The novelist William Styron (Sophie’s Choice) once said that a good book should physically and mentally exhaust its reader. They should be covered in sweat when finishing it. Styron certainly put me through my paces recently when reading his second novel, The confessions of Nat Turner.
Turner led the only successful slave rebellion in the US in the 19th century, killing about two dozens of local whites before he was caught and put on trial. The word trial is more than slightly ambiguous in this context given that neither Turner nor any of his compatriots were granted the status of human beings in the first place but considered chattel or property. In addition, more than 200 free and enslaved African Americans were subsequently slaughtered by roaming posses in the days after the brief rebellion. The word we have for this is lynching, killing without judicial process.
Styron’s novel is of course fictional and although there are some contemporary documents about Nat Turner, Styron certainly takes his literary license. Reading his account makes one uncomfortable, not least because the reader is acutely aware of the constructed nature of the dialogue, written by a white (privileged) man and imputed to be spoken by a black man. The writing process thus mirrors, rather than subverts, the enormous power differential that Nat Turner must have felt himself all his life.
Yet, Styron does succeed in creating a life size portrait of a human being, somebody who is slowly (and up to a point successfully) navigating the de-humanising environment in which he lived. The parallel between the Jewish Holocaust and the de-humanisation of African Americans is clear to see ( a topic Styron turned to in Sophie’s Choice). The differences are equally obvious. Whilst black Africans were treated as property and never gained any rights in the process, Jews in countries such as the Third Reich were discriminated and gradually excluded from a society they had been part of for decades.
In a way, it is this refusal to grant black Africans any human qualities right from the start of the middle passage that made this racist de-humanisation so ingrained and difficult to erase. For them, emancipation was as much a fight to gain something they never had, as it was, for Jewish Germans, about something they had previously been granted but temporary lost with tragic consequences. For the Jewish Holocaust, the loss of humanity was an aberration from the accepted norm. For African Americans gaining freedom and civil rights was about constituting a norm that applied to everybody else but them.
It is the universal application of this norm that is still contested when it comes to racism against African Americans in all sort of contexts, which corrodes human relationships. This is where Styron’s novel makes you sweat and disturbs your moral compass. Styron was criticised for this by some commentators and they may be correct. It is difficult to forget that, when Styron lets Nat Turner muse about forcing himself on the white daughter of the neighbouring farm, he is rehearsing a racist stereotype of the black man raping the white girl which played a significant role in the lynching of African Americans in the South right into the middle of the 20th century.
But what about that imagined rape? Nat Turner’s thoughts are just that, thoughts about violence between man and woman. True, it is impossible to dissociate them from its historical context. But Nat does not rape her. In fact, he regrets killing her. The only regret he has. In this way, his thoughts about violence against her become a reflection of the violence and power differential in which he lives and which he would fail to observe at his peril, not hers. Not meeting violence with (sexual) violence but regretting killing her may just reconstitute a humanity in him that the world denied him until his death.