History : Jan-Feb 2017
80 JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2017 with modest furnishings and surrounded by acreage consumed by corn, wheat, cotton, and a little tobacco. These houses were relatively small in scale compared to the mansions on the James River, and by no means resembled the iconic plantation homes seen in popular films. None- theless, the slave-owning families were wealthy, including Joseph Travis, Nat’s last owner, who lived on 411 acres and had 17 slaves working his property in 1830. Records show that Nat married an enslaved woman named Cherry who lived on a neigh- boring plantation, and they had at least one child, a son named Reddick. Nat would have to obtain a pass from his masters to visit his family. If he were caught without one, it would lead to violent punishment or being sold away from his loved ones. Slave patrol- lers haunted the lands between plantations, waiting to catch a slave walking between properties without a pass. These patrol- lers were typically lower-class whites, and some abused their power to wrong- fully accuse and punish enslaved people. Maintaining a family under these conditions proved challenging for men and women like Nat and Cherry. His Spirituality According to oral history and the testimony in Confessions, Nat’s family and community be- lieved he was a blessed child. He had particu- lar markings on his body that his grandmother identified as divine. Anecdotes say he knew about past events that were never told to him, and he experienced several visions that solidi- fied his belief that he was chosen by God to fight. Nat was largely raised by his foremoth- ers, all of whom were African women, who undoubtedly retained much of their cultural roots. Nat was born at the height of the Sec- ond Great Awakening, a religious movement that popularized evangelical Protestantism throughout the states. The dominant rhetoric surrounding this movement masked much of the traditional West African religious prac- tices. Enslaved African people worshipped Nancy, attempted to kill him, a practice not too uncommon among en- slaved women who tried to spare their children the brutality of a life in slavery. Many West Africans believed that the line between death and life was fluid, and the choice to kill a per- son could be a way to save him or her from the physical pain of the liv- ing world. It is this same belief that undoubtedly informed and influenced Turner to risk his life and rebel. In West Afri- can cosmology, the an- cestors protect the liv- ing, and as such, would protect him in war. If Nat were to die, then he could help his loved ones who remained in the liv- ing world. His Christian faith is unarguable, but his cultural knowledge anchored him in a unique way to the bravery he employed to fight. PROTECTION OF THE ANCESTORS N at Turner is known for being a Christian preacher, but he was undoubtedly shaped by the spiritual beliefs of his ancestors. His foremothers came from West Africa and retained much of their rich cultural knowledge. Upon giving birth to Nat, it is rumored that his mother, SPIRITUAL LEADER, NAT WAS A DEEPLY RELIGIOUS MAN AND BELIEVED THAT HIS REBELLION WAS DIRECTLY ORDAINED BY GOD. COURTESY OF FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES COLLECTION OF SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY AND CULTURE A POWERFUL BOOK This Bible (below) is believed to have been held by Nat Turner when he was captured. Descendants of the revolt’s victims donated the Bible to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
March April 2017