Black History Month: Nat Turner


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Hi friends,

Happy Black History Month! For the next eight newsletters, we’ll be highlighting Black leaders who have fundamentally altered the course of history. A few reminders before we get started: Black history is United States history. There is not a single component of US history to which Black people’s influence wasn’t absolutely foundational. There are no stories without Black involvement or Black impact: we just weren’t taught to look for Black people in the retelling. 

As promised in Friday’s email, we’ll start the week by unlearning some of the biases we might hold toward a historical figure that (white) people have been taught to fear. This week, we’re talking about Nat Turner.


Nat Turner was an enslaved man born on the Virginia plantation of Benjamin Turner in 1800. Even as a child, Nat was known for having a sort of connection with the divine: he was often talking about talking to God and about having visions of freedom. He learned to read and write on Turner’s plantation before being sold three separate times and hired out to John Travis. All through his childhood, Nat Turner prophesied leading a rebellion of enslaved people out of bondage from their Southampton County plantations. 

Turner felt deeply connected with divine voices. In 1825, he had a vision of a bloody conflict between Black and white spirits. Three years later, he had what he believed to be another message from God. In a later confession, Turner explained: “the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent.” Turner would receive another sign to tell him when to fight, but this latest message meant “I should arise and prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own weapons.”


February 1831 hosted a solar eclipse that Turner interpreted as a sign to rise up and claim freedom. He recruited several other enslaved people to join his cause and decided that they would begin their work on July 4, however, Turner became ill and they ultimately postponed the insurrection. On August 13, Turner said that the bluish green haze around the sun from some kind of “atmospheric disturbance” was his final sign. 

They began on August 21 at 2AM by killing the entire Travis family as they slept in their beds. They continued on horseback, liberating the enslaved people at each plantation they entered by killing each white person they encountered. Soon enough, they had freed at least 40 people. By mid-day, white plantation owners had assembled a militia which caused Turner’s group to scatter. After shooting, stabbing, or strangling at least 55 white people in Southampton County, they got in a skirmish with state and federal troops that made it difficult to remain a united force. Many formerly enslaved, self-liberated people from Turner’s revolt escaped; many were killed. Turner himself hid out until October 30, when he was captured. 

Turner gave his Confessions to Dr. Thomas R. Gray on November 5 and was hanged and skinned on November 11. You can read the Richmond Enquirer’s coverage of the revolt here (thank you, PBS!).


Like most honest stories about Black history, Nat Turner’s is uncomfortable to read. We want to be honest: as white women who, for better or for worse, relate much more to the Travis family killed in their beds than Nat Turner’s team of self-liberated people, it is *tempting* to villainize this kind of mob justice entirely. However, let’s talk about what happened immediately after the revolt to give the entire story a little more context: first of all, every single person who was involved in the revolt was eventually publicly executed. Plantation owners whose “property” was damaged in the revolts (read: whose enslaved people were executed by the state), were paid damages with state tax money for their economic losses. And in the hysteria following the revolt, at least 200 Black people, the majority of whom had nothing to do with the revolt, were lynched and murdered by white mobs.

Putting that in the broader context here: Nat Turner led a revolt that killed 55 white people following 200 years of kidnapping, brutal physical assaults including brandingwhipping, and burning, rape and various forced sexual encounters, backbreaking labor on cotton plantations and within homes as wetnurses, being the subjects of medical experimentation, and total dehumanization of Black people. After the revolt, white mobs killed over three times as many Black people to retaliate, the state executed everyone involved in the revolt, and plantation owners essentially received reparations for their economic losses.

It is *tempting* to think Nat Turner’s team of enslaved people struck the first blow; however, we all know that is simply untrue once we understand the gravity of enslavement. Generations of people stripped of their humanity for the sake of bolstering white power and building an economy that was never meant to benefit Black people. Generations of women raped by the men who treated them like livestock, so that they could produce more “property” in the form of human beings. Generations of families torn apart after their enslavers became insecure when the mothers and children that they claimed to own showed affection toward each other. Generations of physical, emotional, psychological torment so that white people could build an empire.


While the first thing white folks did after Nat Turner and his co-conspirators were caught was to round up and kill many Black people across Virginia, what came next might surprise you. Hundreds of white folks signed and mailed petitionsto the Virginia State Assembly asking them to end slavery. 

In the years that followed, Richmond’s newspapers argued fiercely for abolition. At least 40 petitions carrying 2000 signatures poured in from every corner of the state. President Thomas Jefferson’s own grandson pushed a plan to free enslaved people and help them resettle in Liberia, where it would be safer than in the United States. While some of these petitions cited fear of Black people rising again, or fear of Black people eventually outnumbering whites in the state (sound familiar?), all were explicit about the need to end slavery. 

Mind you, this was 30 years before the Civil War. Although Nat Turner and hundreds of other enslaved Black people were killed following the insurrection, we can’t dismiss this incredible feat from the timeline that led to the eventual passage of the 13th AmendmentWe don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Nat Turner’s rebellion did in fact accomplish its intended goal of Black liberation from enslavement, though probably not on the timeline they had hoped. 


A side effect of Nat Turner’s revolt that we still see is the use of the “Nat Caricature” as one of the tropes of Black people we see portrayed in the media. The Nat caricature portrays Black males as crazed, unreasonably angry, revengeful brutes with a bloodthirsty hatred for white people. John Wesley Blassingame, a prominent historian, reviewed slavery era literary stereotypes of Black men and argued that three dominated: Sambo, a submissive, childlike dope; Jack, a sullen, rational pragmatist; and the hateful, vengeful Nat. In 1972, Blasingame described the Nat stereotype this way:

“Revengeful, bloodthirsty, cunning, treacherous, and savage, Nat was the ravager of white women who defied all the rules of plantation society. Subdued and punished only when overcome by superior numbers of firepower, Nat retaliated when attacked by whites, led guerrilla activities of maroons against isolated plantations, killed overseers and planters, or burned plantation buildings when he was abused…”

We see this in modern pop culture fairly frequently: Black men portrayed as unreasonable, as furious, as terrifying, as “enemies of white people.” 

In light of this, we recommend asking yourself a few reflection questions this week: 

  1. How have I unknowingly incorporated the Nat Caricature into my own perception of Black men?
  2. What did it feel like to read about Nat Turner’s revolt? Am I more empathetic toward the white families killed than I am toward people who were enslaved? What’s at the root of that? 
  3. How can I make space for honest reflection on the hate of slavery and very real and justified anger of people who were enslaved? Can I make peace with “not condoning violence” while still empathizing with the pain that birthed that violence? 
  4. What are the ways my culture pushes Black people to “forgive” without fully acknowledgment of the extent of the trauma endured at the hands of white supremacy? In what situations have I wanted Black people to “just forgive and forget” and how might that be related to the legacy of Nat Turner? 


We published this first in our Juneteenth email but it feels really important to share again in light of Nat Turner, Black History Month, and just as an important refresher.

Word we are unlearning:

Word we are learning: 
Enslaved (Africans, people, mothers, workers, artisans, children, etc.) as an adjective to describe the human beings that were enslaved.

What’s the difference?

Human beings who were ENslaved had full, whole identities outside of their being enslaved. “Slaves” is reductive.

Word we are unlearning:

(Slave) Master

Word we are learning: 

What’s the difference?
The term “master” gives credit to the enslaving class, rather than to the people they forced to work for them. It implies that owning other human beings was net-positive, communicating the aspirations of the enslaving class without naming the deeply harmful practices in which they engaged in order to get the title of “master.”
Other words we’re going to avoid and some alternatives for them

  • Slave breeding (forced reproduction)
  • Slaveholder/Slaveowner (those who claimed people as property/those who held people in slavery)
  • Runaway slaves (fugitives from slavery, self-liberated, self-emancipated individuals)

Other important considerations:

  • Use the term “stolen labor, knowledge, and skills” when talking about what was taken from persons who were enslaved. It certainly wasn’t just “work” that enslavers stole from them without compensation.
  • No one was “born a slave;” people were born with “free” or “enslaved” status.
  • There was no possible consent between enslavers and the enslaved women they forced to have sexual relationships with them. There is nothing romantic about it. Please refrain from reductive language like “slave mistress” or “had an affair with an enslaved person.”
  • Honor the humanity of people who were enslaved by calling them by their names whenever you are able to learn them

It is okay if it sounds messy, kidnapping human beings, forcing them to reproduce, physically torturing them, forcing them to work without any form of compensation, and so forth is more than messy. We need to get to a place where we are deeply, deeply uncomfortable with the wrongness of slavery. We owe it to the humanity of those who were enslaved.


This week, we are emailing our Attorneys General and our Governors to ask that they immediately reduce the prison population within our states. Please note: the information listed is for people who have some sort of oversight role in the goings-on of prisons. If you would like to email the people who run your local jail, email us and we’ll help you figure out who the best contacts are there, too! 



“Hi (elected official). My name is ____ and I am a resident of (your state). I am writing to ask you to halt new admissions to prisons and juvenile detention centers throughout the state and placement facilities, and release all detained and incarcerated people who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. These include the following: 

  • Elderly people
  • People that the CDC has classified as vulnerable (those with asthma, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes)
  • People within six months of their release date
  • People who are incarcerated for a technical parole or probation violation 

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting all of our lives and poses a public health risk to everyone.  Together, through strict social distancing, we can slow the spread of the virus and help prevent our healthcare system from getting too overwhelmed—literally saving lives.  But, people in jail and prison cannot practice social distancing, and many of them are already predisposed to complications from the virus.

Jails and prison populations must be reduced so that cells are not shared and there are sufficient medical beds.  In addition, soap, hand sanitizer, and medical care should be provided free of charge, and all surfaces should be deep cleaned for the safety of those incarcerated and those employed at the facilities. 

As we all take steps to ensure the health of ourselves and our loved ones during this pandemic, we must also take steps to ensure the wellbeing of the 43,000 children and 2.2 million adults across the country who are behind bars right now. They are human beings worthy of dignity and entrusted to your care; please treat their wellbeing as you would any constituent.”

You can always modify our scripts to match your own language – we just jot these down so you have a place to start! 


Incarcerated people are infected by the coronavirus at a rate more than five times higher than the nation’s overall rate, according to research reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The death rate of inmates (39 deaths per 100,000) is also higher than the national rate (29 deaths per 100,000). As of January 7, 2021, more than 433,000incarcerated people and staff have been infected with coronavirus and at least 1,960 have died, The New York Times reports.

People in prisons and jails can’t social distance and don’t have adequate health resources or PPE as is. For more information about COVID-19 in congregate settings, particularly prisons and jails, you can read this EJI Report


Alright friends, we’ll see you Friday. Real quick, if you haven’t filled it out yet, please answer our survey about when to schedule dialogues this spring:


In Solidarity,
Ellie, Emily, and Hayden

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