Question of the Month
The Nat Caricature
Q: I have been looking over the Jim Crow Museum web site. I appreciate the attention to this unfortunate era of American History. The museum appears to be a very thoughtful collection of artifacts and policies. In the FAQ section, there is a reference to the caricature "Nat." Would you please describe this caricature further?
-- Gabriel Mann, Columbus, Ohio
A: The Nat caricature portrays African and African American males as angry, crazed, revengeful brutes with a bloodthirsty hatred for whites. Like many anti-black caricatures, the Nat portrayal was popularized during American slavery. John Wesley Blassingame, a prominent historian, reviewed slavery era literary stereotypes of black men and argued that three dominated: Sambo, a submissive, childlike buffoon; Jack, a sullen, rational pragmatist; and the hateful Nat. Blassingame (1972) contrasted the Sambo and Nat caricatures this way:
"Nat was the rebel who rivaled Sambo in the universality and continuity of his literary image. Revengeful, bloodthirsty, cunning, treacherous, and savage, Nat was the ravager of white women who defied all the rules of plantation society. Subdued and punished only when overcome by superior numbers of firepower, Nat retaliated when attacked by whites, led guerrilla activities of maroons against isolated plantations, killed overseers and planters, or burned plantation buildings when he was abused... Sambo, combining in his person Uncle Remus, Jim Crow, and Uncle Tom, was the most pervasive and long lasting of the three literary stereotypes. Indolent, faithful, humorous, loyal, dishonest, superstitious, improvident, and musical, Sambo was inevitably a clown and congenitally docile."
Sambo was a devoted house servant; Nat, an angry field hand. Sambo's love for his "master" was all-consuming; Nat hated his enslaver. Sambo often gave his life to protect his master; Nat wanted to kill his enslaver.
Slavery was an institution brutal beyond words. How can one describe a system where humans are treated like chattel -- thinking, feeling animals? Slaves were property, legally real estate, sold in living rooms, churches, workplaces, and at public auction houses. Slaves were insulted, spat on, slapped, punched, kicked, and beaten for sport and "correction." In 1705, Virginia law stated, "If any slave resist his master...correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction...the master shall be free of all punishment...as if such accident never happened." Slaves had no legal rights. They worked without wages. They could not legally marry. They were bred, their children, like themselves, chattel property. Imagine a society where you did not own yourself. At the whim of their enslavers they could be sold, separated from loved ones. Living under compulsory ignorance laws, slaves were beaten for learning to spell, read, and write. They could not own property without the permission of their enslavers. If they fled they were hunted, and when found, their backs whipped or their limbs amputated. Obviously, they could not own guns.
Think of what it would be like for one race to have complete domination over another race: a society where the "subordinate" race is considered inferiors, subhumans, lesser children of God. Imagine this racial hierarchy being supported by all major societal institutions: government, education, economy, religion, and family. There you would have an entire society aligned against a race -- all significant norms, values, beliefs, and laws legitimizing the victimization of the "subordinated others." There would, of course, be some enslavers who are relatively kind, but with little or no social control to regulate interactions between the superordinates (enslavers) and the subordinates, the abuses of power and their expressions would be staggering. It is not surprising that slaves, lacking real political, social, and economic power were often the victims of their enslavers' desires to satisfy scatological and sadistic fantasies. It is also not surprising that some slaves would hate their enslavers and want to physically assault or kill them.
Pro-slavery advocates may have tried to convince themselves and others that slavery was a benevolent institution and plantations were filled with obedient, docile Sambos, but Nats, real and imagined, dominated the white consciousness. One wealthy Louisiana enslaver stated, "I have known times here, when there was not a single planter (enslaver) who had a calm night's rest; they then never lay down to sleep without a brace of loaded pistols at their sides" (Bremer, 1853, p. 190). Whites, including non-enslavers, fearing rebellion among the slaves, used many strategies to ensure that angry slaves did not rebel: slaves were routinely searched for weapons; rebellious slaves were punished, publicly and harshly -- including cropping ears, castrating, hanging, burning, and mutilating; the all-white army and militias were constantly on guard; and, anyone, black or white advocating rebellion among the slaves could be lynched. Despite these measures and others, slavers lived with the constant fear that slaves would rise up and kill whites. According to Herbert Aptheker (1983), a historian, there were over two hundred and fifty documented cases of organized slave rebellions in the United States.
Nat Turner: The hate that hate produced
The characterization of Africans and their American descendants as surly, crazed, subhumans capable of unspeakable violence is an old one, and this portrayal certainly was in vogue during the 18th century. This characterization went by many names, among them, Black Beast and Black Brute. In the 19th century a new name emerged, Nat, and its popularity was due almost totally to the bloody insurrection led by Nat Turner, a slave born in Southampton County, Virginia on October 2, 1800.
A precocious child, Turner picked up the ability to read at a young age and believed himself to be "intended for some great purpose." He grew up deeply religious and was often seen fasting and praying. At a young age he began preaching, and was known among fellow slaves as "The Prophet." Turner had several visions prior to the slave revolt in 1831. His first vision occurred in 1821, after he had run away. He hid in woods for thirty days until prompted by the vision to return to his enslaver. In 1825, seeing lights in the sky, he prayed to interpret the sign. He believed that his prayers were answered when he saw ". . . drops of blood on the corn, as though it were dew from heaven." He believed that this was a sign that there would be a war between "white spirits and black spirits."
On May 12, 1828, he had his third vision, in which he learned of his messianic role: to "fight against the Serpent" in the approaching eschaton: the end of days. He believed that the Spirit spoke to him and told him to fight the "Serpent." The Serpent, for him, meant whites. According to his vision, a sign from heaven would reveal when the revolt should take place. On February 12, 1831, a solar eclipse occurred, and Turner believed that this was a sign to begin planning an uprising. He was convinced of his mission to lead slaves out of bondage and developed a plan to capture the armory at Jerusalem, Virginia. He told four other slaves, and they planned the attack for July 4, 1831. However, Turner got sick so the rebellion was postponed.
On August 13, 1831, there was an atmospheric disturbance in which the sun appeared bluish-green. Nat took this as the final signal. On August 21, 1831, Turner and several slaves arrived at the home of his enslaver and killed the entire white family. For the next forty hours, Turner and a growing number of slaves went house-to-house, freeing slaves, and stabbing and hacking to death between fifty-five and sixty white people. The slaves were on their way to Jerusalem to capture weapons. Overpowered by close to one thousand Virginia and federal military troops on the afternoon of August 22, Turner's forces disbanded. After a final battle with whites on the next morning, Turner escaped, hid, and was finally captured on October 30. He was taken to the county jail; while there he dictated his confession to Thomas R. Gray. On November 11, 1831 he was hanged, skinned, decapitated -- and his body parts amputated for souvenirs. In the aftermath of the rebellion, a hysterical climate reigned in the South, leading to mob lynching of blacks amid false accusations of conspiracy: close to two hundred blacks, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were beaten, bludgeoned, tortured, disemboweled, burned, and shot by the angry white mobs.
Nat Turner was one of the most polarizing figures in the history of this country. His slaughter of white civilians during the revolt makes his legacy controversial. Thomas Gray, the white attorney and slave owner who wrote down Turner's "Confession" with his own interpretation of Turner's thoughts, words, and actions, portrays Turner as a demented religious fanatic (Gray, 1831). This portrayal resonates with Turner's many detractors who see him as a cowardly mass murderer with a messiah complex. Similar sentiments are expressed in William Styron's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967); Styron's Nat is also a white-woman obsessing sexual deviant. William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (Clarke, 1968) is an angry rebuttal. The authors argue that Styron's Nat Turner is not the historical Nat Turner. Styron ignored Turner's relationships within the black community, and especially ignored Turner's wife. Nat Turner was, for them, a valiant man who acted rationally. He was not a crazed killer. He was a freedom fighter. The Nat Turner of William Styron's creation, they wrote, was a figment of Styron's own psychological conflicts rather than an accurate representation of an important historic figure. Albert Stone's The Return of Nat Turner (1992), also lauds Turner as a symbol of uncompromising militancy in the pursuit of freedom. To his supporters, Turner is a prophet, hero, Black Nationalist, warrior, and martyr who struck a blow against slavery. They are proud that a black man, against overwhelming odds, organized and carried out the bloodiest and most celebrated slave rebellion in the history of the United States. The revolt did not lead to permanent emancipation for slaves, but it did send this message to slaveholders: for years you have degraded and killed us, now there is the real possibility that we will kill you.
Though he became known as Nat Turner after the insurrection, his birth name was simply "Nat."
The America that birthed, shaped, beheaded, and quartered Nat Turner bears little resemblance to the United States of the 21st century. In part, this explains why the horrors of slavery are for many present-day Americans intellectually and emotionally unreachable. So much has happened: Emancipation, a Civil War, Reconstruction, the attempt to re-enslave blacks with Jim Crow laws, a Welfare Rights Movement, a televised Civil Rights Movement, Civil Rights Acts, The Black Power Movement, various harsh critiques of America's racial past, desegregation of public schools and public accommodations, integration of professional and collegiate sports, affirmative action, numerous racial reconciliation projects, and, a development that was inconceivable a half-century ago: Black politicians as serious candidates for the Presidency -- and much more. But African Americans remain a social minority: disproportionately poor, uneducated, unemployed, underemployed, sick, and incarcerated. There is a great deal of frustration and anger in many African American communities and some of that anger is expressed with hatred toward white Americans.
To the extent that real-life Nats -- or black men who approximate the Nat caricature -- exist, they are surely rare. There are many African American men (and women) who are frustrated with white racism and angry at whites; however, the Nat caricature includes the belief that whites should die, at the hands of blacks. Nat is more than a bigot; he is a revolutionary, and, in his mind, bloodless revolutions are not possible. Nat's hatred of whites cannot be explained by saying he is angry or prejudiced or discriminates; no, Nat's hatred is the hatred of despair and he wants to act on it. Contemporary black rappers who sing about killing whites1 sound threatening to many Americans but often their racial taunts are tools in a carefully crafted and marketed "thug persona." A real-Nat, like his racist counterparts in white supremacy organizations, wants to annihilate the "racial other."
Kamau Kambon owns BlackNificent bookstore and he has taught as an affiliate instructor at North Carolina State University, neither of these endeavors gained him much attention. After the Katrina disaster Howard University hosted a conference to critique media coverage of Katrina and its after effects, especially the way the victims who remained were depicted. Kambon, one of the panelists, said the following to the assembled audience and the C-SPAN television audience:
"And then finally I want to say that we need one idea, and we're not thinking about a solution to the problem.... Now how do I know that the white people know that we are going to come up with a solution to the problem? I know it because they have retina scans, they have what they call racial profiling, DNA banks, and they're monitoring our people to try to prevent the one person from coming up with the one idea. And the one idea is, how we are going to exterminate white people because that in my estimation is the only conclusion I have come to. We have to exterminate white people off the face of the planet to solve this problem. Now I don't care whether you clap or not, but I'm saying to you that we need to solve this problem because they are going to kill us. And I will leave on that. So we just have to just set up our own system and stop playing and get very serious and not be diverted from coming up with a solution to the problem and the problem on the planet is white people."
Prior to his call for genocide against whites, Kambon told the panel that "we are at war." He said that whites had set up an "international plantation" for blacks, which made "every white person on earth a plantation master." He said that, "You're either supporting white people in their process of death, or you're for African liberation" (Kamau Kambon, 2005).
Kambon's hatred of whites parallels the hatred of blacks and other "mud people" by white supremacy groups. Their hatred does not represent different, polar points on a continuum; rather, they are at or near the same point on a circle. Black supremacists like Kambon and their white supremacist counterparts want to defeat, degrade, and destroy; they do not want separation, they want annihilation. They may do it, in the words of Tom Metzger, a notorious white supremacist, as "lone wolves,"2 but their preference is to be victors in a race war.
In 1987 the White Patriot Party declared that a "Racial Holy War" or "RAHOWA" had begun. It had not. In 2002, Resistance Records, owned by the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi organization, begin distributing a CD-ROM based computer game called "Ethnic Cleansing." The object is to kill "sub-humans" -- i.e. blacks and Latinos -- and their "masters," the Jews, who are portrayed as the personification of evil. The game is a virtual race war. The call for a race war has also been advocated by Black Jews and some individuals associated with the Nation of Islam.
America is not a racial paradise and one's life chances -- the likelihood of getting the good things in life, power, prestige, property, and presumed worth -- are not equally distributed across racial lines. Indeed, race remains a "master status," meaning, that social status that trumps an individual's other statuses. Nevertheless, there has been a great deal of progress in this country since the time of Nat Turner. There is still a racial divide but the United States is more democratic than it was even forty years ago. The anger and hatred that once dominated American race relations has not disappeared but it no longer dominates, this means that Nat and his white Counterpart -- let us call him Joseph Paul, are marginalized; ironically, that marginalization fuels them.
Curator, Jim Crow Museum
1 The list of rappers with racist anti-whites lyrics is too long to detail here, but here is a sample: "Kill the white people; we gonna make them hurt; kill the white people; but buy my record first; ha, ha, ha." "Kill d'White People"; Apache, Apache Ain't Sh*t, 1993, Tommy Boy Music, Time Warner, USA. "Lead to the head of you devils." "Lick Dem Mutha*****as--Remix"; Brand Nubian, Everything Is Everything, 1994, Elektra Entertainment, Warner Communications, Time Warner, USA. "Get them devil-made guns and leave them demons bleeding; give them back whips, and just feed them bullets." "Wicked Ways"; Sunz of Man, One Million Strong: The Album, 1995, Mergela Records, Solar/Hines Co., Prolific Records. "Listen to this black visionary, bringing war like a revolutionary. . . . go on a killing spree, putting devils out their misery; hearing screams, sounds of agony; my hostility takes over me. . . . camouflaged ninjas avenging." "Under Seige"; Killarmy, Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars, 1997, Wu-Tang Records, Priority Records, The EMI Group, United Kingdom. "I pledge allegiance to only the black. . . . black, you had best prepare for the coming of war. . . . look at you devil; now you're sweating; I'm telling you: you can't run from the hand of Armageddon. . . . he eats his pig-steak rare so he can taste the blood." "No Time"; RBX, The RBX Files, 1995, Premeditated Records, Warner Brother Records, Time Warner, USA.
2 Think of Colin Ferguson, the mentally troubled black man, convicted of murdering six people and injuring nineteen others on the Long Island Rail Road in Garden City, New York on December 7, 1993. Ferguson's defense team had proposed the defense that he had been driven to temporary insanity by black rage, and that he was not criminally liable, even though he had committed the killings. Ferguson insisted that he had not committed the killings and chose to represent himself. Or think of Joseph Paul Franklin, equally deranged, born James Clayton Vaughn in Mobile, Alabama in 1950. Obsessed with Nazism while in high school, he started off firebombing synagogues and spraying mace on inter-racial couples, he soon graduated to murder. He committed over twenty murders in twelve states, mostly Jews and black men who dated or married whites. Franklin shot and paralyzed Larry Flynt, publisher of "Hustler," because the magazine dedicated an issue to interracial sex. In 1980, Franklin shot and wounded African American attorney Vernon Jordan, then president of the National Urban League, a civil rights organization, and later a close advisor to President Bill Clinton, because Jordan was jogging with a white woman. Franklin, who considered himself a serial assassin, said: "I was commanded by God to start a race war."
Aptheker, H. (1983). American Negro slave revolts (5th ed.). New York, NY: International Publishers.
Blassingame, J. W. (1972). The slave community: Plantation life in the antebellum South. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Bremer, F. (1853). The homes of the new world: Impressions of America, vol. II. New York, NY: Harper & Bros.
Clarke, J. H. (Ed.). (1968). William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten black writers respond. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Gray, T. R. (1831). The confessions of Nat Turner, the leader of the late insurrections in Southampton, Va. Baltimore, MD: Lucas & Deaver. Retrieved from http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/turner/menu.html.
Kamau Kambon's most excellent speech. (2005, October 14; video uploaded 2007, December 17). Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_61OoR-qEqs.
Stone, A. E. (1992). The return of Nat Turner: History, literature, and cultural politics in sixties America. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Styron, W. (1967). The confessions of Nat Turner. New York, NY: Random House.