Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review: The Resurrection of Nat Turner: Sharon Ewell Foster

Winfield Farm in Randolph County, where the Churches believe that all farmers should do their own labor.


The Resurrection of Nat Turner: Part One: The Witnesses and Part Two: The Testimony.  Sharon Ewell Foster.  Howard Books, Simon and Schuster, Inc., New York, 2011 and 2012.  Part One: ISBN: 978-1-4165-7803; Part Two: ISBN: 978-1-4165-7812-3.  Paper $15.99 each part.
Sharon won the Michael Shaara Prize for Civil War Fiction for these books and attended the ceremony this fall at Gettysburg College.

My old World Book Encyclopedia from the late 1940s, which my sister won in a spelling contest, gives this info about Nat Turner, and from what I learned in American history in school, that was all I knew about Nat Turner:

Turner, Nat (1800-1831) was a Negro slave in Southampton County, Virginia. He persuaded many of his fellow slaves to rise up in revolt against their masters in 1831.  He was captured and hanged.

Sharon Ewell Foster has indeed resurrected Nat Turner, whom the slaves of 1931 in Southampton county, Virginia, called a prophet. He is like nothing so much as an Old Testament prophet, an 1830s version of Jonah preaching to Nineveh.  In his suffering and death, there are parallels with the death of Jesus.  Both parts of this story are essential to seeing the vision Sharon Ewell Foster has carefully researched and now presents in a deeply moving portrait of a figure who played a key role in the eventual emancipation of the American slaves.

When Sharon set out to write about Nat Turner, she didn’t expect to overturn the “knowledge” about Turner that had been publicly available before.  She didn’t expect the truth to take her in such a different direction.  She interviewed descendants both of former slave owners and their slaves still living in Southampton County, was given access to actual trial records and official documents.  She spent five years doing research.  

Using the privilege of a novelist, she paints all the events that led up to the rebellion and the massacre of fifty whites on the night of August 22, 1931. She goes back to the life Nat’s Ethiopian mother, Nikahywot, was living in the Ethiopian Highlands about 1798, when she and her cousin were captured by Muslims, sold as slaves, and taken in slave ships across the Atlantic Ocean.  Nikahywot ended up as the property of Benjamin Turner, and was given the name of Nancie.  

In 1800 she bore Nat, and his white father treated him better than most of his slaves, allowed Nat to learn to read and write.  His mother taught him Amharic, her native language, and her Ethiopian culture’s Christian heritage, and called him Nagasi, Prince.  When his owner, who had promised him freedom and had put Nat’s name on the deed to the Turner’s Meeting Church, died, Nat, at about age twelve, was sold away from his mother and put to work in the fields.  Nikahywot had kept telling him: “We are all captives, and you must set us all free. You must be brave and must remember.”

Nat learns, when Benjamin gives him a Bible and allows him to go to the Turner’s Meeting Church, that his mother’s Ethiopian Christianity (Pre-Roman Catholic) is the same as the religion of the white slave-owners.  This becomes his message: The Christian religion was being used to justify slavery.  Nat insists that God considers it wrong for one human being to own another. He cites the passages in the Old Testament.  To the end of his life, he is preaching that, if the slave-owners don’t repent their man-stealing, God will punish them.  God loves them, too, but he will not allow their shameful behavior to their fellow human beings to go unpunished.

I have read other books which took up the subject of American slavery, e.g. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but none so vivid and harrowing as the portrait painted here.  I experienced the cold in the same way that I experienced hunger in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, to give one example.

All of us–black and white–need to know this history.  The Civil War is now 150 years behind us, but our American culture is still haunted by it and the terrible injustice that led to it.  As a nation, as a people, we are still having trouble with the concept that God (or whatever name we give the Created Order) loves all of us, rich, poor, black, white, all cultures and ethnicities, all kinds and conditions of human beings.  We still try to separate ourselves from people who are different and say we are better, we are “more” human, and they are “less” human.

It won’t wash, and ultimately, there is a price to be paid.

In Part I: The Witnesses Sharon uses the point of view of many of the key players around Nat Turner, and some who came later, like Harriet Beecher Stowe: Sallie Francis Moore Travis, who was Nat’s owner in 1831; Nathaniel Francis, her brother and one of the most obsessed and cruel slave owners; Will, a slave belonging to Nathaniel Francis, who had sold Will’s wife and baby daughter; auntie Easter, another of Nathaniel Francis’s slaves; Nat’s mother; and William Parker, the white lawyer who would “defend” Nat at his trial.

In Part II: The Testimony we learn up close how Nat feels and thinks, down to the pain he has in his feet as he walks barefoot through the snow (slaves had no shoes and inadequate clothing for the winter).  We also are with Harriet Beecher Stowe as she learns the true story from Will, who in 1856 is an escaped slave living in Boston.

I learned how the original confession of Nat Turner came to be written by the local slave-owners when the court case fell apart.  The truth burns through the pages of these books and will sear your heart.  Take your courage in both hands and read them.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like a powerful book and one I must read when my TBR pile gets a little lower. I'm writing down the title to put it on my list of books to buy. Thank you, Judy, for revieing this.