Category Archives: Nat Turner

“The story you’re about to see is true”

4You are about to see a dramatization of actual facts, in which some of the names have been changed. But the story is true

1That’s the way the Helter Skelter movie starts, with actor George DiCenzo portraying prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi in his author role. We’ve seen that kind of statement over and over again, from the colonial narratives to Capote’s book, attesting to the veracity of the tale. In this case, it’s probably necessary since the story is almost too crazy to believe.

Bugliosi’s part in the story is an interesting contrast to Capote. Capote was in Kansas, living among the townsfolk as he was researching the book, in the cell with Dick and Perry, yet he never showed himself in the novel. There was one point, where a quote is said to have been given to “a journalst” (216), that might have referred to the author, but otherwise he’s invisible. Bugliosi is omnipresent in Helter Skelter. It’s his tale, not Manson’s.

And as a coincidence, Capote calls the truth of Helter Skelter into question. In his jailhouse interview with Robert Beausoleil and alternate, and far more plausible, motive for the murders comes up. The media, we’re told, was only interested in the crazy story. Was that simply because more shocking = more headlines = more sales? Or did it play upon concerns arising from the various social and political upheavals of the sixties? The Civil Right movement, the Vietnam War, those crazy kids with their rock and roll…

ConfessionsOfNatTurnerAn interesting thing about that Helter Skelter race war hypothesis is that we heard something like that earlier, from Nat Turner. I found the parallels really fascinating when I read his Confessions: a charismatic leader, from/of a downtrodden underclass, considered to be a prophet or divinely inspired, visions of a race war, culminating in a killing spree. In 1967 William Styron’s novelization of Nat Turner was published, garnering a great deal of both controversy and critical acclaim. So Turner’s story would have been in the public consciousness at Manson’s time. As far as I can tell, no one suggests a connection between Manson and Styron’s book, but I can see how the idea of race war would resonate with the public, between the upheaval and the riots and the assassination.

Nat Turner special

I thought I’d try to do a Nat Turner special on Crime Time Radio. I remembered hearing his in some lyrics – I thought maybe Public Enemy, but I couldn’t remember which song. A quick Google brought up a whole list, and with a little more looking I found a few others. Here’s a transcript of the show:

This week the truecrimers read Nat Turner’s Confessions. Turner led a violent rebellion in Virginia in 1831. This was met with a brutal response, which had long term consequences. I knew he had been namechecked in a few rap songs, like this one by Public Enemy

Prophets of Rage” by Public Enemy. Turner was only mentioned in passing, but the song also mentioned Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser, both of whom were hung on suspicion of planning slave rebellions in 1822 and 1800 respectively, decades before the Turner incident.

Nat Turner“, from Reef the Lost Cauze. This one doesn’t just use his name, it tells his story. It’s basically the same as his Confessions, but with a different filter for a different audience. Turner’s Confessions were published by Thomas Gray, who I think was trying to warn the citizens of the South that their slave population needed to be strictly controlled, at the same time as he reassured them that this was an isolated incident. Reef says Turner’s story isn’t properly taught in schools, and that it’s violence was warranted.

Wu-Tang Clan, with “The City.” And a bleak view of the city at that. They drop us right into a violent scene, and Turner is invoked as one who died but took many with him. The song also invokes Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.”

Living for the City.” Stevie didn’t bring Nat into that one; it just follows from from the Wu-Tang song. He’s saying life is tough but people are trying, which is a bit more positive than Wu-Tang’s City. Didn’t want to go out on a downer.

That was it for the show. There were a few others I thought of including. I liked X Clan back in the day, and I’m surprised I don’t have their CD anymore.

X Clan, with “Funkin’ Lesson.” I’m not sure what Brother J and Professor X are talking about there. They have Nat Turner right next to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Huey Newton, revolutionaries all, though of different sorts. At the same time they bring in a lot of Afro-Egyptian imagery. I like the sound, but couldn’t connect it lyrically to the others as easily, so I left it out.

I also found an old Philly soul band called the Nat Turner Rebellion. Apparently all their records are out-of-print collectors’ items, and even so, some of them are being deleted from Youtube. I would have liked to include their “Tribute to a Slave,” but couldn’t find a full version. But at least one of them is out there:

You say you want a revolution…


I suggested the Nat Turner confession without having read it. I just looked through a collection of slave narratives for something from the early 19th century that was crime-related, and found it. After reading it through, I’m impressed by how well it connects to what we’ve been talking about, and to some things coming up.

Foucault talked about power and control. The top of page 5 of Turner’s Confessions gives the document a statement of purpose (“to demonstrate the policy of our laws in the restraint of this class of our population”) coupled with some reassurance (“not instigated by motives of revenge or sudden anger”) that a replay of the incident was unlikely.
The concept of knowledge and power underlies the statement on page 8. “I had too much sense to be raised, and if I was, I would never be of any service to any one as a slave.” I can only speculate what the alternative to being raised might have been. Yet Turner’s aptitude for learning seems to have put him in a power position, as his knowledge was “a source of wonder” (p. 8).

Page 9 sets Turner up a seer or prophet, a kind of cult leader, with his visions and his mission from God, and fellow servants who believed him. One of his visions was a coming race war, and his ultimate mission was to instigate it. That struck me as totally Helter Skelter, something that will be coming up later in the semester.

And what do you know? There’s a Nat Turner graphic novel by Kyle Baker. That’s where the above image comes from.

Turner: background info

I sort of remembered Turner from history class, but history class was a long time ago for me. Being a heretical librarian, I looked to Wikipedia for some background and context. That gives some info on the public response to the incident. There’s also a prominent message that the article needs some help, although it’s from 2009 and the article history indicates it has been heavily edited since then. Google brought me to a page from UNC’s Documenting the American South collection, which points out some controversy regarding the author’s motives. Encyclopedia Virginia explores this in more depth.

If we compare The American Bloody Register to Cotton Mather’s execution sermons, we would note that they were published for very different purposes. The Register was about making profits and Mather was about social control. The Confessions of Nat Turner seems to fall in between those, with a little of both.