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10 things Birth of a Nation got right about Nat Turner

On Sixty Minutes, when filmmaker Nate Parker was asked if Birth of a Nation was historically accurate, he noted, “There’s never been a film that was 100% historically accurate. That’s why they say based on a true story and doesn’t say, ‘A true story.’” Hollywood may not be the best place to learn one’s history, but here are ten things that the new movie Birth of a Nation got right about Nat Turner’s revolt:

  1. Nat Turner was a literate slave. While most slaves were illiterate, Nat Turner could read. We do not know exactly how he learned to read. When he was recounting the story of his life, he saw it as a miracle that he learned to read without being taught, but Thomas R. Gray, the man who transcribed Turner’s confession, explained his literacy in the same way that Nate Parker did: he had been taught by his owners.
  2. Nat Turner had a family, including parents, a wife, and a child. As Turner told his story to whites, he even recalled a “very religious” grandmother, to whom “I was much attached.” Unfortunately, we do not know as much about his family as we would like. We do not even know Turner’s wife’s name: some historians think that her name was Cherry while others think that her name was Mariah or even possibly Fanny. He also had a child, although that child was not a girl, as Parker imagined him, but a boy named Redic.
  3. Nat Turner’s father escaped slavery. In a dramatic moment in Birth of a Nation, Turner’s father is forced to run away and is never seen again. We actually know nothing about the circumstance of Turner’s father’s escape, but Turner believed his father had escaped “to some other part of the country.”
  4. Nat Turner was a religious man. According to the Confessions, Nat Turner recalled “devoting my time to fasting and prayer.” He believed that “The Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days” spoke to him as well.
    Image Credit: Discovery of Nat Turner: wood engraving illustrating Benjamin Phipps’s capture of w:Nat Turner (1800-1831) by William Henry Shelton. Public domain via Wikimeda Commons.
  5. Nat Turner baptized a white man. Turner’s confessions describe him baptizing a white man, Ethledred T. Brantley. Brantley and Turner requested that a church baptize them both, but “the white people would not let us be baptised by the church.” So both Turner and Brantley were baptized together “in the sight of many who reviled us.”
  6. Nat Turner believed that God spoke to him through prodigies including the eclipse of the sun. Turner interpreted unusual appearances in the natural world as signs from God. As portrayed in Birth of a Nation, Turner “discovered drops of blood on the corn as though it were dew from heaven”. He also saw signs in the sky and hieroglyphs on leaves. Birth of a Nation suggests that an eclipse of the sun was the sign that set the revolt in motion. Actually, the eclipse, which happened in February, was the sign that led Turner to begin telling others about the revolt. The plan itself was set in motion by a different sign, a strange appearance of the sun. Turner never described this second sign, but on August 13 people up and down the East Coast of the United States described the sun’s unusual appearance, a woman in Richmond describing it “as blue as any cloud you ever saw.”
  7. Nat Turner called his master a kind master. Unlike the movie, Turner had multiple masters. When the revolt began, Turner was owned by Putnam Moore, a nine-year old, but since January of 1830, he and Moore both lived with Moore’s stepfather Joseph Travis. Turner described Travis, the first victim of the revolt, as “a kind master.” He then added, “in fact, I had no cause to complain of his treatment to me.” Turner believed that the fight for freedom was righteous independent of the master’s behavior.
  8. The rebels were on their way to Jerusalem. While the name of the town toward which the rebels headed, Jerusalem, sounds like it came out of central casting, the county seat for Southampton was actually called Jerusalem. You won’t find Jerusalem on a map if you look. The town changed its name to Courtland in 1888. While the moviemakers are right about the rebels’ goal, they incorrectly suggest that the rebel army made it to Jerusalem. The rebels were defeated in a battle at James Parker’s place about 3 miles southwest of the town.
  9. Nat Turner remained at large for a significant amount of time after the revolt. The revolt was suppressed quickly. The rebel army was dispersed by Tuesday 23 August 1831 and most of the rebels were killed or captured at that time. But Turner himself disappeared for more than two months and some whites began to think that he had escaped. Eventually the governor issued a reward for his capture and he was spotted first by a slave then by a white near where the revolt began. Although Birth of a Nation portrays Turner’s ultimate surrender differently, Turner was captured by Benjamin Phipps on 30 October 1831 near where the revolt began.
  10. Nat Turner kept his cool on the day that he was hanged. There are only two accounts of Turner’s death on 11 November and they do not always agree about what happened. (One report described an “immense crowd” but the other noted that “there were but few people.”) But they do agree that Turner kept his cool. One reported that Turner “exhibited the utmost composure during the whole ceremony;” the other noted that Turner “even hurried the executioner in the performance of his duty.”

Featured Image Credit: annual solar eclipse by Takeshi Kuboki. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Corlis Nelson

    l congratulate Nate Parker for having the tenacity to expose America’s worst secrets, repulsive actions and degradation inflicted upon an innocent race that was humble, family oriented and religious. I can only imagine the trauma and fear that children lived with as they observed their father’s being dehumanized and their mother’s raped. Never to forget, painful seperation of families. Cattle is kept together!!! Are we less than?? Thank you so very much for your dedication and commitment.

  2. halima

    Nat Turner and John Brown were political prisoners in their time. The acts for which they were charged and subsequently hanged, were the practical extensions of their profound commitment to the abolition of slavery. They fearlessly bore the responsibility for their actions. The significance of their executions and the accompanying widespread repression did not lie so much in the fact that they were being punished for specific crimes, nor even in the effort to use their punishment as an implicit threat to deter others from similar armed acts of resistance. These executions, and the surrounding repression of slaves, were intended to terrorize the anti-slavery movement in general; to discourage and diminish both legal and illegal forms of abolitionist activity. As usual, the effect of repression was miscalculated and in both instances, anti-slavery activity was accelerated and intensified as a result.
    Nat Turner and John Brown can be viewed as examples of the political prisoner who has actually committed an act which is defined by the state as “criminal”. They killed and were consequently tried for murder. But did they commit murder? This raises the question of whether American revolutionaries had murdered the British in their struggle for liberation. Nat Turner and his followers killed some sixty-five white people, yet shortly before the revolt had begun, Nat is reputed to have said to the other rebelling slaves: “Remember that ours is not war for robbery nor to satisfy our passions, it is a struggle for freedom. Ours must be deeds and not words”,
    The very institutions which condemned Nat Turner and reduced his struggle for freedom to a simpler criminal case of murder, owed their existence to the decision, made a half-century earlier, to take up arms against the British oppressor.
    The battle for the liquidation of slavery had no legitimate existence in the eyes of the government and therefore the special quality of deeds carried out in the interests of freedom was deliberately ignored. There were no political prisoners, there were only criminals; just as the movement out of which these deeds flowed was largely considered criminal.
    Likewise, the significance of activities which are pursued in the interests of liberation today is minimized not so much because officials are unable to see the collective surge against oppression, but because they have consciously set out to subvert such movements. In the Spring of 1970, Los Angeles Panthers took up arms to defend themselves from an assault initiated by the local police force on their office and on their persons. They were charged with criminal assault. If one believed the official propaganda, they were bandits and rogues who pathologically found pleasure in attacking policemen. It was not mentioned that their community activities — educational work, services such as free breakfast and free medical programs — which had legitimized them in the black community, were the immediate reason for which the wrath of the police had fallen upon them. In defending themselves from the attack waged by some 600 policemen (there were only eleven Panthers in the office) they were defending not only their lives, but even more important their accomplishments in the black community surrounding them, and in the boarded thrust for black liberation. Whenever blacks in struggle have recourse to self-defense, particular armed self-defense, it is twisted and distorted on official levels and ultimately rendered synonymous with criminal aggression. On the other hand, when policemen are clearly indulging in acts of criminal aggression, officially they are defending themselves through “justifiable assault” or “justifiable homicide”.
    The ideological acrobatics characteristics of official attempts to explain away the existence of the political prisoner do not end with the equation of the individual political act with the individual criminal act. The political act is defined as criminal in order to discredit radical and revolutionary movements. A political event is reduced to a criminal event in order to affirm the absolute invulnerability of the existing order. In a revealing contradiction, the court resisted the description of the New York Panther 21 trial as “political”, yet the prosecutor entered as evidence of criminal intent, literature which represented, so he purported, the political ideology of the Black Panther Party.

  3. Doreen Peart

    America needs to be reminded of its data past so that time will never be revisited.it owes it’s people of colour and native Americans a duty. They made tremendous contributions to the birh of their nation their history should not be deigned them. just watching the clip stored up mixed emotions I know that I am so proud to be black because we over came.We are still here filled with so much love because greater is he that is within us than he that is in the world


    I Love this movie given the accounts of the movie allows me to see through Nat Turner eyes. Of what is going on in this world today

  5. Richard Cherry

    I strongly believe her last name was Cherry. The counties of South Hampton is on the state line of Virginia next to Bertie county North Carolina where Cherry Plantation was located. Through my ancestry research, i found my slave ancestor were from Bertie and South Hampton. I have yet to find one slave in the 1000s of slaves who had the first name Cherry.

  6. Richard Cherry

    Luna Eclipses usually happen about every 18 months someplace on earth, but i noticed in the case of Nat Turner, he saw 2 eclipses (the sign) within months (Maybe within 1 or 3 months) in the U.S..

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