The following writing is adapted from a seminar presentation for a course on graphic life narratives at the University of Winnipeg.
Nat Turner was an African American slave who led a violent revolt on several plantations in Southampton County, Virginia in late August 21-22, 1831. These revolts resulted in the murder of approximately 57 white people, including many women and children, by African American slaves and free men. White militias and civilian mobs also attacked African Americans in the area, killing approximately 110 people— many who had nothing to do with the revolt. The state eventually arrested and executed 55 African Americans accused of participating in the rebellion. 20 slaves received the death penalty, and many other were murdered by white people. Although Turner hid for ten weeks, he was eventually found, tried, and convicted to death on November 5th, 1831. His hanging took place on November 11th, 1831. During the days leading to his death, Thomas Ruffin Gray worked with Turner to record a confessional narrative, later published in a pamphlet and distributed to the public. This narrative, published as The Confessions of Nat Turner, portrays Turner as a religious fanatic, which may have served to placate white fears of repeat incidents by other slaves. Gray often interjects in Turner’s narrative, with leading questions and statements. Kyle Baker is suspicious of the accuracy of this dictated narrative.
Despite the collaborative nature of Gray’s original Confessions, the narrative can still be understood as a slave narrative. Since we have been looking at the genre of auto/biography, both within and outside of comics, for this presentation I am going to look at how slave narratives might fit into this genre; in particular, how Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner and the original Confessions act as auto/biographical texts.
Kyle Baker manipulates the confessional text to produce a work that forces the reader to view Turner’s rebellion as a product of slavery, positioning Baker as a hero advocate for literacy, and as a traditional (and untraditional) superhero. I will also discuss how Turner, as portrayed by Baker, embodies a comic book hero, juxtaposing him to contemporary comic superheroes such as Superman.
After I read the full Nat Turner confession published in 1831, I noticed that Baker’s narrative does not include the introduction by the clerk Edmond I Lee (of the district court of Columbia) and the voice of Thomas Gray, who recorded Turner’s confession and often interrupts his voice to ask questions (though he appears at the end of Baker’s narrative). Towards the end of the original publication Turner’s voice blends into Gray’s voice and it is difficult, at first, to understand that Gray’s voice has replaced Turner’s in the narration.
Baker eliminates some of the context of Turner’s narration (as a document produced for court), and in doing so empowers Turner; he attempts to tell Turner’s story as if it is an authentic autobiography of a slave, grounded in the present of the past. Even though we are aware the text is a confession in retrospect, I was still surprised to realize that the narration is outside of the “present” of the story’s action; it is instead told by a man in shackles in a cell (page 188).
The visual narrative, full of movement, and emotion, that practically pulsates, is not the movement of action, but the action and vibrancy of storytelling. The narration is also Turner’s voice speaking from the past, and Baker brings his voice back to life.
Baker took a text, that originally might have functioned as a political tool to vilify Turner and provoke racist attitudes, and he makes this text about so much more than Turner’s horrific actions.
T.R Gray, the witness to Turner’s confession, writes in his introduction, “Public curiosity has been on the stretch to understand the origin and progress of this dreadful conspiracy, and the motives which influence its diabolical actors…This ‘great Bandit’ was taken by a single individual, in a cave near the residence of his late owner…Never did a band of savages do their work of death more unsparingly…It was …the offspring of gloomy fanaticism… many a mother as she presses her infant darling to her bosom, will shudder at the recollection of Nat Turner, and his band of ferocious miscreants”.
Gray sets Turner up as a cowardly villain, and refuses to acknowledge or blame any other social forces. Any literate white reader, who was presented with or purchased Turner’s confession, could have refused to see the broader context of the rebellion: that slavery as an institution was the cause of the turmoil— that the rebellion was the outcome of a greater problem.
The title page of the document produced for court (and reprinted on page 10 of Baker’s narrative) looks like a romanticized Wanted poster for an outlaw in the American imagination of the Wild West. It looks like an entertainment poster designed to rile up an audience for a performance rather than a transcript of a criminal confession. I think Baker plays with this motif on page 15, recreating the movement of horses in old Western films. This page is blurry but more realistic in style than the other drawings, and pixelated to suggest more contemporary experiences of film and technology.
Baker begins the narrative with Turner’s mother’s firsthand experience of slavery as she is taken from her home in Africa, branded and thrown on a slave ship. Baker presents Turner’s mother as a witness in the scene of the child being thrown off the slave ship (47-54), and soon the reader learns that Turner, as a child, retold this narrative many times.
Turner, in the original confession, tells this story to other children to differentiate himself and set himself up as a prophet. However, because it is Turner’s mother who has experienced these events in Baker’s visual narration, the drawings suggest that this narrative has been passed down orally to Turner, likely through his mother, or something he has overheard; consequently, Turner becomes less of a mystical prophet, and more of a flawed man coping with trauma. Perhaps Baker has combined the two narratives (of the prophetic son and his mother’s experiences) so that Turner’s story can seem more real, and not just a fantastical tale. Readers of this story cannot overlook his trauma, his destroyed family life, and his struggle for mental health. Baker does not want readers to reduce Turner to a crazed religious fanatic.
Gray discredits Turner’s narrative in the original publication when he writes, “It has been said that he was ignorant and cowardly, and that his object was to rob for the purpose of obtaining money to make his escape. He is a complete fanatic or plays his part admirably” (181).
In Baker’s narrative, unlike the publication of the autobiography, Turner is allowed to justify his position. He is given the last word in the narrative of his story. Baker takes a question posed by Gray midway through the original publication and places it at the end of his graphic narrative when Gray asks, “Do you not find yourself mistaken now,” and Turner answers, “Was not Christ crucified?” (189).
There is something theatrical about the way the narrative voice in Confessions, presumed to be Turner, is elated to be able to tell his story; he narrates as though he is preaching a mystical sermon. We now know that this narrative could only have been used to implicate Turner in court, so there is something disturbing and sinister about the recorder’s “sympathetic” ear. Additionally, the original publication sandwiches his confession between the biased narratives of two white men.
Baker is also guilty of editing the original confessional narrative; this is evident when he excludes certain passages from Turner’s confession. For example, in one excluded passage, Turner confides that he lived since 1830 with Mr. Joseph Travis, who was a “kind master”, and had no cause to complain about his treatment of him (173). Perhaps, for Baker, this works against Turner’s position as a hero, or Baker was suspicious of the accuracy of this statement; it encourages the myth of the contented slave, and attributes his rebellion to his mental instability or villainous traits.
However, Baker distorts the original narrative in order to present Turner as more human than monster. His visual imagery that depicts Turner as monstrous or with superhero-like strength defamiliarizes the racialized language of the original publication which presents him as a crazed monster.
Baker does not produce the grotesque imagery to glorify violence, but instead reproduces the violent literary and cultural imagination that is already grotesque.
How Baker’s text rejects the sentimentality of 19th century slave narratives
19th century slave narratives were intended to provoke “white sympathy” and were not published as solely first-person narratives; the “truth” had to be vouched for by white literate men. Consequently, these narratives did not tell the whole truth (Francis 4 of 15).
Baker rejects sentimentality of 19th century slave narratives that, as Conseula Francis suggests, were intended to pull on the heartstrings of white readers, without causing them to feel too bad or question their superior positions (122). Baker does not present Turner as a likable man. His Nat Turner does not regret his actions.
Turner’s original narrative also rejects this sentimentality, but it was likely published to affirm his position as a maniacal monster, so it did not have to be sentimental. His “autobiography” is a jailhouse confession that likely caters to a white audience’s prejudiced desires and demands.
Helen Thomas writes about autobiographical slave narratives, “These ‘confessional’ testimonies existed both as unrestrained, personal utterances and as highly self-conscious literary performances…consciously aimed at public consumption and intrinsically shaped by editorial intervention”(177). This is reflected in the way Gray’s questions often interrupt Turner’s narrative, leading him to tell his story in a particular way.
Thomas also writes, “these narratives were variously edited, dictated or composed ‘by’ former slaves who had found their way to freedom in conjunction with Christian philanthropists or abolitionist ghostwriters” (Thomas 177). John Bayliss notes that slaves who were encouraged by a feeling of hope after slavery and by the commitment of the Abolitionists, felt a strong pressure to embellish their narrative, “or let it be embellished” for them” (10). These narrators might have felt pressured to align their narratives with religious beliefs and dominant culture’s ideologies, or else to demonstrate some sort of otherness desired by those who are not “other”.
Thomas discusses religion as spiritual and cultural liberation, the creation of a newly formed self, able to break free of the “shackles of past”, to break free from the father/master power dynamic (178). However, religion was also a way for white slave owners to control slaves, religious spiritual liberation an illusion or placebo for surviving cruelty. Religion plays an important role in Baker’s narrative because it helped Turner learn to read, write, and tell stories. Turner stood out because of his storytelling talents, and others listened to him as he preached his visions, as demonstrated on pages 102-105 when he clutches the bible and preaches passionately to a group of men.
Although contemporary autobiographers might feel pressure to provide documentation or proof of the authenticity of their narrative, the slave autobiographer’s “proof” of authenticity consisted of a white man’s trusted voice. These trusted voices could easily romanticize African narrators. For example, Vernon Loggins writes about an African man whom he interviews, “One feels in his pages his mysticism, his unquestioning acceptance of the strange, his genius for adapting himself, his almost uncanny common-sense insight into the character of those around him” (Bayliss 16); the man interviewed is presented as a naïve and more carefree and adventurous than the interviewer; he unquestioningly accepts the strange.`
Baker presents Turner as a hero because of his uniqueness through his ability to narrate, write and share history, and his religious and spiritual beliefs allow him to see himself as someone more special than a slave. He is not a hero for his violent actions or mystical prophesies; he is a hero for his ability to communicate and tell his story and the story of many others.
Notes on the superhero and examination of Baker’s Turner as hero and superhero
The Nietzschean conception of the “superhero” is someone who becomes a hero by superseding the hero who inspired him or her” (Mclaughlin 113). Maybe, in thinking about this trope of the hero, we can understand Baker’s depiction of Turner’s religious fanaticism as a way that Turner copes with being disappointed or abandoned by God, his hero, who took away his wife and children. Turner becomes god-like, takes on the role of a prophet, and creates a spiritual purpose for himself, bigger than family and kinship.
The superhero can also be understood as a response to modernity, reflecting the desires of the artist, writer, or conceptualizer, or the subconscious desire and fears of society at the time the hero was created. Jeff Mclaughlin describes modernity as “an ongoing process involving the restructuring of humanity’s relationship to nature, society, and the self…Enabled by the rise of industrial culture, and the movement of goods, people, and information…this process destabilizes pre-modern social systems, with their ties to place, religion, and local culture. In doing so modern forces threaten to atomize communities and individuals, reducing human thought and action to quantifiable and manipulable objects harnessed to engines of production and profit” (85)
Jerry Siegel, one of the creators of Superman, and also the child of Jewish immigrants trying to fit into American society, acknowledged that Superman “grew out of his personal feelings about life” and from the need or desire to imagine someone “who would help the folks at the bottom” (90). Mclaughlin writes, “Superman, and the hundreds of superheroes that come after him, can be seen as affirming the primacy of a besieged humanity by transcending these sources of modernity” (84). This is evident in the way Superman outruns trains and automobiles, fights political and urban corruption, and triumphs over instruments of warfare (84)
So, how does Turner compare to Superman?
Well, if comic heroes can be understood as “affirming the primacy of a besieged humanity by transcending these sources of modernity” (Mclaughlin 85), then maybe Turner is a hero, in the way he challenges the conventions of slavery by learning to read, and rejects the religious fantasies of the dominant culture; instead, he creates his own religious mythology. Slave plantations can be understood as the predecessors to the dehumanizing industrial factories and dehumanization of workers for capital gains, reinforcing a problematic class system. Turner, who reads despite the laws opposing slaves reading, then functions as a hero by rejecting the laws of the class system.
Also, Turner succumbs to a sort of nihilism; Mclaughlin’s describes nihilism as an
“all or nothing mentality of the kind of person who would become a hero…a natural fallback for someone who would problematically assume since our values are not absolute, they must be relative, rendering reality ultimately meaningless” (Mclaughlin 116). Turner’s position as hero/prophet, clears him of his past, his attachments, and his human moral obligations. Mclaughlin also describes nihilism as the natural complement of a scientific worldview, “a thoroughly objectified and thereby disenchanted world…intrinsically value free and so ultimately meaningless…which nuclear annihilation threatens to realize” (108). Alan Moore’s The Watchmen is an example of several superheroes who succumb to nihilism; these superheroes have allowed themselves to fade into obscurity, or they desire to blow up New York City, to start a new and more united society.
Michael Chaney points out that it would be difficult to miss overtures to the world of superhero comics in Baker’s introduction because, as Baker notes on page 6, the story makes “the perfect subject for a comic book” through its action and suspense and the hero possessing “superhuman abilities” (281). Chaney also suggests that Baker’s depiction of Turner presents a revisionist history of a kind of Black Incredible Hulk; on page 107 when Turner chops wood, his body is unnaturally strong, muscles accentuated, and the white boy chasing a chicken at the bottom of the panel appears to be the same size as his hand. Turner also looks especially hulk-like on pages 172 and 173.
However, the main way that Baker presents Turner as a hero is through his ability to read and write. Baker suggests that if Turner could do it, there is no excuse for contemporary readers not to read and write and share their stories. Baker reveals this attitude when he writes in the introduction, “In the tradition of my hero Nat Turner…I went out and found books about being a publisher” (7).
Chaney points out that Turner seems to acquire literacy automatically and mythically, such as on page 86 when Turner explains, “with the most perfect ease, so much so, that I have no recollection whatever of learning the alphabet” (283). In this way, literacy becomes a superpower as well. Baker uses his self-publication as a sort of authentic “credibility”, in the spirit of Nat Turner who privileged literacy and unrestrained self-expression.
Many visual cues also suggest, to contemporary readers, that Turner and other members of the rebellion are heroic figures because they are drawn in a similar style as Frank Miller’s heroes (Francis point this out on 113); on pages 171 and 178 Baker recreates the grotesque, bloody shadows of Frank Miller’s Sin City. Baker also conceives of black slaves as physically more powerful than white colonizers, when he asks in the introduction, “How does a weaker minority dominate a physically superior majority?” (7).
If the narrative were in bright cheerful colour, it would defamiliarize the comic book and superhero genre through the nihilistic hero who is perhaps also a super villain, destroying the binary of good and evil. Then again, maybe superheroes are always a small step away from becoming super villains, which is part of their allure. Maybe superheroes are monsters, like villains, except they adhere to human codes of morality and strict unflinching “good” principles.
Baker’s narrative does not glorify the black slave’s violent revenge on the white slave owners. His comic style works to capture movement and action with minimal words, and the over-exaggerated expressions allow the relief of humor; he can capture emotions with minimal words. The gestures of the cartoons articulate the deeper significance of Turner’s confession, shoving in the readers’ faces what the original white spectators and consumers of Turner’s narrative refused to acknowledge: the violent and grotesque nature of slavery made Turner violent and grotesque.
Baker also presents Turner as a Christ-like figure. On page 186, after he is hung, he is surrounded by a halo of sunlight through the trees, like he is being beamed up to heaven, or is a saintly figure. However, Turner is also a crazed superhero. Baker depicts his religious fanaticism, although he eliminates parts of Turner’s confession that expose his mental instability. In the eliminated section, he sees “leaves in the woods with hieroglyphic characters, and numbers, with the forms of different men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood, and representing the figures he had seen before in the heavens”; The Holy Ghost reveals himself, the blood of Christ returns as dew, and the great day of judgment is at hand (172). However, as I mentioned earlier, Baker sets up Turner’s rebellion as something much more complex than a tragedy caused by religious delusions.
On page 195 white slave owners’ and spectators’ faces change from gleeful and blood thirsty to awe-struck, humbled, and confused while watching Turner being hanged. Baker alludes to a revelation where the white audience (and maybe readers) are able to see Turner as a tragic figure, a product of the cruel environment of slave plantations and colonialism. He is depicted as a Christ-like figure as his face becoming peaceful on page 194 and 197. Perhaps the spectators feel they have become the monsters, or they realize that their behavior has been just as grotesque and fiendish.
These historical figures are confined to the text, never looking out at the reader in a familiar way that does not disturb and provoke the reader (11, 30, 38, 113). The reader is restricted to the present; we can use contemporary understandings of the superhero and violence in comics as a framework to read Baker’s narrative. However, the narrative also seems to be playing out mystically for the reader directly from the past— and in a way that could have been understood by illiterate slaves from the past.
The politics of violence and racialized language in Nat Turner
As Baker notes on page 36, the white slavers took the African slaves and shaved and branded them, chained them, and forced them onto a slave ships with poor conditions that caused many deaths. Slaves were treated like animals and commodities, their bodies stripped of power and autonomy.
Turner, conversely, imposes this objectification on the white plantation owners; they are just identical bodies made of flesh and blood. Within this nihilistic view, they are all equally nothing, neither good or evil. If Turner chose to show mercy to one white person, then he could not rationalize any of the murders, so, as demonstrated on page 135, Turner beheads the little boy, and on page 121 he approves the killing of a baby.
Biopower, in Foucauldian terms, refers to sovereign exercise of the power to determine who may live and who must die. It separates and divides people into categories and subcategories, establishing biological boundaries between Some and Others. Foucault calls it racism. Racism, for Foucault, is the condition for the acceptability of putting to death (On Achille Mbembe’s ‘Necropolitics’ 17). This term might be applied to slave narratives, as the slave was not considered to be human by owners, like Baker’s illustrations suggest (178). Slaves were considered disposable, their bodies othered as objects and possessions. Slaves were treated like unfeeling shadows, or pushed into the racial symbolism of the shadow. Baker’s images of Turner in the sunlight resist this racialized literary language, which I will discuss a bit more soon.
Achille Mbembe suggests “The colonial state derives its claim of sovereignty from its own cultural mythology. The narrative of its own divine right to exist. This gives rise to the domain of sovereignty being derived from both a myth of truth and exclusivity, visiting terror and violence on those who are Other…exercised through the creation of “zones of death, where mass destruction, and living death become the dominant logics” (7). Terror and death then operate to create and assert power. Maybe the slave ships don’t quite exemplify the idea of the necropolitical because the slaves’ lives are valued as merchandise, but Turner, through his rebellion, mirrors the actions of the colonial state; not because he wants power over others, but because he is powerless and imagines himself as part of a spiritual sovereignty. He, like the colonial state, creates his own mythology, a mythology born out of religious fanaticism and mental health instability.
So, to bring this back to the superhero, Mbembe writes that, “Technologies of destruction have become more tactile, more anatomical and sensorial, in a context in which the choice is between life and death” (7). Necropower involves weapons, as Mbembe writes, “in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creating of death-worlds…social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead”(8).
The superhero then acts against the sovereignty that exercises the necropolitics, for the living dead who cannot act for themselves. Superman can overcome modern warfare technologies; he is, for example, faster than a speeding bullet. However, Nat Turner is only flesh and blood, and the only way he can stand up for the living dead is to create destruction, to kill the “other” that would kill him first and that would take his wife his children (page 98,99); or, through sharing his story, which carries with it the stories of many other slaves.
More on racialized language and the graphic narrative
On the first page inset of the book, the reader, who is presumably the black child from the end of the narrative, is invisible in the shadows, but he becomes illuminated through reading. He might represent Turner’s heroic qualities, such as disobeying the law which dictates that slaves should not be able to read. Although he has to hide in the shadows in order to read, he still reads, and he learns, and because of this he forces others to see him and listen.
Although the audience at the time of the original Confessions publication might have overlooked how Turner’s actions were related to the trauma of slavery, Baker makes sure contemporary audiences are aware of Turner’s heroic qualities and are able to understand his murders as a direct consequence of the institution of slavery (but not justify them).
Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark writes about “assumptions made by literary historians and critics circulated as ‘knowledge’ that holds that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African-Americans in the United States. It assumed that this presence—which shaped the body politic, the constitution, and the entire history of the culture—has had no significance place or consequence in the origin and development of that culture’s literature”(5)
She continues, “These speculations have led me to wonder whether the major and championed characteristics of our national literature—individualism, masculinity, social engagement versus historical isolation; acute and ambiguous moral problematics; the thematics of innocence couple with an obsession with figurations of death and hell—are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence” (5). To illustrate this, she writes about “othering” tropes of darkness, sexuality, and desire in Ernest Hemingway or in his cast of black men (12).
With this argument in mind, slave narratives should not be rejected from the genre of autobiography; they are influenced by racialized language and the white presence, however they reflect racist dynamics of the past that we can now look at critically. White narratives are shaped by white writers defining themselves by the “otherness” that they are not, and so too are black narrative shaped by the racist imaginations of the time. Baker adopts and distorts some of this racialized language through his black and white visual narrative, playing with light and shadows.
Morrison writes, “Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities. For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination. What rose up out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism—a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American”(38).
Baker plays with this construction of darkness or “otherness” in his drawings; he exposes the white fantasy of the black slave through the grotesque shadowy qualities of his superhero version of Nat Turner.
The speech bubble coming from the corpse thrown off the slave ship on page 46 defamilarizes readers with how words are used in comics. In comics, sure the dead can come back and speak, but this speech bubble does more than disturb the verisimilitude of the narration: someone else is speaking through the corpse so that the corpse can become more than a shadow being swallowed in the ocean. This speech bubble represents a collection of diverse identities lost in collective history. The reader can see the corpse’s face, their age— that they are a person. Baker also presents Turner as more than a dark racialized shadow in history; in Baker’s narrative Turner is flawed, but he also had a family, he was a child, and he had a mother who loved him.
Also, since Baker does not establish temporality (a time frame through voiceover, panel, frames, and so on) in the narration, there is little to distinguish the slaves from each other or their parents; they are shadows blending into each other, becoming a collective history, a shared identity, and it is unclear sometimes who is the child or father. On page 76 and 77 Baker shows Turner’s flashback to when his own father ran away, but it is confusing because there is no narrative or visual device to signify a change in temporality; the little boy could just as easily be Turner’s son, and the man in bed could be the adult Turner instead of his father—at least that was my impression.
Thomas writes that “memory” for the romantics was egocentric and solitary, but for the slaves such acts of memory bore witness to a shared cultural past, and “this enabled the slave narrator to write his/her life as a unified expression of an entire cultural and historical destiny, premised on an individual, collective and political liberty (the chosen one) and infused with the power to interpret and mediate with the spiritual world” (178). Turner’s words make him into an outsider and tear him apart from the cast of shadows; he is unique through his ability to communicate. For Baker, his most important heroic quality is that he makes himself be heard; he forces white slave owners to see flesh, blood, and people who feel anger and passion, where before they would only allow themselves to see faceless nameless shadows.
Archive with more detailed information on the aftermath of the rebellion, impact, and primary source material: http://www.natturnerproject.org/
Baker, Kyle. Nat Turner. New York: Abrams, 2008. Print.
Bayliss, John F. Black Slave Narratives. New York: Macmillan, 1970. Print.
Folkenflik, Robert. The Culture of Autobiography: Constructions of Self-Representation. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993. Print.
Francis, Conseula. “Drawing the Unspeakable” Comics and the U.S. South.Ed. Brannon Costello, and Ojana J. Whitted. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2012. 113-137. Print.
McLaughlin, Jeff. Comics As Philosophy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Print.
Michael A. Chaney. “Slave Memory Without Words in Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner.”Callaloo 36.2 (2013): 279-297. Project MUSE. Web. 24 Feb. 2014. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992. Print.
“On Achille Mbembe’s ‘Necropolitics’ (2003).” Biopolitics, Race, and Gender. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
Thomas, Helen. Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies. Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.