So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Nat Turner

Nat Turner by Kyle Baker
Nat Turner was a African American slave in Southampton County Virginia who was born in 1800. He led a slave rebellion in August 1831 and was executed that November. When he was in jail awaiting execution, a white lawyer named Thomas R. Gray visited him and wrote down Turner's own story which was published in 1831 as The Confessions of Nat Turner. This is not to be confused with the 1967 novel of the same title by the white Virginia author William Styron. However both Styron's novel and the graphic novel Nat Turner by Kyle Baker are derived from Gray's original Confessions.

The illustrations for Baker's Nat Turner wordlessly illustrate the original 1831 Confessions which appears as text set in the graphic novel. The words of the original Confessions and Baker's graphic narrative enhance each other, creating a most powerful document for understanding Turner's life and motivation. Originally self published as a four part series, Nat Turner sold out two printings and won several prizes in 2006, including an Eisner Award for best reality-based work. Since 2008 it has been published as a single volume through a commercial press.

Part One is called "Home" and tells the story prior to that covered in Gray's Confessions of Nat Turner of Nat's mother being captured in Africa by slavers, transported to the coast, and put onto a slave ship to America where she is sold as a slave. Part Two is called "Education" and tells the remarkable story of Nat, a gifted child with mysterious powers, who can read, who is deeply spiritual, and starts to receive visions and messages. At the same time, he is witness to the brutality of human slavery all around him and as it effects him and his parents, wife and children. After his wife and children are sold away from him, his visions take a dark turn where he sees white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle and blood flowing in streams. He is told to be prepared to receive a sign to begin his fight against the Serpent. The first sign of a solar eclipse marks the beginning of Part Three - Freedom in which Nat starts to tell a select group of close associates of his visions and they make plans for the rebellion. The Great Barbados hurricane of August 1831, which turned the Sun blue as far north as Virginia was to Nat Turner, the sign he had been waiting for to begin the slaughter. He and his four allies went into houses in the dark of night, killing all the whites, taking their weapons and horses, and recruiting followers from their slaves. Before they were eventually stopped, there were about 60 armed freed slaves following him and over 55 dead whites in their trail. Part Four - Triumph details Turner's last days.

I had read Gray's book The Confessions of Nat Turner prior to reading Baker's graphic novel, and I find the combination of the hauntingly expressive images with the simple straightforward text an exceedingly effective manner to present Nat Turner's life and activities to a modern audience. The story is compelling to me because I live just two hours from the site of the rebellion, and slave conditions would have been the same here as they were for Nat Turner in Virginia. Baker has made the story one that I will never forget. At the end of the book is a Bibliography of further readings and a Teacher's Guide that would make this a powerful classroom instructional tool.


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