William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner was published on this day in 1967. The mainstream press praised the book as a valuable portrait of “the overwhelming historical tragedy that was slavery” (theWall Street Journal), but many African Americans were outraged that Styron, through his first-person narrator, should dare to imagine himself a slave. The Journal of Negro History (now the Journal of African American History) accused Styron of creating a “caricature, drawn from his own sick and bigoted fancies,” and essayists in Ten Black Writers Respond described “the confessions of Willie Styron” as nothing more than “an ex-southerner’s apologist tract for slavery.” Some angrily claimed that, instead of presenting Turner as heroically proud of his color and heritage, Styron’s novel presented a wannabe white. One passage cited as evidence is the earlier, pre-rebellion moment when Turner is waiting for his new owner and fantasizing that “in a twinkling I became white—white as clabber cheese, white, stark white, white as marble Episcopalian”:
Now, looking down at the shops and barns and cabins and distant fields, I was no longer the grinning black boy in velvet pantaloons; for a fleeting moment instead I owned all, and so exercising the privilege of ownership by unlacing my fly and pissing loudly on the same worn stone where dainty tiptoeing feet had gained the veranda steps a short three years before. What a strange, demented ecstasy! How white I was! What wicked joy!
Thirty years later, in an article published on this day in 1997 in the Boston Globe, Styron recalled the original reviews and personal attacks, and quoted his friend, James Baldwin on the concept of otherizing: “Each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other — male in female, female in male, white in black, and black in white. We are part of each other.”
Leopold Senghor was born on this day in 1906. As well as a respected poet, Senghor was the first president of Senegal, and co-founder of the “Negritude” movement in the 1930s; this is from his poem “Black Woman”:
Nude woman, black woman,
Clothed in your color which is life,
your form which is beauty!
I grew in your shadow, your sweet hands bandaged my eyes
And here in the heart of summer and of noon,
I discover you, promised land from the height
of a burnt mountain,
And your beauty strikes my heart, like
the lightning of an eagle…
Wole Soyinka famously rejected Senghor’s concept of Negritude as playing into the hands of racial oppression and “otherizing”: “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude,” Soyinka wrote in 1980, “he pounces.” Soyinka later softened his attitude, subtitling a 1997 address on Senghor and Negritude, “J’Accuse, Mais, Je Pardonne.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.