From: George Mason’s University’s History News Network http://www.hnn.us
Scot French Interview
Interview with Scot French, Author of a book on Nat Turner (#31816) by Editor . on March 12, 2004 at 4:15 PM
National Public Radio (NPR) SHOW: Tavis Smiley (9:00 AM ET) - NPR March 5, 2004 Friday LENGTH: 1360 words HEADLINE: Scot French discusses the historic image of Nat Turner and his new book "The Rebellious Slave" ANCHORS: TONY COX BODY: TONY COX, host: From NPR in Los Angeles, I'm Tony Cox, in for Tavis. If we take a look at what the history books tell us about enslaved preacher and self-styled prophet Nat Turner, we'd learn that he led a slave revolt for 24 hours in Southampton County, Virginia. Fifty-seven white people died. State militiamen, federal troops and armed volunteers mutilated the insurgents. Nat Turner eluded capture for more than two months, and after surrendering to a local farmer he recounted his so-called "Confessions" to a lawyer named Thomas Gray, a former slave holder. To this day, that interpretation of history has been accepted as the most accurate account of the uprising. History professor and historian Scot French says: Hold on. He's making some assertions of his own about Turner's rebellion. I talked with French about his new book, titled "The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory." Today Thomas Gray and William Styron have been noted historically for their versions of Nat Turner's confessions, but it was Gray's account that Professor French scrutinized. Professor SCOT FRENCH (Author, "The Rebellious Slave"): Well, if you read the "Confessions," one of the first lines says that his intention is to answer and to quash the thousands of exaggerated and idle rumors that were circulating. And that really intrigued me. I wanted to know more about the stories that were being, in effect, suppressed by Gray's narrative.
And so... COX: And what did you discover? Prof. FRENCH: What I came to see was that some of these stories that were easily dismissed as rumor or idle talk had a great deal more to them, and that people of some authority believed them. These were rumors that circulated widely among civil and military authorities. Robert E. Lee, who was a lieutenant colonel--or second lieutenant, I believe, actually--serving in Virginia, heard these rumors and repeated them in letters to his mother, and he heard them from his commanding officers. So I thought, 'Well, there may be more to this, and maybe we've been too quick to dismiss all accounts that don't comport with Gray's narrative.' COX: Which of those rumors struck you as being perhaps the most believable? Prof. FRENCH: The one that had the widest resonance at the time was a rumor that stated that the slaves throughout the region were planning to rise on the fourth Sunday of August, and that the slaves of Southampton County rose a week too soon. That was a really important and unsettling rumor, because what it meant to white civil and military authorities was that every slave was under a cloud of suspicion. And in the aftermath of Turner's rebellion, what this meant was that every slave was potentially a victim of white vigilantism, and that's what we saw, was a great deal of civil disorder. And in a sense, I was trying to show how the need for Nat Turner's capture and the taking of his confessions was an attempt to establish a master narrative that would help to re-establish social order, that would give white people a sense that all of the guilty parties had been captured and had been brought to justice, or had been killed on the battlefield. COX: You know... Prof. FRENCH: That's what the "Confessions" does. COX: ...your book takes us through various eras in which Nat Turner's reputation evolved both positively and negatively, as well. In which era would you say it had its biggest impact--the reputation? Would it be the Civil War era or immediately after the rebellion? When? Prof. FRENCH: I would say that in the 1840s and 1850s, he became a major symbol of militant abolitionism, and many black abolitionists who had earlier embraced the pacifist philosophies of William Lloyd Garrison were turning instead to a much more militant embrace of violence as the only solution. Another period when you see Nat Turner sort of returning to a very prominent public place is right after Harpers Ferry, right after John Brown's raid. There's a great deal of discussion about whether the slaves had ever risen, and there was a great interest in history, the history of slave rebellions. COX: You know, the rebellion occurred in 1831, a full four years after the black press in this country was founded. What response did the ethnic press have to Turner? And how much of a role did the black press play in fashioning Turner as a heroic figure? Prof. FRENCH: In the immediate aftermath, there was not much publicly expressed sympathy
for Turner. It really came later, in the 1840s and 1850s. In the 1830s, most black commentary on Turner's rebellion regretted the incident and really urged an embrace of Garrisonian principles of non-resistance. COX: When considering who Nat Turner actually was, how much does history remake the man? This is something that you talk about in your book. And who decides what the makeup of the remade man is going to be? Prof. FRENCH: That's a really difficult question. I think it's always up for grabs, but the people who have the greatest influence are those with the greatest cultural authority, and that varies according to the times. This is really what I try to understand, is why does one image of Turner prevail as sort of the dominant image at any given moment? Why is Nat Turner sort of out of favor in the 1870s but returned in some ways to wide African-American celebration in the 1920s and 1930s? COX: You know, it seems that the lessons from what you're saying to be learned from Nat Turner's rebellion can hardly be limited to the issue of abolishing slavery, and that perhaps the lasting rebellion is one of people's perception of history and which history they want to adhere to. Prof. FRENCH: That's true. And a lot of what we find most appealing are stories that speak to our world, and that's really what's happening, is that people are trying to make the past relevant to their own worlds. That's why the story lives. That's why we continually remake our image of Nat Turner and our image of the rebellious slave: to speak to the issues of our own day. COX: So in a sense, we may never know who the real Nat Turner was, and in another sense, perhaps it doesn't really matter in terms of how people want to relate to history. Prof. FRENCH: I don't think we'll ever settle on any one real Nat Turner. There are--all we have are sketches of Turner in the historical record. And I think I would argue that, in some ways, we've focused a bit too much on him as an individual, as the great man. That version of events, the placing of--the making of Nat Turner as sort of the scapegoat for the event--I think that served the interests of white civil and military authorities in 1831, but I don't think that serves our interests today. There was a lot more going on. The event was much bigger in many ways than Nat Turner. And I think we need to be looking more broadly at the wider landscape, at the marginal people, the people who are not heard and seen in most traditional accounts of Turner's rebellion. COX: This is my last question for you. You say in the book that you lost your faith and objectivity after your experiences with the research of Thomas Jefferson. Did you regain it with the research on Nat Turner? Prof. FRENCH: Well, I think objectivity is still an ideal. I just think that to claim objectivity is often to fool ourselves, that we're always writing from a particular perspective that's shaped by our own present-day concerns. There's just no escaping it. Every generation has to decide whether to embrace the traditions that are handed down to them or whether to overthrow those
old orthodoxies and write new stories that make some sense of the past, make better sense of the past. COX: Scot French is an assistant professor in the Corcoran Department of History and an assistant director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African and African-American Studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author of a new book titled "The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory." Scot, thanks for being with us. Prof. FRENCH: Thank you very much. COX: It's 29 minutes after the hour.