Our Dream Is Their Nightmare: On Nat Turner

An artist’s rendering of Nat Turner’s uprising.

Nobody wants to be a slave. An enslaved person takes every measure within their capacity to snatch small sips of freedom. These sips transform into gulps which transform into entire pitchers and carafes of that sweet succor disappearing down the throats of millions who have nothing to lose. A prisoner malingering in their cell transforms into a prisoner going on a work strike which eventually transforms into throwing a correctional officer off a tier. Many people think that enslaved Africans idly sat and waited for a John Brown, or an Abraham Lincoln, or a Union Army to liberate them. Just as now many supposed revolutionaries think that all black people need is a small cadre of white intellectuals to form some “vanguard party” to engage in opportunism and treachery until the conditions for some coup are right, then we will all fall for their bold but weak words and fall in rank and lockstep behind our white saviors. They will die waiting. We liberate ourselves. Those who seek to taste forever freedom must fall in line behind those who have been waging low intensity warfare against the entire edifice of the American hell-state. Before Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, we had Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, and countless others who took up arms to liberate our people. We had base areas in Florida, the Great Dismal Swamp, the Appalachians, and countless other areas from which we could ride forth, raid, kill, and return with our bounty which we had produced but which was stolen from us. We were joined by castoffs from settler society who were under our leadership and guidance and were truly dedicated to burning the system which had brutalized and dehumanized them as well, seeking to turn them into mindless beasts in human form to kill Indigenous people and enslave Africans. Our Indigenous comrades had Roman Nose, Tecumseh, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Geronimo. In the Caribbean, we had Louverture, Dessalines, Nanny, and countless maroon bases which stretched from Mexico down through to Brazil. Of course, their ideas and praxis were very different from each other but the common thread was the desire for liberation of those they cared about along with themselves. Revolutionary Haiti was a liberated zone, a rear area which offered freedom to Africans who could make it there. It practiced internationalism by aiding Bolivar in throwing off the Spanish yoke in South America, a fact remembered by Venezuelans to this day. In essence, the spirit of Nat Turner is that which must be channeled, sharpened, and wielded by all who would claim to be revolutionaries today.

Nat Turner was born October 2, 1800. From his earliest memory he claimed to have been guided by visions and signs. African people in the Americas, particularly our proletariat and semi-proletariat, have always been deeply influenced by our unique syncretic blend of mainly West African, Indigenous, and to various extents, European spiritual practices. This lead to the development of such unique religious as Vodoun, Louisiana Voodoo, Hoodoo, Santería, Candomblé, Obeah and countless others. The Haitian Revolution was inaugurated by a ceremony at Cais Boiman in August 1791 which was led by two Vodoun practitioners, Cécile Fatiman and Dutty Boukman. Many of our greatest revolutionaries in the period of slavery were obeahmen and women and other syncretic religion practitioners, so much so that the slaver authorities sought to ban and drive our practices into the dirt because they were rightfully seen as a rejection of an attempt to impose colonizer values on us and destroy the threads of cultural heritage and memory which bound us to the continent from which we came. Nat Turner was no exception. He was held in great regard by his fellow enslaved Afrikans, seen as a prophet and one who was able to interpret various omens. He was also able to read and write. The fact that this African man was able to exercise leadership and influence over his comrades in the fields along with being literate meant that the settler population of Southampton County, where Nat was born and spent his entire life, feared him but also held him in a sort of grudging, paternalistic respect. He was described as:

5 feet 6 or 8 inches [168–173 cm] high, weighs between 150 and 160 pounds [68–73 kg], rather “bright” [light-colored] complexion, but not a mulatto, broad shoulders, larger flat nose, large eyes, broad flat feet, rather knockneed, walks brisk and active, hair on the top of the head very thin, no beard, except on the upper lip and the top of the chin, a scar on one of his temples, also one on the back of his neck, a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm, near the wrist, produced by a blow.

Nat’s visions and interpretations of various atmospheric phenomena lead him to believe that he was chosen by God to lead an uprising against slavery starting in Southampton County. We know that the masses make history, not great and glorious individuals, and they choose their leaders based on their representation of their interests at the time. To an enslaved Afrikan, their interest would be, obviously, to no longer be a slave. The revolutionary masses don’t choose their leaders based on pie in the sky promises of some heaven a hundred or so years from now while they go through hell every day of their lives. So, they chose Nat Turner, who had resolved himself to make armed struggle against the beasts that plagued Southampton County and kept his brothers and sisters in chains. Turner used similar methods as Harriet Tubman to convey his message of armed struggle, recruiting only those he knew and trusted and using songs to pass information. Once again, we see the infinite creativity of the masses to act in their own interests. What was the political line? Armed struggle and destruction of the slave power in Southampton County. Nat Turner had no Marx, Lenin, Engels, Stalin, Trotsky or Mao. Yet, his rebellion managed to kill 60 slave keepers and their dependants. Compare this record to the small splinter groups and sects which claim to be the “modern day representatives” of the lines of these revolutionary teachers (while ignoring General Nat’s lesson) who, despite all of their bellowing and posturing and r-r-revolutionary rhetoric, have not managed to mobilize the masses to initiate any revolution or destroy a single enemy of the New Afrikan people. Had they internalized the lesson taught by General Nat, the energy that they put towards trying to win the masses over to their opportunism and social fascism and squabbling with other useless sects would be put to use executing the George Zimmermans and Darren Wilsons of the world and earning our respect with deeds that we can relate to. But I digress.

Nat Turner, as we know, failed in his immediate mission. He was captured and executed, and the settlers went on an abominable, fear fueled rampage that murdered countless Afrikans who had nothing to do with the rebellion, putting the heads of men, women and children alike on stakes all over the State of Virginia as warnings. Yet, before he died, he took 60 settlers with him. This was a good thing. This was the preparation for the great jubilee which was the general strike and taking up of arms by Afrikans en masse during what the colonizers call the Civil War, the struggle between old and new, industrial wage slave North and feudal chattel slave South. But as Mao teaches, setbacks are not permanent. Nations want liberation, people want freedom. You can not exploit forever, and the forces which brought us here inadvertently transported their own gravediggers. The insurgency waged by the Afrikan people since we arrived with the Spanish so long ago never stopped. When you see a black youth throwing a firebomb, or Chris Dorner and Micah X Johnson taking out cops, or hear a brother on the corner saying we need guerilla warfare in the ghetto, or listen to Amiri Baraka at his best, or read Huey Newton, you are listening to, looking at, and reading Nat Turner. Revolutions have twists and turns, ebbs and flows. One of us getting taken out means twenty take our place. The job of the revolutionary is to educate, inspire, synthesize, and ultimately to prepare and make revolution. General Nat is speaking to you. He looks around at our brothers and sisters lying dead in the streets either by our own or by the New Massa’s hand, or in handcuffs that look very similar to his own chains. Listen. Learn. Burn.