo, emphasize, and exemplify the stories of other African American people (Butterfield, 3.) No story embodies this paradox better than The Confessions of Nat Turner, a monologue delivered by a slave depicting his recent slaughter of several slave owners and their families in 1831. Turner’s story is both representative and divisive of the African American community, as while some of the opinions and ideals that he expresses seem unanimous among slaves at the time, much of his language, background, and overall sentiments also demonstrate an overwhelming rejection of such unity. Although many scholars argue that the black autobiography should be as much about the community as the self, Turner’s sense of superiority coupled with a proclivity for authority and dominance turn his autobiographically inclined confession into an individual-specific narrative rather than an accurate representation of the beliefs or desires of the greater slave community.
Elements of Turner’s background along with his thirst for justice and the involvement of other slaves in his rebellion demonstrates a sense of unity or resemblance to the greater interests of the African American community. Turner and slaves everywhere share enormously important experiences such as racism, oppression, and abuse at the hand of a white master, which makes their experience shared or common. In addition to this, the manner in which Turner conducted his rebellion was somewhat inclusive. He notes that his rebellion was “the hand of retributive justice” at work, suggesting his intentions were aligned with and intended to benefit the entire enslaved community (Turner, 20). Similarly, Turner’s decision to involve the “four in whom (he) had the greatest confidence” in his rebellion further promotes a coalescence of motives and ideas (Turner, 14). With these sentiments and actions, Turner uses his power as the leader of the rebellion as a way to advocate for the desires of his community.
While some of his ideals are representative of the slave community, Turner also intentionally differentiates himself from other African Americans by emphasizing his intelligence and divine connection to God. Turner speaks at length about his special abilities as a child and the praise he was constantly given. He notes that his parents reminded him often that he was “intended for some great purpose…particularly among negroes” (Turner, 7) and that he would “never be of any service to anyone as a slave” due to his “restless, inquisitive” mind (Turner, 8). Furthermore, Turner even believed that he was a Prophet, as “the Lord had shewn me things that had happened before my birth” (Turner, 7). Turner’s sense of self-importance illustrates the sense of superiority he felt towards other slaves even at such a young age. Additionally, Turner reminisces about “the manner in which (he) learned to read and write,” noting that he “acquired it with the most perfect ease” (Turner, 8). In this way, he bears striking resemblance to James Gronniosaw, a relatively well-off and educated slave who, because of this, represents himself as “nurtured, indulged and trained in the manner of royalty everywhere” (Gates, 14). Turner’s literary competency illustrates an important difference between himself and other slaves. Additionally, the superior and somewhat condescending tone used when comparing his abilities to other slaves indicates that while Turner may have included other slaves in his rebellion, it is apparent that he does not see them as united or as his equals.
In addition to his feelings of superiority, Turner’s constant attempts to dominate the attack on the slave owners demonstrates a desire to control or manipulate his fellow slaves rather than advocate for them. While Turner may use inclusive language such as “we” or “our” throughout the narrative, he also admits that he devised the plan himself, and he is clearly in charge. Turner’s language in the sections depicting the violence is brutal and militant. He notes at one point that he “formed them in a line as soldiers,” and carried his fellow slaves “through all the manoeuvres I was master of” (Turner, 12). The image of Turner turning his fellow rebels into soldiers at the mercy of his instruction illuminates his dominance and an innate desire to control. His use of the word “master” is especially eerie considering the brutal acts that Turner and the others committed. While Turner unapologetically murders several slave masters, he simultaneously wants to be the “master” of this plan, also executed by slaves. This contradiction suggests an internal struggle within Turner, as the enslaved mentality he acquired through decades of abuse and oppression battles his innate authoritarian nature. Turner’s propensity for dominance as well as his internal confusion further illustrates that Turner did not align himself with the interests or desires of other slaves and his autobiography therefore cannot be representative of African Americans at the time.
It is obvious through Turner’s confession that his education, confidence, and authoritative nature set him apart from the common slave in such a way that his story can never be representative, a component of the black autobiography that many scholars find integral. However, it is illogical to blame Turner for not sticking to the criteria of black autobiography when his confession is clearly part of another genre of writing entirely. Turner’s confession lacks many of the key features of autobiography: it is largely about one moment in his life rather than an account of all relevant issues, it was written for a specific purpose and not for mass public consumption, and it was not even written by Turner, but by another man. For this reason, it should not be critiqued for failing to fulfill certain criteria that black autobiographies are supposed to, but rather celebrated for what it is: an imperfect, but important and informative piece of literature.
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