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'The Birth Of A Nation': Who Is Nat Turner?

A woodcut illustration depicting Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831. (Library of Congress)
A woodcut illustration depicting Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831. (Library of Congress)

The 1831 Southampton Insurrection, or Nat Turner’s Rebellion, is the subject of the new film “The Birth of a Nation.”

The film tells the story of Turner, an African-American born into slavery. He was taught to read and eventually became a preacher to fellow slaves. In August 1831 he led an uprising of slaves against their white oppressors. While some view Turner as a hero, others question his heroism because of the number of women and children who were victims of the deadly rebellion.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Manisha Sinha, author of “ The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition,” about Turner’s life and legacy. Sinha is also a professor of early American history at the University of Connecticut.

Here’s a trailer for “The Birth of a Nation”:


Interview Highlights: Manisha Sinha

On what we know about Turner

“What’s interesting about him is that he did visualize himself as the Christian prophet who would free the slaves. And that is how he started the rebellion — he had these visions, these religious visions that told him he needed to start a rebellion. And of course, what’s interesting also is that he wanted to start his rebellion on the Fourth of July. He fell ill, and then they had to postpone it until August. But the fact that he would choose July 4 tells me that he also saw himself as a revolutionary.”

On William Styron’s book about Turner

“There were scenes in the book that actually a lot of African-American intellectuals took objection to. The problem with Styron’s confessions is that, yes of course, he’s a novelist and he could liberties to imagine the Nat Turner that he wanted to. But it was so far removed from the historical record — I don’t think it’s just a matter of poaching of territories, et cetera. I think African-Americans were truly offended by Styron’s portrait of Nat Turner, where he completely domesticated Turner. He was no longer the slave rebel that comes to us across the historic record.”

On looking at Turner’s violence in context

“I’m a great believer in the Gandhian slogan that the use of violence dehumanizes everyone. But to understand the situation of enslaved people, one should also understand the daily violence that was slavery. And this is why abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison — who’s a complete pacifist believes in non-violence in principle — condemns not Nat Turner, but his persecutors.

When the rebellion is suppressed and 50 enslaved people are tried, 30 are sentenced to death, 19 are hanged, including Nat Turner, and in the after-mess of that, there’s open seasons on black people, free and enslaved in that area. Over 300 African-Americans actually left that area and ran to Liberia, fearing for their lives because of that massive repression that also took place. So there’s violence everywhere. And clearly Nat Turner had kind of no-quarters given rebellion…”


Manisha Sinha, professor of early American history at the University of Connecticut. She’s also author of “ The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.”

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