Nat Turner and the (re)birthing of historical memory

I just watched The Birth of a Nation with a local rites-of-passage program that I help to coordinate. The film is quite riveting. I did not watch it expecting a historically accurate rendition of the life of Nat Turner. I expected it to do what I have seen similar films accomplish such as Malcolm X, Panther, Quilombo, Besouro, and so on–that is to offer a depiction of historical events based only partially on the documented history, while providing a generous degree of creative embellishments. One benefit that films like this offer are that they often provide a basis for communal dialog. In this sense this film has not disappointed.

As it relates to the plot, the film does a great job of capturing the depth to which Africans struggled to sustain their humanity within a monstrous system. The beauty, complexity, and tragedy of African life during the period was captured in ways that were deeply compelling. The dramatization of the fictionalized Nat Turner moving from being a child possibly destined for war, to learning how to read, to his growing disillusionment within the institution of enslavement, to his ultimate choice to take up arms against it was wonderfully dramatized. The depiction of this particular journey is augmented via the clear struggle of Nate Parker’s Nat Turner between finding comfort and nominal acceptance within the barbarity of chattel enslavement or becoming a voice and instrument of his people’s deliverance. The emotive dimension of armed struggle as a process of not only the exacting of vengeance, but asserting one’s collective right to self-determination was captured in ways that unfolded rather vividly.

The film employed a range of visual devices that captured the dynamic expression and retention of traditional African cultural practices in the Americas. Though the historical accuracy of these as it relates to the life of the historic Nat Turner is questionable, this portrayal is situated within the actuality of African spiritual, language, artisan, artistic, and cosmological retentions in the Americas. These depictions, particularly the ones of traditional African spirituality that intersect with the young Nat, are a reflection of the paths of the many other men and women who viewed enslavement as wholly illegitimate and intolerable, and as such resolved to confront and destroy it, whose works and deeds were often preceded by invocations of various African ancestors and divinities reflective of war and bravery.

Though their victories were incomplete, after all few victories were as complete as the Haitian revolution, they did serve to inspire subsequent generations. The names of these determined ancestors were spoken on the tongues of the living, giving resonance and relevance to their spirits among those who would follow in their footsteps. They, as Nat Turner, became more than martyrs for the cause of African redemption, they become symbols of backs unbent, minds not destroyed, and souls not broken. They became symbols of resistance. They illustrated the words of Fred Hampton, that “you can “kill a revolutionary, but you can never kill the revolution”. Their ascension to the realm of symbolic representation made them immortal. Thus their works, their deeds still stir the imagination. They remain exemplars of ancestral instruction.

This is not a perfect film. But it is one that may yet keep the thought and spirit of African liberation in our hearts and minds. The historic Nat Turner was compelled to move against the dehumanization of his people by what he witnessed, what he knew to be true, and his faith that the struggle for justice would inevitably be rewarded by victory. His struggle existed in the liminal space between that which was improbable and that which was imperative. The improbable eradication of an intolerable reality was an imperative that he did not, could not ignore. All missteps aside, The Birth of a Nation makes this unequivocally clear. It reminds us of Nat Turner’s sacrifice and symbolic significance today. The historical Nat Turner’s legacy challenges us to both ask and answer “What future, if any, do African people have outside of the mandates of the oppressive system that began in chattel slavery, continued under state-sponsored racial subordination (Jim Crow), and on to the system of mass-incarceration today?”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *