The sequel to The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part I: The Witnesses shows the story of Nat Turner through his own eyes, from growing up a slave through his violent uprising and death.
In the predawn hours of August 22, 1831, slave Nat Turner stormed into history with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other. Leading a small army of fellow slaves in an uprising that left more than fifty whites dead, Turner became a tragic hero and a lightning rod for abolitionists. His rebellion put Virginia in the national spotlight and tore a nation’s trust.
In Part I: The Witnesses, Harriet Beecher Stowe encounters a mysterious runaway slave who recounts stories of people who knew Nat Turner, both friends and enemies. In their words are the truth of the mystery and conspiracy of Turner’s life, death, and confession. Part 2: The Testimony, relates the whole story—from Turner’s early slave years with his Ethiopian-born mother through the uprising, his trial, and hanging—from Nat’s perspective. It’s a story full of greed and betrayal, faith and courage, villains and heroes.
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About the Author
Sharon Ewell Foster is a critically acclaimed, award-winning author, speaker, and teacher. She is the author of Passing by Samaria, the first successful work of Christian fiction by an African American author, and The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part One: The Witnesses, which won the 2012 Shaara Prize for Civil War Fiction. Sharon is a Christy Award-winning author whose books have earned her a loyal following that crosses market, gender, and racial boundaries. She regularly receives starred book reviews and is also winner of the Gold Pen Award, Best of Borders, and several reviewers’ choice awards.
Read an Excerpt
The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 2
Cross Keys Area, outside Jerusalem, Virginia
Nat Turner felt in his pocket to be certain the gunpowder mixture was still dry. He knew exactly the time and place he would use it. He had been planning for months. He was on his way to meet the others.
It had been a cruel winter. Snow in Virginia was most often one or two fingers deep or none at all, but this winter it had been heavy and so cold that the top of it was frozen. When he stepped, for an instant he stood above it. Then, shoeless, he was calf-deep again in the icy powder. At first cold pain shot up his knee and through his body with each step he took. Soon his feet were frozen and he numbly made his way past isolated farms and houses where he smelled the aroma of meat roasting outside. But he could not breathe deeply; the frozen air stung his lips, the membranes of his nose, ached his teeth.
The snow had snapped the brittle backs of withered corn plants. It covered the roads like a thick blanket so he barely recognized the fences and places he knew. The trees were his guide.
The trees were in the beginning and they had witnessed it all. They had seen husbands and sons dragged from their homes, castrated men dripping from their branches. They had seen women torn from the breast of their families and raped underneath the moon and stars. They had seen them beaten, burned, starved, and mutilated. The trees had witnessed it all. Their arms had borne the weight of the tortured.
He followed the trees, each one a signpost and a threat. Past sleeping apple trees—their feet and hair covered by the snow blanket—he ducked under leafless boughs and touched aged trunks covered with bark, rough even against his numb, bare hands. The trees were black and crooked against the snow’s stark white. In warmer times, their hands and arms gave fruit and all the while told stories of death, strange fruit dangling from their limbs.
If the trees held the land’s memories, then his mother held his. “You are a man of two continents,” she had told him. “Your father is a man of America. They are the people of justice. An eye for an eye. At least that is what they say. But I am African. Ethiopians are children of mercy. It does not yet appear which will be strongest in you.”
Ethiopian memories were rich, ancient, and deep. The images went back, his mother told him, before the ferengi, the foreigners, began to count time.
His mother told him that her mother’s mother had told her that the Ethiopian highlands were waves, disobedient waves that had come crashing too far inland from the sea. The wayward waves had been abandoned by the others who returned to their watery home. Those left behind dried out and hardened, blanketed by green grass. But if you looked closely, you could see that the mountains were really only waves who’d gone too far and lost their way, his mother said. Heathen strangers.
Most of what he knew about life his mother had taught him. He had a grandmother who had helped raise him, but she was not really his grandmother. She was the old woman who tended all the slave children too old to nurse but too young to work, while their parents slaved in the fields or kitchens. But it was his mother who had taught him most about life, teaching him to honor his elders.
“They carry the wisdom and history of a people,” she told him. “In Ethiopia they teach us the elders have learned to live a long time, and if we honor them they will teach us the way.”
Ethiopia was a great nation—armies with twelve hundred chariots, threescore thousand horsemen, with a host of a thousand thousand—and at her name other nations quaked.
He was born of a nation of great warriors; the world’s first warriors—men who possessed the bravery of lions. Birthed from a nation of warriors who were also holy men, leaders at the world’s great councils of holy men. She told him of the warrior priests and saints, like St. Moses of Ethiopia.
From the beginning, she told him, Ethiopia had God’s favor. They were not rich in currency, but they were wealthy in greater things. There were great cities like Lalibela, Gondar, and Aksum. The spirit of God hovered over Ethiopia, and God had given Ethiopia’s people to Maryam, the Mother of God, as a precious gift. The proof was in the emerald hills and the ruby valleys; the golden lions and leopards dotted with onyx; exotic birds of topaz, amethyst, and sapphire. The proof was in God’s choice of Ethiopia as birthplace of the majestic Nile. God had crowned her with rainbows like jewels.
She told him the Nile’s names—Blue and White—and as a child he had tried to imagine how the water divided into two colors, separated one from another. When he told her, she laughed and told him that in the old language the word for blue was the same as black. The color was not important. What was important was generosity: It was Ethiopia’s gift to Egypt, birthed from Ethiopia’s Lake Tana. It was the gift that gave Egypt her beautiful flowers.
From the beginning Ethiopia had been part of God’s Great Church. She told him of the paintings, Bibles, and crosses that dated from the earliest centuries. She told him of Masqal-Kebra, the beautiful and merciful Ethiopian saint and wife—a great queen who advised her husband, good King Lalibela, on issues of state, with gentleness and mercy.
She told him the story of Moses and his Ethiopian wife and of the Ethiopian who rescued the prophet Jeremiah. Yes, there were Jews in Ethiopia, she told him. Families, thousands and thousands of them, who had been followers since the time of Solomon, Candace, and Menelik—and there were also others who followed the new religion, Islam. But all were brothers, Abraham’s children, she reminded him as her mother had reminded her.
She shared the story of the Ethiopian Jew who, while reading Isaiah, had met the apostle Phillip and carried the good news of Iyyesus Krestos back to Ethiopia. His mother told him of the ancient bond between Egypt and Ethiopia—holy men had traveled the Nile, the Red Sea, and the Sahara for aeons between the great nations.
She shared stories of the great churches of Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, Armenia, and India—all sisters to Ethiopia and part of God’s Great Church. She told him about the Ethiopian priests and their families. She told him about the wise men, shimaghellis, who lived their lives to serve the people—about people whose prayers awoke thunder and storms thousands of miles away.
She told him how St. Frumentius, a fourth-century Greek from Tyre—the Kesate Birhan, the “Revealer of Light,” and Abba Salama, “Father of Peace”—brought Ethiopia the sacraments and helped spread the glory. She taught him of castles, palaces, and of Ethiopian cathedrals carved from stone. His mother whispered to him of the Holy Ark of the Covenant. “It rests in the Cathedral of Saint Maryam of Zion in the great city of Aksum,” she told him.
The Ethiopian people believed in God and in miracles, in His mercy and in His love. What kind of person could look at the sun, the moon, the stars, the water, and not believe? she asked him. Only a fool of the worst kind would think himself greater than all the wonder and not believe, she said. God was a spirit and all mankind—all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues—were made in His image. God dwelled among His people and He was to them all things: Father and the Many Breasted One.
Nat Turner continued following the trees. Cold shot up his shins like steel spikes.
His mother told him that God heard prayers and always answered; He was not bound by space or time. God spoke to people now as He had spoken to their forefathers more than a thousand years ago. God spoke to King David, to the prophets Daniel and Jonah, and they were no different from the people of today. She shared stories of how God had answered prayers in her family’s life and in the lives of others. “If you open your eyes and your heart, you will hear Him. If your heart is honest and humble, you will understand.
“God always answers, but He does not always say what we desire.” Her hope and prayer had been to stay in Ethiopia with her family. She had prayed to never leave. “If God always speaks what you want to hear, then you only speak to yourself!”
She always frowned then. “I did not want to leave.” His mother told him the stories over and over and she always sighed. “I did not want to leave.” But other people had prayed and their groans and cries reached God’s ears. “They were captive Africans, like us, taken from their families.” God had heard and sent her in the belly of a ship on a journey, like Jonah, to plead with the captors to free the captives and repent. His mother had been stolen from Ethiopia. She often cried when she told him of the rapes, the humiliation, and bondage, and of Misha and of her baby floating to their graves.
She could not bear to speak of her daughter, the sister he did not know, the little girl she had left behind, could not speak his sister’s name. “Sometimes the things we must do for others are more important than our own lives.” Her eyes seemed focused on a place far away that he could not see. Then she shrugged and came back to him.
“Egzi’ abher needed you born here—he needed me to be the ship that carried you.” He was born to be a deliverer, a prophet, a man of mercy. “God is lover of us all, the oppressed and the oppressor.”
She told Nat Turner—the son she called Nathan, secretly calling him Negasi, her prince—that he was a living answer to the captives’ prayers. It was a heavy burden for a little boy to bear. But he was born to it.
It was a family debt he owed.
Nat Turner brushed past a clump of barren trees. Not far away he saw a squirrel scurrying, desperately scrambling for food. Nat Turner’s stomach rumbled. He had not eaten since early the previous day. His mother’s stories helped fill his stomach and his heart. He felt in his pocket again. He must keep the black powder dry.
He was born of men who possessed the bravery of the lion, his mother said. They were men who would give their lives to protect their families or their country.
She told Nat Turner he was born of a nation of beautiful people—women so beautiful that Moses, running in fear, stopped and fell to his knees before the lovely Zipporah. Moses was captivated, as King Solomon was taken by the Queen of Sheba.
She told him of the Empress Berham Mugasa Mentewab, whose name reflected her beauty. She told him of the brown-faced Maryam cradling her holy son, Iyyesus.
His mother told him of Ethiopian men browned by the sun and more handsome than eagles in flight. She told him of the paintings and crosses that dated from the earliest centuries.
He was descendant of a nation of people who were readers and writers, thinkers and builders, she said. The Americans believed no Africans read, wrote, or had language. So, it was Nancie and Nathan Turner’s secret that before he could read English, she taught him to write and read Amharic—printing out the words on precious scraps of trashed paper. Pages were called leaves, she told him. When there was no paper, she used a stick, drawing the letters on the ground. She had taught him what she could remember of Ge’ez, the holy language. He had taught himself English.
She taught him the prayers. She told him about the great church at Gondar with the brown-faced angels in the ceiling.
Nat Turner was a child of rape, the child of two peoples locked in struggle, and the seed of revolution burned in his belly. He was his mother’s shame and her glory, and the weight of it sometimes seemed to crush him. When he looked at her, he saw the affection she had for him, the hope that was so much more than love. He was the hope of her triumphant return to Africa. He was the hope of his mother’s village. He was the hope and dream of all the captive people. She told him she saw her father and her grandfather, and strangely even glimpses of her Ethiopian husband, in him.
Nathan Turner was born in Southampton County, without her it was all he knew. His mother was his memory of Ethiopia—the shepherds, the lambs, and the tall lion-colored grass. His mother was his Ethiopia. He saw it in her eyes. After more than thirty years, her tongue still lived in Ethiopia, her English still broken—it was her revenge on her captors. But her Amharic, when they were alone, flowed like the Nile he imagined.
When he was a boy he had dreamed a dream. He had dreamed of a family, of a simple farm, and preaching God’s word. He dreamed a dream of Africa, of returning to his homeland, the highlands of Ethiopia. But the One God had spoken to him and now he knew in this lifetime he would never journey there.
His mother had taught him the story of his African forefathers and taught him to number the generations. “King Solomon loved the Queen of Sheba and she bore him a child, Menelik. Solomon begat Menelik, Menelik begat Menelik the Second.” She counted on her fingers. “And then Meshech begat your grandfather….” He numbered them until she was certain he remembered.
“We are the people of the spirit, the people of God,” she told him. “It is our inheritance.” The roots of the faith, she told him, were buried in love. “If you have and your brother has not, you must share. To do otherwise is a sin, my Negasi.”
Sometimes when they were alone, she asked him to whisper her Ethiopian name, so that she would not forget. “You are Nikahywot,” he would answer. “Nikahywot, my source of life,” he reassured his mother.
“A man of two continents,” she would repeat. “One foot firmly planted in mercy and the other in judgment.”
Nat Turner followed the trees—the oaks, the pines, the cypresses, and the slumbering fruit trees—to a small cabin on a far patch of Nathaniel Francis’s land. Smoke curled from the chimney. He heard people inside talking and laughing. He felt in his pocket again for the gunpowder. He knocked and then stepped inside.
He looked around the room.
They were all heroes.
Nat Turner had heard the word of God: This would be his last Christmas.
What People are Saying About This
Passing by Samaria
"A sensitive, thoughtful look at a revolutionary time in American history. Foster's characters are unforgettable; full of life and unhesitatingly charming, they drive this powerful book."
The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 2: The Testimony
“Every once in a while a book is published that shakes the very foundation about what you believen about an historical figure like Alex Haley's Autobiography of Malcolm X. These books are rare since they must be meticulously research and well-written. The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 2 belongs in this category. This is an extraordinary book because Sharon Ewell Foster has done something which has never been done—unearthed the truth about Nat Turner, rather than rehash and revisit the lies and distortions surrounding one of the most important people in American history. This is a liberating book, both psychologically and historically. Read it, read again and then pass it on to someone who thinks they know who the real Nat Turner is.”
Ain't No River
"Foster’s ears and pen are tuned to the rhythm and pace of small-town African American life, from the barbershop to the beauty parlor, from the church to the basketball court, and her dialogue sparkles with a memorable concreteness."
"A rhapsody in prose. It is an intriguing look back that also speaks loudly to the times we live in. For a religious novel to simmer in the African American religious tradition, yet carry a universal message is a rarity. Readers will be thankful for this rare and splendid work of love, faith, and art."
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 2 includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Sharon Ewell Foster. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What made Nat Turner different from his peers? What made him more likely to embrace rebellion?
2. Nat Turner describes the other captives (slaves) as heroes. Why?
3. What is the difference between the words captive and slave? Captor and master?
4. What relationship or relationships in the book most surprised you? What relationship or relationships most pleased you?
5. Captives were not allowed to speak their native language. Why? Captives were not allowed last names. Why?
6. Who were “the witnesses” who spoke to Nat Turner?
7. According to local lore, Nat Turner and the other slaves met outside the local church. Though they were not welcomed inside, why would they continue meeting there?
8. In his original handwritten diary, Governor Floyd describes the August 1831 “indigo sun.” Why might it have caused excitement? Would it cause excitement today?
9. Modern-day scientists say many Atlantic hurricanes begin over the highlands of Ethiopia. According to NASA, Hurricane Isabel began in Ethiopia, making its way to the Chesapeake Bay. An “Act of God” beginning in Africa may have triggered one of the deadliest hurricanes in American history, the Great BarbadosHurricane of 1831, and Nat Turner’s revolt. Discuss.
10. As he is questioned by Trezvant, Nat Turner laments slavery’s legacy for captives and captors. Describe that legacy.
11. In both parts 1 and 2, Nat Turner refers to a “family debt” that he owes. What do you think he means? How did he pay for that debt?
12. What made it easy for American slave owners to justify their behavior? What makes it easy for modern-day slave owners to justify their behavior?
13. Harriet Beecher Stowe, her brother, and others, such as Benjamin Phipps and William Parker, seemed to feel frustrated and hopeless in the face of slavery. Why?
14. Southampton County, in particular the Jerusalem area, was home to two very famous Civil War generals. General George H. Thomas, nephew to County Clerk James Rochelle, was fifteen at the time of Nat Turner’s revolt. Thomas became a famed Union general known as the “Rock of Chickamauga.” General William Mahone was almost five at the time of the revolt. Sonof tavern keeper Fielding Mahone, he became a famed Confederate general known as the “Hero of the Crater.” Though they were from similar backgrounds, what might have caused the two men to go on such divergent paths?
15. The court records contradicting the original Confessions of Nat Turner have existed for 180 years. Why do you believe that evidence has remained hidden?
A Conversation with Sharon Ewell Foster
In The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 2: The Testimony, we get a unique vantage point into the unrest that ultimately resulted in the Civil War. What was the most difficult part of re-creating these moments on the page?
There were a couple of things that made the process challenging. First was giving myself permission to tell a new story. We all have stories that we own, stories that we’ve been told, and those stories are part of who we are. Civil War stories and antebellum stories are part of our American heritage. There are people vested in this history, in the way this story has been told. I’m an African American, but these narratives were taught to me, too. I am an American and the American narrative is my own.
I realized, as I was writing, that most of our Civil War stories tend to be more sympathetic to the South. For example, part of our national story is that we feel sorry for the South because Atlanta was sacked. That’s one of the themes of Gone With the Wind—that this great way of life was torched, good people were torched. We feel sympathy for Scarlett and Atlanta. So we have this beautiful, poignant literature rising from Atlanta’s ashes and bemoaning what happened.
But what isn’t part of our national narrative is that instead of Atlanta, Philadelphia might have burned. That’s what Gettysburg was about, to keep the South from reaching Philadelphia and destroying what was the North’s financial heart.
Part of our national narrative, part of what helps us cope corporaly and psychologically with the foulness of slavery, is a story that says everyone believed in slavery. No one thought it was wrong. No one spoke against it, except for a few fanatics. Of course, this narrative negates the efforts of abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass. It also negates the patriotism of people like Benjamin Franklin, Bishop Richard Allen, and everyday people from Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and other towns across America, who risked their lives to speak out against slavery.
Part of our national narrative, because to think otherwise is painful, is that slavery wasn’t so bad. Most slave owners were good people and the slaves were content. All slave owners were kindly. I can’t think of one account of a slave owner who called himself cruel. No one wants to be that person.
I had to give myself permission to consider and embrace a new story, a new narrative, before I could even recognize the facts in front of me. There were other heroes, there were voices crying in the wilderness, and I gave myself permission to sing their songs and to sing songs about the beauty of cobblestone streets, ships, and immigrants of northern cities. I had to give myself permission to sing the songs of brutalized slaves who had no voices . . . and also one of cruel masters.
As I researched, I had to finally accept that I would never know everything; then, I had to give myself permission to take the creative leap so that I could tell the story. I had to give myself permission to tell the story through my own eyes—a different story of the time before the war.
What prompted you to intersect the stories of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Nat Turner, two of the most famous figures in the American abolitionist movement? How do you think their very distinct personalities inform our current view of African American history?
I wonder if you know what a leap you have made with the question you’ve posed. The narrative surrounding Nat Turner has been that he was a monster, not an abolitionist or a freedom fighter. Your understanding is significant.
But, to answer you, I had a few unresolved questions while researching that I think were answered in a letter that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote to an English duchess. Long ago, I was a pre-broadcast screener at PBS—I screened programs before they were aired nationally. One of my favorites was called Connections—the host would find unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated historical events. The linking of Stowe and Turner was a Connections kind of thing.
In preparation for writing the book, I read everything I could get my hands on that mentioned Nat Turner, including other novels. Stowe wrote a book called Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, a novel which she said was inspired by Nat Turner. Though she is most well known for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whose protagonist is a long-suffering, passive slave hero, the hero of Dred is a fiery, revolutionary refugee slave ready to take up arms against his oppressors. There is a chasm between Tom’s and Dred’s responses to slavery. I wanted to know what inspired Stowe to make the leap
As part of my research, I also visited Southampton County, Virginia, and talked to local historians. One of them told me the story of Will, one of the slaves involved in the rebellion. Will was counted as dead, but his body was never found. The mystery of it piqued my interest. “Aha! Will got away,” I thought. Some months later, I visited the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Connecticut looking for some hint as to what might have inspired her point of view in Dred. I wanted to know what might have inspired her to write about Nat Turner, who, by then, was already much vilified. There I came across reference to a letter in which Stowe mentions writing Dred. Upon obtaining a copy of the letter, I learned that in the same letter she mentions being inspired by a runaway slave named William. My eyebrow lifted higher when I read a novel, published around the time Stowe was writing Dred, by African American author William Wells Brown. Out of nowhere in his novel, Brown begins to write about Nat Turner and Will. Brown describes Will just as the local historian described him—very dark with a prominent scar on his face. That is part of how Stowe describes Dred in her novel. Hmmmm. Also, online, there is a letter from Stowe requesting that Douglass help her meet a refugee slave who might tell her more about slavery. The connection was made for me and I wrote Stowe into the novel. But her role as the “tour guide” who helps readers through the story and history was inspired by the first editor who worked on the manuscript, Dave Lambert. Harriet was a section in The Witnesses at the time of his review and he suggested that I place her story more prominently among the other witnesses. His feedback was so insightful: He questioned whether the story, as it was, had enough arc. Lambert’s comments reflected a doubt I had. As I mulled his notes, I soon realized that Harriet’s journey to write Dred could be the bridge that tied things together in my own story. His comments helped make this a better book.
In response to your second question, I don’t think of this as only an African American history story. What I see in Harriet Beecher Stowe is a person willing to learn from others and adjust her views. I see her as a symbol of hope for people who struggle with racism or any other kind of response to others that is based on ignorance. Her life and understanding says that change is possible.
To me, she says that we should encourage positive change and acknowledge growth when we see it. Generally speaking, I don’t think that Nat Turner is part of our national view of African American history. While many know of Stowe and her contribution, far fewer have ever heard of Nat Turner. Stowe is a much more acceptable hero. She was courageous. She fought with the weapons available to her—her pen, her words, and her faith. She had the benefit of formal education. Turner did not. There were no publishing doors open to him. He used the weapons available to him. His war against slavery was much more violent. People—men, women, and children—died.
Of course, as a nation we sing songs about the violent overthrow of oppressors. It is our patriotic duty to take up arms against tyrants. The fourth stanza of our national anthem says:
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
Nat Turner’s story challenges us. The questions are troubling. Does a person held against his will have a patriotic duty to take up arms? What defines a hero? What if that person is of another hue? Were we once a nation who wrote tyranny into our national laws? Were our national heroes also villains? I think it’s because the questions are so difficult that we have not really had a national debriefing on slavery. We have not had the discussion. We don’t ask these questions of ourselves or of our children.
But I think we’re ready, we’re mature enough as a nation. I see Harriet and Nat as two people, courageous people, who can help us have a discussion of our past and our present—a discussion that involves and unites people who are as different as Stowe and Turner.
Nancie finds it imperative to drill her line of Ethiopian ancestry (all the way back to King Solomon) into Nat’s head. How do you think the American sense of heritage has evolved in the past few centuries? And why?
Many of those who came to America came poor; came in chains, stolen or sold away; came from prisons; came wearing cloaks of rejection and disgrace, banished from their homelands. Some were forbidden to remember their past, their names, their languages.
Others, I can imagine, simply reinvented themselves. We are now, I think, the children of our national heroes. We are the children of Washington and Jefferson. Some of us are the children of Abraham Lincoln and others the children of Jefferson Davis.
This is problematic for many of us because many of the national heroes were slave owners, oppressors. The heroes made patriotic speeches, but their cruel words of oppression taint them. African Americans were the slaves and rejected children of these heroes. For so long race has influenced that connection; African Americans were the lesser children, America’s bastards.
That’s why Roots was so important—Alex Haley’s book gave us a pre-American, an African forefather. Haley’s work made Kunte Kinte a national hero, but still he was hero to African Americans. He is viewed like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, not as an American hero, but as an African American hero.
We are the children of national heroes. I think it’s time that our connection to national heroes transcends race. That’s why the Martin Luther King statue is so significant— he is a hero for all the people. His words resound: And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.Beautiful, right? An American hero who welcomes us all.
Class and race often seem inextricable in the novel. And yet both Harriet and Nat are able to remember a time when the lines of class and slavery did not take race into consideration. Why do you think Harriet finds this knowledge both comforting and horrifying?
You can’t see me, but I’m laughing uncomfortably and cringing because I find the notion comforting and horrifying, myself. It is comforting because it proves that we are able to find ways to connect that transcend race. It is terrifying for me, as it was for Harriet, because it illustrates how easily we can be swept up into divisions. So much so that we are willing to turn away from our core beliefs and our faith—to chase after the gods of greed, superiority, and dishonesty—in our allegiance to misguided associations of class and race.
For which character did you find the voice hardest to write? Which came most naturally? Why do you think that is?
Nathaniel Francis was the most difficult to write. To write a character, you must surrender to him. His thoughts must be your yhoughts. He invades you. You must believe as he believes. You must love him. I didn’t want to love Francis. I did not want to experience his viewpoint of the world, a viewpoint that would find me inferior and inhuman. I did not want to be a person who, I believe, conspired to have others murdered simply for money. I do not want to think that I am capable of that behavior.
I kept fighting him. He turned my hair grayer. I did not want to be sympathetic to him, but in order to tell the story I had to give in to him. I surrendered to him because he was the only one who could tell me what happened in the courtroom.
I had to be him in order to learn the truth. I also resisted Easter because I had personal issues with the thought of slave women who loved the master’s children, as in The Help, who would take an oppressor’s child to her breast when she could not nurse or keep her own. But Nat Turner’s character whispered to me, like a melody to a composer, that they were all heroes.
All the slaves were heroes, like prisoners of war, even Easter. Easter taught me about the power and complexity of love, love that even transcends chains.
The easiest characters for me to write were Harriet and Nat Turner’s mother. They were both mothers of sons, as I am. Many of Harriet’s struggles to understand in the book are my own. As I wrote, I felt her. In the same way, I felt Nat’s mother calling to me to find the truth, to clear her son’s name.
Nat and Thomas clearly have an intimate, yet complex, relationship. Both care for the other, yet can’t seem to keep their lines of communication open. How do you think this informs the debates that were raging between the North and the South at the time?
These are such deep questions. You’ve got me working here. I am grateful for your analysis.
I think that their relationship was like many present-day relationships: We make compromises so that we can remain friends. We are afraid to test the strength of our relationships. So it was with the North and South. There was a bond forged by common struggle and ideals, but as a new nation they were afraid to test the strength of their union.
Slavery was the issue. Right made a deal with wrong—many of those who knew that slavery was morally and legally wrong compromised because they doubted that there was another way to hold the Union together. Those who knew better excused their friends’ wrongdoing. They sacrificed millions of lives—because the North and the South were afraid to test the union, or to trust that they could survive disunion.
Those compromises—which were inscribed into our laws, words that remain to testify against us—were made out of fear, not faith or love. We made compromises with evil because we were afraid to test the depth of our relationship or trust God to resolve what seemed impossible. We are still living with the legacy of those compromises.
Nat can almost taste Ethiopia as he stands in the Chesapeake Bay, and yet the shrieks of the beaten woman resound loud enough around him to make him stay. What do you think Nat gave up when he decided to return? What did he gain?
He gave up what might have been. He gave up personal gain, his family, and peace, temporary peace, for a more lasting peace.
Harriet finds the murder of the Waller family the hardest to stomach, and the sentiment cannot help but echo in the reader. Yet you still manage to keep Nat a sympathetic character. What was the hardest part about writing this scene?
The most difficult part, as the writer, was being Nat Turner. When I write, I sit in the characters. I felt everything. I experienced everything. I’m serious when I tell you my hair is grayer. (I think I’m going to invest in some dye.) I felt his agony. I smelled the blood. It has made me very grateful to those who paid the price for my liberty. Most of my working career I have spent among military people, so I thought I was grateful before. But now I realize that we don’t fully appreciate what we do to them and what they sacrifice having to make life or death decisions in order to secure and protect our freedom.
On page 188, there is an apple tree that has been overtaken by a beautiful, flowering vine. Nat “would prefer to allow both to live—the apples were sweet, fragrant, and might fill his stomach; the wisteria flowers were beautiful to behold.” Do you think Nat would consider the vine in the same way as he carries out his mission in Cross Keys?
Exactly. You got it!
He loved both the captives and the captors. God loves both the oppressed and the oppressor. But there was no choice: Unchecked, the wisteria choked everything in its path.
Nat’s relationship to God becomes most pronounced in his ongoing conversation with Trezvant in the jailhouse. How do you think religion both divided and united the white and black population of the early nineteenth century?
The conversation actually takes place in Peter Edwards’s home before Nat Turner is taken into custody. Nat Turner was a preacher and I think the conversation about race and slavery would also have been about religion.
I think Christianity, in particular, was dealt body blows by slavery and race. Ruthless people, liars, used religion to justify superiority, slavery, greed, etc. They painted God as the white God of white people. There were many who professed religion even as they did ungodly things.
It’s hard to trust people who say they are God’s people when there has been a history of religion being used to manipulate, control, and oppress others. Mistrust was planted then and I believe it remains today. That lie still causes many to turn away from Christianity. The lie still causes some to feel superior and others inferior. There are some who still preach, teach, and believe this foolishness—they’re also slavery’s victims.
Yet, at the same time, throughout history and even today, we find diverse people who are bonded together by faith. The abolitionist movement was undergirded by faith. For example, many of the leading abolitionists were courageous people of faith, both white and black—like Henry Ward Beecher, his sister Harriet, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Bishop Richard Allen of Philadelphia—who worked together.
In a previous novel, Abraham’s Well, I wrote about Native American, African American, and white preachers who risked their lives to preach together to the Cherokee and the people of African descent who walked the Trail of Tears.
There are people today who find the courage to reach across color lines—despite all the barriers that would prevent it. If we are willing to do the difficult work of looking at ourselves, faith can help us. It can help us begin to judge people and choose friends and leaders not by skin color or by who they say they are but by the content of their character.
I guess if race and slavery dealt Christianity body blows, then I guess you could say that faith won’t surrender. Faith, hope, and love keep fighting back.
Thomas Gray’s decision to write a false confession for Nat is one of the strongest betrayals. Where does testimony figure in the novel? How does it inform your role as an author?
This second book really is Nat Turner’s testimony. I never intended to write from Turner’s perspective. I tried to avoid it. But he whispered to me, insisting that he must speak. He told me that they, all the slaves, were heroes: When we teach schoolchildren about slaves we should tell the children that they were American heroes.
He talked to me about the Great Dismal Swamp, about his love for his wife, Cherry, and his son. He told me about the heartbreak and frustration, and about the witnesses. I suppose you could say he gave me his testimony, and it was my job, as author, to deliver it.
At the end of the novel, Nancie declares herself free when she can finally reassume her Ethiopian name, Nikahywot. Do you find a similar power in names?
Names open and shut doors. Names confer privilege and take away power. When you take someone’s name, when you take their heroes, their God, whatever makes up their identity, you diminish them. You begin to destroy them and re-create them in your own image. My mother was a schoolteacher. The first year of my life was spent on a Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona.
As a child, I remember my mother talking about our timethere. She spoke with wonder. But then her voice would become a whisper and I thought I heard fear in the voice of a woman who showed no fear. “They take the children away from their families,” she said. “They cut their hair.” She shook her head with sorrow. “The children cry and the families cry, but they don’t care.” I could imagine the faceless, nameless “they” who did these things. It was a reservation and these things were done by federal mandate.
My mother showed pictures of the Navajo children clinging to her as though she was their mother. “They won’t let them speak their language,” she said of the children. “They make them change their names.”
I knew what she was telling me. It was a violation so great that it could not be spoken out loud. But Nancie reclaimed her name. I needed to free my readers. I needed to give them hope; it is who I am. It is what I believe. I needed to lift the lamp, to tell the tired, discouraged, and poor not to give up. We should not be deceived: No matter the circumstances we can wrestle back our power. Nikahywot’s name was like a light, a beacon to all of us, and he reclaimed it. Thirty years later, centuries later, it is never too late. It was restoration and, I suppose, I also did it for the Navajo children and for my mother.