It’s not hard to imagine why admiration for our sixteenth president would raise eyebrows among many in the black community. In the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, Lincoln had this to say about race:
I will say, then, that I am not nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races - that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people, and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
On the other end of the spectrum is Nat Turner—a slave who many scholars believe played a key role in the Civil War even though he was not alive to witness it. In 1831, Turner led a slave rebellion in Virginia that resulted in the deaths of nearly 60 white men, women, and children. His rebellion also fueled a paranoia among slave owners in the southern states. And, among whites, admiration for Nat Turner raises more than a few eyebrows.
Truth is not always simple, even when the facts are staring you right in the face. The problem only compounds itself when we segregate ourselves into social groups that share the same values and interests. Truth needs conflict, not agreement. In that context, it is easy to see how blacks and whites could view the same subject differently.
I graduated from Southern University—a historically black university—because it was the only school that would take me. Prior to my enrollment at Southern, I knew next to nothing about black history. The public school system didn’t exactly push it. Southern did and it was an eye opening experience. Black history in Lincoln’s time? Forget it. Being against slavery these days is a no-brainer, despite the fact that it still exists in the world today. Opposing slavery in Lincoln’s time was the modern day equivalent of being branded a terrorist sympathizer.
Lincoln, unlike most presidents before him, grew up poor and, therefore, did not own slaves. Owning slaves is something concrete—a criminal act against humanity that is, understandably, unforgivable. Lincoln won the presidential election by carrying 18 states and none of them were southern. Talks of secession began as soon as he was elected on November 6, 1860.
The following month, South Carolina became the first state to secede. If Lincoln wanted to maintain the status quo, not many people were buying it. When it came time to campaign for his reelection in 1864, Lincoln himself believed he would be defeated. The Union troops were nowhere close to beating the Confederate army and Lincoln’s opponents (aside from the Confederacy) were growing in number.
The Atlantic's Mark Bowden wrote that George McClellan— Lincoln’s own general of the Union armies—called the president "a coward, an idiot, and the original gorilla." Northern newspapers openly called on his assassination long before John Wilkes Booth pulled the trigger. Prioritizing emancipation for the slave population was the last thing he needed to do. Lincoln needed alliances and coalitions. Blacks couldn’t vote so he had nothing at all to gain by championing the rights of blacks to a overwhelmingly racist population.
Had Lincoln not colored his words with the brush of white supremacy, he would be a mere footnote in history today. The fact that he navigated the issue of slavery so deftly in such a turbulent era should be commended. While his words, on the surface, are racist, his actions were not. In fact, his success in freeing the slaves was not only a progressive move, it was a radical one as well. Before Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (nearly a century after Lincoln’s death), the majority of whites in the South were still registered as Democrats, not because they were liberal, but because the Republican Party was still seen as the party of Lincoln. He was a hated man, but not nearly as hated as Nat Turner.
In a time when the slave population was overwhelmingly illiterate, Nat Turner possessed a gifted mind, so much so that his master would parade the youngster in front of guests to show off his talents. He knew scripture forwards and backwards. He had a sense of self that didn’t match the reality of the brutal system of slavery he was about to be thrust into. At the age of 10, after the sudden death of his master, Turner was sold off to another master who could’ve cared less about his intellect. By the time he was 12-years-old, Nat was out in the fields working from sun up to sun down. He knew what the future held for him and that was something he could not accept.
As Turner got older, he would watch as the master’s children— children he played with—grew into adults and, eventually, overseers who doled out punishment towards the slaves. Slave masters often used The Bible to condone slavery. But Nat Turner’s interpretation was far different; slavery was a vicious sin condemned by God.
Of the “peculiar institution” that was slavery, families could be bought and sold and ripped apart, women could be raped; and anyone could be killed or tortured for any offense concocted by the master and his overseers. And it was all protected under the law. What many whites can’t seem to wrap their minds around is the fact that Nat Turner killed, not just children but infants as well. How can that be justified?
Many of us hate to wake up in the mornings to work the nine to five we get paid for to do. We can take off when we’re sick. We can take vacations. We can quit and find another job. We often work indoors with air conditioning or the heat on. Slaves, obviously, weren’t afforded the same accommodations we have today. They weren’t even viewed as human beings. You could kill the slave master, but his wife and kids would inherit his “property” which included slaves. In Turner’s world, cutting down the tree was not enough; to end the evils of slavery, you had to also destroy the roots.
The violence of Nat Turner was not a product of Turner himself. It was nurtured, unwittingly, by a system that was too cheap and too lazy to pay for labor or do the work themselves. For a country obsessed with the idea of freedom above all, Turner should be viewed as a freedom fighter rather than a cold-blooded murderer. And for those who are critical of Abraham Lincoln and take his words at face value, I ask you this: how would you have handled the situation differently in which the same outcome was achieved or improved upon?
Much has been written about Abraham Lincoln while the exact opposite holds true for Nat Turner. Most of what I know regarding Turner comes from a 208 page book entitled The Fires of Jubilee by Stephen B. Oates. That’s about to change, however, as Nat Turner’s story is coming to the big screen.
The film version of his life, The Birth of a Nation, was directed by Nate Parker who also plays Turner in the film. Following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight bought the rights for $17.5 million—a record amount for a Sundance premiere. It will be released in theaters on October 7. Nearly two centuries have passed since Turner was hung for his rebellion. Hopefully, with this film, he’ll finally be vindicated.