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Nat Turner - a national hero?

November 10th, 2010 10:00 PM

Terry Dean

Today marks an anniversary that many may have long forgotten, if ever had known at all.

It was 179 years ago today that Nat Turner was killed, executed for leading nearly 100 slaves in rebellion against whites in 1831 Southampton, Va. White men, women and even children were slaughtered. An estimated 65 whites were killed. The rebellion, taking place during what surely must have been a hot Virginia August, was put down within a few days. Turner alluded capture for months. His cohorts were killed by white militias, as were hundreds of slaves and free blacks that had no part in the rebellion. They were killed in retaliation, and to send a message that slaves should remain in their place.

Turner was an educated, well-read and well-spoken black. After his death, legislatures across the south strengthened existing laws prohibiting blacks from receiving an education, among other restrictive laws. Opinions over the years, decades and centuries vary about Turner. Hero or villain? Savior or scourge? Was he insane? He reportedly had a vision about the rebellion shortly before launching it. Maybe he was "mad." Slavery might do that to a person. He actually may have been all of the above.

Over the weekend, CNBC re-aired one of its many news documentaries on modern day slavery. Women in this country and oversees kidnapped or tricked into becoming prostitutes. Children as well. Thinking about that, and Nat Turner's death approaching anniversary, I was reminded of the 1997 film Amistad, about the 1839 uprising of slaves who were kidnapped from their country and brought to America on the slave ship of the same name. I was reminded of the speech by John Quincy Adams - portrayed by Anthony Hopkins - to the U.S. Supreme Court to argue for the slaves' freedom ... freedom, a "controversial idea," Adams said.

"And the proof is the length to which a man, woman, or child will go to regain it, once taken. He will break loose his chains; he will decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try against all odds, against all prejudices, to get home."

Would anyone besmirch a woman for plotting to escape the enslaver who forced her - usually through physical violence - into prostitution, even if that meant having to kill her enslavers? To get home. To be free.

And she would be treated and celebrated as a hero, a survivor, for doing so, as she should. Her past, her personal faults, old parking tickets, late rent payments, whatever, would be moot points. Adams argued the same point in defense of Cinque, the man who led the Amistad rebellion.

"Now, if he were white, he wouldn't be standing before this court fighting for his life. If he were white and his enslavers were British, he wouldn't be able to stand, so heavy the weight of the medals and honors we would bestow upon him. Songs would be written about him. The great authors of our times would fill books about him. His story would be told and retold in our classrooms. Our children, because we would make sure of it, would know his name ..."

How well do we know Nat Turner's name? What song do you recall written about him? Has he ever been awarded a posthumous medal or honor from the U.S. Congress or the president?

Remembering Nat Turner is not a celebration of violence or vengeance. Calling him a hero for instigating violence is not hypocritical. His story and rebellion isn't solely about slavery, but fighting against oppression for one's freedom - and the length to which man, woman or child will go to regain it, once taken.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com