October marks the anniversary of both the birth and arrest of Nat Turner as the leader of one of the United States’ most famous slave rebellions. Today the much-anticipated film, Birth of a Nation is being released in theaters nationwide. The film portrays Nat Turner and his story of resistance. Most of us can recall Turner’s name being referred to in history class but most likely with little to no elaboration. I think I can safely say that relating the numerous stories of Black resistance throughout the African diaspora was not prioritized in the schools we attended as children.
So here we are in 2016, our first African American president is approaching his last days in office and we have a major feature film about Turner and his slave revolt. Nearly 200 years later as we are still fighting against racialized violence in America, we have a re-telling of one the most important narratives of slave insurrection in our history.
In his preface to his graphic novel entitled Nat Turner, Kyle Baker points out, “Many of history’s greatest people, including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X all cite Nat Turner as an inspiration.” Indeed Turner’s fateful decision to act on August 21, 1831 marked a crucial turning point in the antebellum South and ultimately in this nation’s history.
Turner’s rebellion is considered the bloodiest and the most effective in American history. It brought about tightened restrictions on African- Americans not only in Virginia but throughout the South as white fear heightened. More importantly, this revolt eventually led to the Civil War which would bring about the end of chattel slavery in 1865.
The debut of this important film presents a unique opportunity for us look more closely at Turner and the courageous sacrifice of his fellow insurrectionists in light of our current fight for social justice in education, criminal justice, economic reform and nearly every aspect of our lives. Dr. Henry Louis Gates aptly concludes, “Turner remains a legendary figure, remembered for the bloody path he forged in his personal war against slavery, and for the grisly and garish way he was treated in death.” Nonetheless, Turner can continue to inspire new generations to seek truth and act for their own liberation.