tv Historical Portrayals of Nat Turner CSPAN March 5, 2017 9:30am-10:47am EST
growing host: does the mexican government keep up that scholarship program? . absolutely. i think scholarshipshave been protected, even in moments when there have been budget cuts to science and other parts of education. : rachel grace newman, phd candidate at columbia and jennifer cullison, phd candidate at university of colorado. thanks for being with us on american history tv. >> you are watching american history tv, all weekend, every weekend on c-span 3. to join the conversation, like us on facebook @c-span history. next on american history tv, historian kenneth greenberg discusses historical portrayals of nat turner, the african-american leader of a slave rebellion in virginia. he describes the competing accounts of turner's rebellion and looks at methods used by
slaves to resist their masters. he also talks about the consequences of the rebellion or other slaves in the south. this event was part of the university of mary washington's great lives lecture series. [applause] >> good evening. i'm the associate director of great lives and i am pleased to service your host and emcee along with courtney over here helping this evening with q&a. i'm pleas to bring your attention tonight to our sponsor, the dovetail cultural resource group. theme join me in thanking
for their support. tonight's lecture is on net turner, a nat controversial and sometimes very difficult figure to deal with but we are in good hands tonight, i promise it. kenneth greenberg is a distinguished professor of history at suffolk university. the author of masters and statesman, the political culture of american slavery. and are you ready for this one? duels,nd slavery, lies, ases, masks, dressing as woman, gives, strangers, humanitarianism, death, slave rebellion, baseball, hunting and gambling in the old south." how'd i do? [laughter] [applause] >> when it comes to tonight greenberg is the editor of "nat turner -- two notebooks" and was part of the team that wrote and produced the pbs film "nat turner, a troublesome property." it is my honor to introduce to
you kenneth greenberg. [applause] mr. greenberg: well, it's a great, great pleasure to be here, when i left boston this morning it was snowing. my plane had to be deiced, but i arrived in paradise. this is a lovely place. i have never been to the campus before, and you have absolutely gorgeous campus. the town is wonderful as well. my hosts have been extremely gracious, and my subject matter is about one of the most difficult subjects in american history. there is controversy every step of the way and battles every step of the way in terms of all
the people who have tried to write about nat turner. first, i'm going to sort of tell you about my own history with writing about nat turner and thinking about nat turner. it covers a fair amount of territory. then i want to just zero in on a few areas in more detail. let me begin by describing a couple things. first of all, when i was in graduate school, i first encountered nat turner because we had assigned in class a document called "the confessions of nat turner." i'm curious, in this group, how many of you have read that, the original confessions, 1831? how many of you have read the
styron novel? that's interesting. i will be talking about that as well. i will describe the rebellion a little later on in the talk, but basically, after turner was captured -- he eluded capture for about two months, and after he was captured, he was briefly in jail and tried very, very quickly, and then, during that time of the trial, a few days, a man named thomas gray, a white southerner who was a lawyer -- not turner's lawyer, but had actually been a lawyer or several of the other defendants -- interviewed him in his jail cell. a couple of weeks after his execution, gray published a document called "the confessions of nat turner." it's an amazing document.
we have nothing like it in all of american history because people who were rebels against slavery did not get interviewed. they did not write things. there's no record where you can hear their voices directly. the thing about the 1831 confessions is you cannot hear turner's voice directly, either. it's thomas gray who put it together from the interviews, so this makes it one of the great public just puzzling documents for historians. it is the only thing we have like it which has somewhere in it turner's voice. on the other hand, it is still through thomas gray, and that is the puzzle. that is why students have thought about this and try to figure out how to sort out the two voices. that really piqued my interest when i was in graduate school, and i said one day i would like to get back to it. as you just heard, i am the
editor of that original "confessions of nat turner." i put it together with other documents of the period to give people a sense of the time. i try to puzzle out how you can tell what is and is not turner's voice. it's very difficult. by the way, if you want to describe a central issue that everybody grapples with, it's the question of voice. how can you reconstruct the voice of someone who was so varied, so deeply obliterated by the culture that ended up hanging? in its pretty extraordinary. when i was also in graduate school, i read the william styron novel. for those of you who do not
know, he wrote a novel. he was interested in writing a novel. he is from virginia. when he was in high school, he actually passed a little roadside sign in virginia near where the rebellion took place, and he remembers being on the bus, seeing a roadside sign which made a reference to the rebellion, and ultimately, it stuck in the back of his head. in the 1960's, he decided to come back to the topic and to write a novel. it is a very interesting novel. it's called "the confessions of nat turner." what he said what he thought he was going to do was -- so little is known about turner, what he said was i will follow the historical record in my novel, and then where the record does not speak to an issue, i'm going to use my imagination to fill in the blanks.
in an odd way, again, it replicates the thomas gray situation where you have the voice of a white writer trying to funnel nat turner, and it includes turner's voice somewhere in there. he imagines many things which he thought were plausible about slavery. that novel was greeted by the general public and by critics like few american novels ever got needed. -- got greeted. the reviews -- go back and read the reviews if you want. writer after writer, reviewer after reviewer, famous american writer write about this as the great american novel finally written. this was in 1967. styron won the pulitzer prize for writing that novel. almost from the beginning, there
were black critics and some white critics as well who understood the novel as deeply flawed and ultimately racist at its core, and they began to write each other. john henry clarke was the leader of the group of black writers who were in touch with each other, and ultimately, they wrote a collection of essays -- 10 essays, basically -- and it was called william styron's nat turner, 10 black writers respond. they looked at the novel and point of the ways that it got history wrong, but also, it's deep racism. what kind of things do they point to? things like turner making reference to his grandmother, his father, and they are simply left out of this novel.
also, there is a scene where turner's mother is raped -- again, this is styron's invention, but she seems to enjoy the rape by a white overseer. and then, turner is full of hatred of blacks. he sort of adopted some of the ideas he was getting from the white community and makes references that are nasty references to african-americans and slaves, but i think the heart of the thing which black critics pointed to was the fact that nat turner lusts after a young and beautiful white teenager, a woman named margaret whitehead. we know that turner personally killed only one person in the rebellion -- margaret whitehead. that is all we know. what styron did was he imagined
was margaret whitehead, what was their relationship, why was she the one person that nat turner killed? he imagined this relationship, but it was full of lust. he had rape fantasies. ultimately, he killed her with a sword and and a fence rail, which is described in the confessions briefly that way. the black critics asked what that is all about. the idea that black men are always lusting after white women is a white fantasy. which wasthe reality white men raping black women was always what was going on. the heart of what lynching is all about is the idea that black
men are threatening white women. we have these terrible lynchings all over the south of black men accused of raping white women, most of which was simply nonexistent whatsoever, but the terrible public lynchings -- as you know, we have lots of photographs that get taken. people have postcards made of themselves next to lynch african-americans, and they would send these postcards to their friends. it was an amazing moment in the culture all centered around lack men lusting after white women. and suddenly you have nat turner, who, by the way, the historical record has no reference to this whatsoever. it is completely coming from william styron's imagination, and the black critics ask what it's all about, taking a black hero and turning him into something we know is a white fantasy yahoo! -- a white
fantasy that was an object of a tremendous amount of criticism. and styron made another choice, too. he decided to tell his story in the voice of nat turner. the original "confessions" has two voices it. there's thomas r gray and then there is also nat turner's voice. what happened was -- this is a really interesting side note to the story, but james baldwin, one of the great african american thinkers of the 1960's became a friend of william styron's. starting the new baldwin was a struggling writer at the time. needed a place to stay. styron had a place in western massachusetts, the town of rocks rucksbury. of rural
house. next to it was a converted barn, which was a studio. he invited waldman to live there, and baldwin would do his writing in the studio, and styron would do his writing in the house, and at night, they would come together and get drunk together. have a grand old time, and styron would invite his neighbors. many of them were white liberals from the community, and baldwin -- if you have ever seen baldwin in action, he is an extraordinary man, and his anger was fiery, and he was brilliant and he frightened styron's friends, but nonetheless, he liked styron and styron like him, so as styron was getting under way with writing the confessions of net turner, it was baldwin who said, "why don't you be bold? i write in the voice of white people all the time. you should be bold and right in -- write in the voice of this black man." at one point, styron thought of it as complementary to turner. in the eyes of the black critics, they said he had appropriated turner's voice and
taken the voice of a great lack -- black leader and turned it not into his voice but into your voice, and that became a tremendous object of criticism. this became one of the great racial controversies of its time. in some ways among intellectuals but even extending beyond that, this was like the o.j. simpson case of a later time. largely broken down in terms of whites and blacks, but not totally. nonetheless, they looked at this, and styron's novel was under attack. i got to know star related ron, on,ot to know styron later and i can tell you that this controversy -- he always felt misunderstood, never felt appreciated, and the black critics, who i also got to know when i did my film -- i interviewed them in the year 2000. they were referring back to events that happened in 1967.
when you listen to every one of them, it's as if it happened the day before. the anger was as intense as it was in 1967, the clash. by the way, i have to tell you, in my own opinion, styron was a perfectly nice guy. he never understood, however, the race issue he was dealing with. this was the time in the late 1960's when black power was coming into the fourth -- the fore, and nat turner was one of the black heroes that african-americans who were the most militant would point to as a great leader. many of them said he had emasculated a great and. -- a great man. there was a lot of anger, and the anger persisted. that ever healed -- that never heal.
styron is now dead a few years, but it never healed for styron for the critics either. reading that, reading the controversy, getting immersed in it, and later on, would i did well -- when i did a film about nat turner, which i will come to in a little bit, i got to meet the people involved and got to know them quite well. a lot of great intellectuals involved in this movement. baldwin himself, by the way, was invited to become one of the 10 black writers. it was going to be 12 black writers at one point, and baldwin said he did not want to do it. there's only one blurb on the back of the novel, and it's from james baldwin. he saw it as a great racial novel. but i know he was friendly with all the black critics, and he understood the nature of their
criticism, and he simply did not want to publicly come out to criticize his friend. so that is a complicated story. the next time i came across nat turner was when i wrote the book called honor and slavery, a book with a very long subtitle that you heard, and it was about southern honor. that is a whole other story about southern gentleman thought of themselves as having honor. they thought of african-americans, enslaved people as not having honor, basically. this a lot of things that go along with what southern honor meant, but just a small piece of that -- i was interested in the way dead bodies were treated. when someone died who was considered to be a man of honor, the body itself was honored in various ways. as part of a larger argument, i
looked at two examples of the way dead bodies were treated. one was john brown. actually, john brown and nat turner, the two people i picked. here is something amazing that i discovered at that point. there was a kind of -- john brown, who attended to lead a slave rebellion and led the raid on harpers ferry, was deeply hated by white southerners. i've got to tell you, if you read the words of white southerners as they discuss brown, it's very common underneath the surface, a grudging kind of admiration. every once in a while, they say things like lunatic, maniac, and so forth, but here is a guy who was not afraid to die. there were descriptions that he
was holding one dying child in an arm and has a gun in the other fighting to the in and. -- to the end. or there were descriptions of his execution. a white southerner who wanted to watch the execution -- he was an elderly gentleman by that time, but he got his friends who were cadets in the military to admit him, and he wore a uniform and got in and could watch the execution. you read his description of john brown's death, and he admired the man. he said the guy went bravely to his death, did not twitch as he was dying. that's the language you would use for someone who was a man of honor. i'm not saying they thought brown was a man of honor. they hated him, but they had kind words and imagery mixed in. now, what happened to nat turner's body? if you read the newspaper accounts of the time, and they
are very sparse, but one of them says nat turner sold his body in exchange for ginger cakes to the doctors for dissection. he did it for ginger cakes. when i first read that, i said, "what? what is that all about?" ideal in a world where you cannot trust anything you read. here's a guy -- after all, nat turner did not own his body when he was alive. why would someone pay him in ginger cakes to have possession of his body which he did not own after he died? this is some white writer -- the only explanation is some white writer wants to insult nat turner. it's the same writer is at hardly anyone came to the execution, it was not an important event. i can tell you, this was the
most important event since the civil war. they had to call the militia out to control the mob. so that cannot possibly be the case, and it's also the same guy who says hardly anyone was at his execution. this is all speculation, it's true, but that's my world. welcome. but he was certainly dissected. in 1900, a white southerner who wrote about turner -- he was a professional historian. you see sort of the beginnings of professional history going on, but he was also from how i -- from southhampton county. he had a lot of knowledge, but it was a deeply racist description of turner that he
gave, but in 1900, here is what he wrote. nat turner's body was delivered to the doctor, who skinned it and made grease of the flesh. his skeleton was for many years in possession of dr. mastenbrook but has since been misplaced. that's another thing that should give you pause. misplacing nat turner's skeleton? what is that about? i don't know what that's about. you can take that one. but it does not seem likely to me. there were rumors in the county after 1900, even before, that his skin was turned into a money purse. when i did my film about the rebellion, i spent a lot of time in southampton county, and this is a place where i saw no body parts. everybody was talking about
someone else has these body parts and so forth. there was even one person who said somebody down the street has a lampshade made of nat turner's skin. whenever i tried to find this, it disappeared somehow. also, this was after world war ii. lampshades were connected to to jews. -- to jews and their skin. there were stories like that that came out of world war ii. they're talking about nat turner body parts. this is as gruesome as against that is the epicenter of the evil of race relations in america. i also met a man there who was a wonderful man, the keeper of -- i describe him of the keeper of the african-american folk memory of the rebellion and a scholar of the rebellion as well even though not fully trained as a historian.
his name was james mcgee. when you buy my book about turner, he did the painting on the cover of that book. it's a wonderful painting, you will see. anyway, he told me that he has a memory from 1949. he was a school kid at that time, but he said that was the 300th anniversary, i think, of the founding of southampton county, and they had a big celebration. this is the height of the era of segregation. he said it was a segregated event so that black kids and other african-americans watched the celebration from outside the gates of the local high school. they could look in to see what was going on, and he had a memory of this, and i checked this out, and everything was corroborated by written sources. they had a whole pageant of the history of the county with no mention of slavery and no mention of nat turner.
it's about other achievements. indians and so forth, the land growing and people becoming more prosperous, but he said at that pageant, there was a table outside of artifacts, and on one of them, there was an artifact that said it was a money purse made from the skin of nat turner again, it's all murky. was it really? but it's a little disturbing -- to have somebody saying that this is the money purse, but he was sure it was the money purse and given the fact that we hear mention of this from 1900 and then from the time of the rebellion itself, there's body parts going around. we know there's a history of this. nat turner's skull -- how many of you read about turner's skull ? there are multiple sightings of
his head. whatever happens to his body is not so clear, the rest of his body, but something purporting to be nat turner's skull turns up in places. sometimes in virginia, in ohio, there is a college where on display at the museum, they have something which is labeled the skull of nat turner. elkhart, indiana, had one as well as norfolk, virginia. then it turns out -- we are talking about the distant past like this is some thing, which has kind of faded from the scene it doesn't seem to have. the skull that was founded in elkhart, indiana, was actually given to the mayor of gary, indiana, mayor richard gordon hatcher, who founded something called the national civil rights hall of fame, and they gave him the skull to have in the hall of
fame. i remember reading this when it happened. how do you display a human skull in a museum? what are people thinking? it's quite unbelievable. it turns out they have had that skull since then, and only recently was it given to people who believe they are the family of turner who have given it to the smithsonian. right now, as we speak, as far as i know, the smithsonian is analyzing the dna of that family and the skull to try to match the two, and the intention is to give part of nat turner's body a proper funeral. as i sort of stumbled across this, i realized no matter where i look, this is -- you want to talk about the epicenter of nasty race relations in america, it's the nat turner story that produces it over and over and over again.
i have way more than i can possibly tell you here. i'm going to keep my eye on the time. when i began to do the film about that turner -- this is if you have never seen a charles burnett film, you should see it. he's not nearly as famous as someone like spike lee because he never had a megahit, but it you see his movies, he first came to fame with a film about a black family living in los angeles. you he did his film in the new of "shaft" and movies about cool african-americans involved in various criminal activities. this was a film about a real african based on a real african family trying to live their life
in difficult circumstances. he did a film with danny glover about african-american culture. if you want to see one film on slavery that is a great film, it's by disney, if you can believe it, about a girl who is taught to read by another african-american who comes to the plantation. he directed halle berry in a film called "the wedding" on tv. it was wonderful to connect with him because he and another guy called frank christopher, a documentary filmmaker -- they came to me -- they tried to talk to everybody who knew about net turner in the country -- about nat turner in the country, we hit it off and i agreed to join them. i have never met a group of filmmakers or anybody who were as ethical as they were, as gentle, as kind as they were, and they had in interracial group, so we had amazing
conversations about race. we went out, we went across the country, including styron as well, and talked to anybody who had anything to say about nat turner including the people about the styron novel. it included every historian. we had some amazing footage. in the end, we decided we were going to do a film. we got money from the national endowment of the humanities. one of their largest grants. we were able to do the film. i remember in an early meeting, charles for that said let's tell the story of nat turner. he's a simple, clear guy. let's get it right. let's tell the story. i looked at him and i said, what story? that story has been so buried and destroyed you would have to make it up and if we did, we would sound like everyone else who tried to tell the story. down that road lies madness. we talked to people all over the
country, and in the end, what we decided to do was not tell the story of net turner, we would tell the stories of the story. that is to say we would try to , let people know what people have said about net turner. we're going to tell the styron story. we were going to depict things the way the storytellers told. then we set an audience does not want to just here talking heads. hear talking heads. in a documentary film, especially since it's pre-photography, so there's no video footage or photographs or anything to show -- what are they going to show that would hold people's interest that the we have many people angry at
william styron's novel. there has never been a film about that novel. they almost made the film and they never made the film around 1970 or soul -- or so. they didn't make the film. so there's no footage, right? how many of you have seen the recent "birth of a nation" film? not many of you. it did not do so well. the films that come years later, they are just made up like everything else is made up about nat turner. so we decided we would show people angry over something like nat turner lusting after margaret whitehead. let's show the audience. we hired actors and re-created the scene. several scenes from the novel
that were the most irritating, so when we have voices talking about it, you can see what people were reading in an odd way. it was a dangerous thing to do. our goal was not to interpret turner, but to tell it as exactly as we could the people who were telling stories about nat turner, to tell their stories. we did something very dangerous. we were filming in virginia, but we actually re-create the scene of turner killing margaret whitehead. styron in the novel does things like described the dress whitehead is wearing or the weapon turner was using as well. we said, let's just get it right. this isn't us. we do not believe a word of this. it did not happen this way. this is the way styron thought. now we can show why people were angry.
then they did something which in retrospect i have to tell you is one of the stupidest things i have ever done. we said if we got it right, let's invite styron down. the reason why that was stupid is what if he said it's not the way he imagined it. that is what we were trying to do. we ran out of money. you just cannot reject it. it was a crazy thing to do. he was ill at the time, and we got him a trailer with air-conditioning and brought him down. he was very patient. we knew him quite well by then. when it came time for the killing of margaret whitehead, he came out, watched the scene and turned to me and said, "it's exactly as i imagined it." whew. we dodged that one. in that film if you look at it, and you have to look air fleet,
-- at it carefully, we had five different actors play nat turner. we were not going to show him as he really was. thomas gray's nat turner was different from the nat turner which was the executed nat turner, which came from the newspaper articles. the audience gets a sense that he's a very elusive person to try to re-create. so for the "birth of a nation" film -- for those of you who have not seen it, let me tell you about it. although it is named for the same film which is considered to have given her a to hollywood, the first american feature film, it was the first film shown at the white house. woodrow wilson saw it and said it was history written with lightning. he loved it. that has nothing to do with nat turner.
that's about the civil war reconstruction. it's also one of the great -- i use "great" in quotes -- racist american films. at its heart, black men lusting after white women, attempting to rape white women, and the heroes of the film are the ku klux klan. as a result of that film, the klan, which had pretty much died out by 1915, was revived. by 1920, there were clansmen not wearing masks, not ashamed about it, marching on washington that year, so when nate parker decides to call his film "birth of a nation" that evokes that. what the 1915 film was about the birth of a white nation, but the 2016 film was about the birth of a black nation.
when i knew this was coming up, i decided i to go and see this opening moment, and i went to the sundance film festival. i have to tell you, this is one of the hardest things i have ever done in my life. getting a ticket at the sundance film festival for this particular film. about a year ago, no blacks were nominated for academy awards. no african-american actors. there was a large outcry. how could this possibly be when so many great african-american actors were around. when he came out with this film, many people said this was the moment for the next year, which is the year now, basically, that we have the chance for an african-american to win. nate parker was the director, the producer, the writer, and the lead actor in that film. so i went and the reaction in the audience at sundance was
electric. multiple standing ovations. it was amazing. i had never seen a reaction like that to any film. it won the top prize at sundance, which is an extremely difficult thing to happen, and then it sold for the most money ever paid for an independent film from sundance, basically. fox searchlight films bought it. i cannot linger over this. i'm actually writing something longer about that film because i have a lot to say about it, and it's really complex. here is something i came to realize it doing my own film -- you cannot apply the standards of written history to history on film. it is just a different kind of thing. let me give you an example. if i'm a writer and i want to describe -- a historian and a want to describe a house, i know
some features of the house, but i don't know what the door looks like. i don't have to talk about the door. if you have not turner sitting in a jail cell, what does that look like? we have no record about it. you do not have to talk about the door. in film, you cannot have blank space. this is what you want writers to do, especially for african-american history. toni morrison, who wrote the great novel, "beloved" -- that is about a real historical incident about margaret garner. she kills her children in the film or a child, and toni morrison writes a novel about it. toni morrison had to make it all up as we get inside margaret garner's mind and world. you want writers to do that.
otherwise, the record, which often destroys the lives of african americans in the past, that simply gets lost. if you do not have imaginative writers who are good and sympathetic to re-create that world, then that world is lost. i have come to expect films to deviate from what i would do as a historian. i don't want them to duplicate what i do. what styron was trying to do -- i think he did it poorly -- is what you want writers to do, to go where historians cannot go. you go inside the mind. if you see nate parker's film, this dialogue that's created. you have to write all the dialogue, right? for every historical film, that the case, right? even if it was written down, you would not want to duplicate it in the film. it would still be pretty boring.
you have to invent characters and so forth, and that is what the nate parker film is about. i have a more complicated criticism of the film because of the things it invents and doesn't, but i don't have time to do that now. now think of what i have just told you. what a complicated world of multiple voices, racial controversy, hatred. it is the epicenter of american race relations in a way. then i became fascinated with turner, and i have been working on turner in different ways. i only have maybe 20 minutes or so left, but i think one mistake people make, historians especially, when they try to describe that turner is they begin by talking about nat turner.
this may seem weird, but you think if you want to learn about turner why don't you talk about turner. that's because there's another story, which we do not have good records of. if you look at "the confessions of nat turner," at one point, thomas gray, the white lawyer, asks not -- nat turner to tell him about his master. he says, "my master was a good master." if you read that and see the moment of bloodshed that follows and one of his hedge people kills his master with an ax, you wonder what that is about -- one of his henchpeople kills his master with an ax. one of the things you need to do is to talk about slavery. we do not have the specific evidence in turner's case, but slavery is an evil institution and anybody who was a slave experience is that evil institution, so before you begin
to talk about nat turner, let's talk about some things. let me take five minutes to point out some things which you all know about slavery, but these are details which will resonate. you should have them in your head. physical punishment like whipping and so forth. slavery is the most extreme form of unfree labor. you can be sold and inherited. you are a piece of property. there are many good people in the world. some of them are masters. whites write about it, blacks write about it. the problem of slavery, you don't get to pick your master.
suppose you were lucky enough to have had a master who gave you decent treatment, which could happen. you could be sold to a sadist. you can be sold to a murderer. you are vulnerable. even when you are not at immediate risk you are vulnerable. masters died. estates are sold. another feature, no institution of marriage in slavery. we talk about slaved people having wives. that is not the legal institution of marriage. that is customary. if masters want that to happen, they could as easily break people apart. many times, especially in virginia where there are small farms, even if you had a love relationship with someone, you didn't live with them.
here is another feature of slavery. there is no crime of rape. rape is not a crime when white men are raping black women. the strange reversal, black men lusting after white women from is built into the institution of slavery. i know this is disturbing. it is not written about openly and wildly shared, think about living in a world where it is not a crime. since the children of black women become the property of their masters, if a master rapes a black woman, not only is there no danger of prison, but you increase your property as a result. you can be sure that rape was central to the institution of slavery. when nat turner, when you read the confessions, where the grievances, you can assume rape was there. and again, this is dangerous
territory for historians to operate in. another thing, literacy. this is an institution it tries to prevent people who were enslaved from learning to read. why is that the case? multiple reasons. there is literature around. northerners are trying to send literature down. even in southern writings, if you were enslaved person and could read, you could read things that would undermine the institution of slavery. you could read the bible of your own. there is plenty to support slavery, plenty to attack it as well. probably under 5% of people who were enslaved learn to read learned to read. there are amazing stories of learning to read. religion masters want the slaves to learn a certain religion. the ability to testify in court is another one. you can see how if enslaved people were led to testify in court it would undermine the
institution of slavery. the slave might accuse the master of something. you committed some atrocity and so forth. therefore the words of enslaved people, this is part of the dishonoring of enslaved people, the words are not considered appropriate because they can't be believed in a courtroom. sometimes this leads to crazy results. for example, if a white man is murdered by another white man in front of 100 people, and those 100 people are slaves, there are no witnesses to that murder. think about that. slaves have no property. they can't give gifts. sometimes they pretend they can give gifts but in actuality whatever the slave has his own by the master. i'm sure you have read stories are heard stories about an enslaved person who buys their freedom.
you have all heard that. that does happen occasionally. but what is that? that is the master permitting an enslaved person to buy their freedom. they have no property. perhaps you have saved enough to buy your freedom, the master can say that is not your money. it is mine. if they don't say that, given your freedom as a gift. when slavery ended, the question is how does slavery end. how do you get freedom in the end? there were all these images. they have them in boston. they are all over the country of abraham lincoln freeing the slaves. breaking the chains of slavery. that duplicates the idea that freedom is given as a gift by whites to black people.
this recapitulates that old idea. there is no way in slavery. the only way you could get your own freedom, think about this, forget trying to buy your own freedom. you could run away or you could turner was.ike nat the state threat to slavery. ok. let me talk about the ways in which you can resist slavery. you will notice i have not said much about nat turner. you could keep me here for three days and i will go on and on. let's think about this for a second. if you were an enslaved person, how would you resist slavery? how could you resist slavery exactly? rebellion is the most extreme
form. this is what nat turner engaged in. how common was in the united states? the old south had a myth that the enslaved people were happy with slavery. you have seen that old myth about the old south. the myth in gone with the wind. that is comforting with a slave master. you want to believe in happiness. the fact that there is a slave rebellion. when nat turner rises up from everyone wonders -- whoa, we were not expecting that, maybe i have a nat turner on my farm. and they begin to look differently. and other's rebellion rebellions carry a lot of weight. there were 55 people killed in
the rebellion. the estimates of the enslaved people involved has gone as high as 70. the latest number, 40 people actively involved in the rebellion. it lasts one day. by world historical standards, this is small potatoes by world standards. in haiti, you have a rebellion which fights napoleons army and creates the first african-americans -- african state, african origin stay in the western hemisphere. in russia where you have serfdom, you have sef rebellions. -- serf rebellions. those are big rebellions. this is among the biggest, the nat turner rebellion.
sometimes earlier historians use this idea about rebellions to say this fits into the idea there wasn't that much unrest. they are misreading a lot of things. if you wanted to resist slavery think of the things you could do. there are many other forms. engaging in a rebellion was suicide. everybody who did it was killed. other famous rebellions, they didn't even rebel. they were conspiracies, and they killed lots of people. in the turner rebellion, not only the people involved in the rebellion, but slaughter in the black community by whites
after the rebellion as well. wave had places where rebellions were more successful, they were near swamps. people think nat turner may have been headed toward the dismal swamp. it was not clear if that was really the case. rebellions, if they are not huge in number and not happening every day, it is the same as suicide. it is very hard to resist. in the case of nat turner's billion -- rebellion, there were 3000 militia troops on the way to southampton county when the rebellion breaks out. it is put down by the local militia. there were 3000 coming. there were 40 rebels. you tell me what chance they had from the very beginning. what could you do? you could slow down the pace of work. whites who looked at it said the slave population, they are lazy. that is what they saw. not the case at all.
they are seeing resistance and they don't know it is resistance. if you were going to resist, that would be the great way to resist. you could break tools. the slaves, they are so clumsy they don't know things. you could lie in different ways. you could sneak a way at night to visit a different plantation. you could use fire. southern cities burn down all the time. ed them down? sometimes it is in slaved people fighting the way they can. you could put class in your master's oatmeal. you could learn to read. it is against the law to learn how to read. learning how to read becomes a form of resistance. in fact, you could think of marriage, spouse a formo a
of resistance. african-americans can carve out institutions in slavery. they are forms of resistance. being loyal to friends. running away to the north, even into the woods for a while. the institution of slavery is full of resistance every step of the way. rebellions are just one small form of it. they go a long way. that one rebellion puts fear in the hearts of whites. am i running out of time? please. [inaudible]
us how old wasll not turner? >> 31. why did he have a rebellion? >> i had another hour's worth of comments here. i will address your comment. source into nat turner's mind, the confessions of nat turner. you have to be careful with that. the other is what whites are saying about him. we have some statements from the trial records. they are sparse and don't tell you much about nat turner personally. there are a lot of things in those confessions which could not possibly come from thomas gray.
he talks about his childhood. his parents told him he was a special child. they saw marks on his body which they said comes from an african tradition. it marked him as a special person. both whites and blacks talked about his intelligence. his master said you are not destined to be a slave. he had memories which his family and others told him of things that occurred before he was born. they solve this as sign of something miraculous. confessions,he there are two ways described in the confessions. he learned to read easily. he amazed everybody that he knew the alphabet when he knew it. voice, he sayss he knows how to read and his parents taught him. neither one of those appears in the birth of a nation film.
nate parker could have grabbed one of these. he invented another. which is how to frederick douglass learned to read, but that is a different story. he lived near the town of jerusalem. you were an enslaved person and you lived near a place called jerusalem and you read the bible through that lens. then the bible is full of all kinds of things. he has visions. he has religious visions. a vision that says, a voice says to him seek the kingdom of god and all things shall be added on to year. he sees blood on the corn. he sees the body of christ laid out across the heavens. he gets these visions, apocalyptic visions. the end of the world is near. he has a moment where he says christ has laid down the yoke he has assumed for the sins of man.
he believes he is the one responsible for picking it up. at the bottom line, the sense of being special. reading the bible and interpreting the bible, and taking action against slavery. all of that is sitting there. he has all that. all this stuff is added to that stuff. some people look at that, and they said he was a nut. my answer to that is every religion seems crazy from the outside. imagine how someone would look at it. every religion is crazy. nat turner's is not different
than any other. he reads about people who have visions. that is his world. i would not dismiss it as the work of a not unless you want to dismiss moses as a nut. >>[indiscernible question] >> you are asking a deeper question in a way which is what did it matter exactly? as soon as the rebellion took place, african-american voices are still -- you don't see that. you do get hence of it. when the civil war ended in african-americans are holding a religious meeting in virginia
after the civil war, 1866, the delegation from southampton county, turner's county, comes in the door. they are cheered. they all know about the rebellion and what that meant. in the north, black abolitionists in boston, african-americans began abolitionism in boston just a few blocks from my school. they point in that turner and many come to admire turner. you see turner being spoken about in the literature leading up to the civil war. as a result of the rebellion there is repression in the
south. that is the immediate result. the killing of blacks in the community, the colonization society makes it possible. they want to pay for free blacks are to be sent back to africa. many find it so uncomfortable to live there they go back to africa. it has those consequences as well. the fact that turner can stand there and remains until the present moment as a heroic symbol of resistance so no one can say the african-americans who were enslaved were docile in the face of slavery. >> in what year does this take place? this rebellion? what year? >> 1831. one other consequence of the rebellion was, this is the most amazing thing of all, the virginia legislature was so
petrified by the rebellion, the legislature, including women petitioning, they wrote their legislators in richmond and said we have to get rid of slavery. we can't live knowing there are possible nat turners on our farms. they ultimately turn it down but that would have been amazing. as a result of turner's rebellion long after he is debbie white southerners get rid of slavery because he creates such fear. it did not happen, but there -- but that was seriously debated. >> how did nat turner organize? how did he conducted?
what you can tell about the actual rebellion. >> nat turner were himself was inspired by these divisions, he both thought that god had told him and he himself realized that he couldn't talk about it with anybody. he was kind of a lay preacher, he didn't talk to anybody about it until he thought the time was right. there's a long history of this. other rebellions were betrayed. there are many people who will betray their rebellion. that is what happened to gabriel's rebellion. he calls together six people who
they trust and they meet in the woods. he tells them about the plans for the rebellion. the plan of the rebellion is to move from farm to farm. that includes children. that includes infants. largely women and children get killed as they go from farm to farm. the idea is to strike terror in the community. it has that affect. some people come across these forms of dead people and say have to go back and take care of my family. the rebellion last 24 hours. the local mission puts down the rebellion. 3000 are on the way. that is the rebellion.
>> from what i gathered about your film, it seems to me that some may refute that as you cooperating the fall stories that others had told. how do you think that was perceived by the people who want to believe what they want to believe and are quoting you against what you wanted to put out there? >> it is a good comments. i will repeat it. if we tell these false stories, aren't we just spreading false stories? in the context of the film we tell the audience over and over again, when you see five stories they cannot all be true. we do what we can to undermine the validity of those stories.
we have the black critics criticizing. these are american voices coming in clashing with each other. i hope it doesn't have the effect of someone spreading false stories. by the way i should say another , thing to be -- my mind is still open about this issue. imagine this for a second. imagine if i showed you a picture of a horse on the screen and it has the label on it, dog. think about it for a second. would you call what i showed you a mislabeled horse or a mis-pictured dog. you could do either one. the power of an image is much
more powerful than the power of the word. you are right. when you seek him with the wind, you can read a hundred criticisms and that image of gone with the wind stays with you. there is a danger if you show false images. you have to read history. you have to listen carefully to the film. otherwise, you throw a reason. you point out a good danger. >> could you advise us if episcopal church had a role in turner life, being accepted into
the church, supporting slavery? >> the roles of the churches are quite interesting. it is the baptist and the methodists that are anti-slavery. the methodists take a position against slavery. not the up this couple's as far as i know. from the time of the revolution, that is a strong anti-slavery straight to it. there is no doubt in my mind that was connected to nnat turner somehow. >> i wanted to ask, it could be a rhetorical question,
[inaudible] what kinds of reactions have you heard of audience members hearing about nat turner. i was interested in whites. they're coming with the rage of the past. has there been any shift in the viewing of some characters such as nat turner from having listened to your presentations where you attempt to give context? is anything more than just anger? is there any shifting to understand turner as more than just this person who murdered. that is the stereotypical feeling i get as a black person. >> this is interesting. i teach my students every year.
the problem with talk, we are used to many good words passing and many bad words as well. culture is resistant to change. it doesn't change so easily. that is what universities are about, trying to affect change that way. it doesn't happen so easily. especially in a world where conversation somehow is becoming increasingly distrusted. if your question is do people listen to me and say now i
understand, i've got it? some people clearly do react that way. not huge numbers. most people when you go back will live the rest of your lives. i'm not a preacher who is going to convert you to something. that is typically not the case with people who give speeches. i will continue to do this. i have more to say about this topic. race relations in america are as deteriorated now as they were at any time in my life. it is a sad thing to see, what seem to be moving along nicely. not that things haven't changed. and one of the -- turner is a person you can look at and say what are people saying about nat turner at any point in time and you can take the temperature of race relations. >> i would like to thank dr. greenberg for his special presentation. [applause] he will be signing books in the back. this thursday, we have scott i've been coming in -- scott i've been coming in to talk. thank you.
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