Nat Turner Rebellion/ Coming Up

Next week we will discuss Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. For Monday the 16th please finish that text. 

Hopefully the last three weeks of class have left you with a cluster of possible avenues of future study. The slave narrative as a genre, obviously, one that branches into various directions: the prison narrative, African American autobiography, the political polemic, historical essays confronting the status of race in the United States, etc. Authors such as James Carr, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison and others can be seen as the literary executors of an estate built by the works of Douglass and Jacobs. 

Other scholarly directions might include slave revolts, the life of John Brown, the triangular trade, and sentimentalism. 

My notes from the Turner documentary include Eugene Genovese’s remark that “Revolutions have to be thorough. You spare the kids – they run off and warn your enemies. If you’re going to take that road, you’d better make up your mind to take it to the end. That is the horror of the thing. It’s all well and good to say that these killings came out of rage. I don’t doubt that to a certain extent they did, but the real horror is that even if they hadn’t, matters would have probably taken the same course. A revolution is either thorough or it’s doomed. Real revolutionaries know that, which is why they have to proceed in cold blood.” (The full transcript for the documentary is available here.)

What I like about this quote is that it crystalizes the very drastic stakes of an event such as Turner’s revolt. Most Americans would agree with the statement that chattel slavery was an abomination which was necessarily brought to and end. Yet when confronted with the bloody wages of the sort of violence required to terminate the institution how many today– in an age when virtually any political activity exceeding the quadrennial obligation of bubbling in the name of a party-approved candidate with a borrowed sharpie is branded a species of “extremism”– would offer their uncompromising support? 

Monday we’ll discuss the documentary in detail and consider the difficulties of retrieving the historical figure of Nat Turner (Nat Turner? Whose Nat Turner?) the complexity of representation in reconstructing the past, and the uses to which that past is put in order to speak to the present.

Friday the 20th will thus conclude our exploration of slavery in the US, and we’ll launch into our next unit, Work, with a week of discussion, on-line readings, and one film. I have revised the syllabus to reflect these changes.

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