Excerpt: Direct Democracy: Collective Power, the Swarm, and the Literatures of the Americas

The recent film The Birth of a Nation is once again attracting attention to the story of Nat Turner and the 1831 rebellion against slavery in Southampton County, Virginia. The following is an excerpt from Scott Henkel’s forthcoming book, Direct Democracy: Collective Power, the Swarm, and the Literatures of the Americas, available this spring from UPM

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, southeast Virginia, like much of the region, experienced an economic depression that drove down the prices for cotton and other commodities, as well as the price for slaves. This region of Virginia trafficked enslaved people to much of the South, so when the depression slowed down this trafficking, the black population in the area rose. 

As census data shows, from 1800 to 1830, the white population in Southeast Virginia rose marginally, but the black population rose to a far more significant degree. The area’s population, therefore, was influenced by the movement and circulation of people, and also of ideas. Cedric Robinson writes that “in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Franco-Haitian slave owners fled to Louisiana, Virginia, and the Carolinas with as many slaves as they could transport, thereby also transporting the Haitian Revolution.” It was a dangerous mix: anxiety over the economy, a growing black population, and reports of slave rebellion throughout the South, the Caribbean, and Latin America combined to make the life of a slave, which was brutal to begin with, even worse. 

Nat Turner’s body bore the marks of what this life must have been: descriptions of him state that he had scars on one of his temples and the back of his neck, as well as a large knot on the bone above his right wrist, the result, most likely, of that bone breaking and then healing without having been set properly.

Such repression breeds resistance, and a growing black population in proximity to a population of whites growing increasingly frustrated yet comparatively smaller provides a good explanation of why such a rebellion occurred where and when it did. Turner and his peers must have noticed this shifting terrain, and sensed an opening. There may have also been a more immediate effect of the economic situation: indebted enslavers tended to talk about selling slaves, an act that always split families and laid bare the cruel characteristics of the slavocracy’s racial capitalism; predicting the impending sale may have prompted the plotters to carry out plans that had been long in the making.

One is tempted to speculate about what success may have meant in practical terms to Turner and his peers. The most likely goal seems to have been a life of marronage in the Dismal Swamp, about forty miles from Jerusalem, now Cortland, where the rebellion started. One could also take the so-called Confessions of Nat Turner literally on this point, and believe that the rebellion’s goal was to spread fear throughout the region. At minimum, it needs to be recognized that given the right set of circumstances, rebelling against an unjust system is itself an endeavor worth undertaking. 

This is not a blind lashing out, but rather merely to suggest that there are times when passive resistance becomes insufficient or intolerable and active resistance seems to be the only logical option, regardless of the consequences which may follow. In any case, the Southampton Rebellion is another piece of evidence to support C. L. R. James’ comment that enslaved people rebel because they want to be free, and that this is a fact that no ruling class wants to admit.  

It is reasonable to expect that the men and women who participated in the Southampton Rebellion had diverse ideas about what liberty meant to them, varying opinions of what the outcome of their rebellion might be, and various suggestions about the most effective tactics. Some may have fought out of rage, some to repay particular grievances, some because they thought the rebellion was a path to freedom for themselves or for their families.
Some participants may have acted out of an altruism that hoped that their rebellion would be a step towards universal emancipation. Yet the people who chose to participate found ways to cooperate even in the face of great difficulties, and they struck a blow that left a lasting mark on the slavocracy. They did not need to define liberty in exactly the same way; what they needed was to find ways to cooperate in order to make an effective challenge to the systematized injustices they faced. The participants in the Southampton Rebellion were successful in forging that cooperation, and that fact deserves recognition.

Scott Henkel is assistant professor of English and African American and Diaspora Studies at the University of Wyoming, specializing in the literature of labor and slavery, democratic political movements, critical theory, free speech and censorship, and complex systems. His research has appeared in the journals Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and Workplace: a Journal of American Labor as well as the edited volumes Problems of Democracy: Language and Speaking and The Grapes of Wrath: A Reconsideration.