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The Black Man: His antecedents, his genius, and his achievement

Nat Turner

In his 1863 book, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements, William Wells Brown, an escaped slave and prominent abolitionist, gave brief biographies of influential enslaved persons to demonstrate that blacks were of equal intelligence and worth to whites. His goal was “to supply a deficiency, long felt in the community, of a work containing sketches of individuals who, by their own genius, capacity, and intellectual development, surmounted the many obstacles which slavery and prejudice have thrown in their way, and raised themselves to positions of honor and influence.”

One of these individuals was Nat Turner. Relying heavily on Thomas Gray’s Confessions, Brown paints a picture of an intelligent, religious man beaten down by slavery. Turner’s early experiences under cruel masters, along with his deeply held religious beliefs, combined to create an abolitionist hero. Though at one point in his life, Turner “could have easily escaped to the free states,” he chose to remain a slave after a “communication from the spirit, which said, ‘Return to your earthly master….’ It was not the will of his earthly, but his heavenly Master that he felt bound to do and therefore Nat returned.” Shortly after, Turner received signs that he should start a rebellion in order to gain the freedom of all slaves.

Through his religious convictions, Turner became a leader, as demonstrated in moments when Turner’s followers “partook heavily of the food and drank freely, except Nat. He fasted and prayed.” Brown’s Turner tells his followers:

Remember that we do not go forth for the sake of blood and carnage, but it is necessary that in the commencement of this revolution all the whites we meet should die, until we shall have an army strong enough to carry on the war upon a Christian basis.

When Turner was caught and executed, he died “a martyr to the freedom of his race, and a victim to his own fanaticism….That he was sincere in all that he professed, there is not the slightest doubt.” Brown concludes that Turner’s legacy continued to inspire slaves: “His looks, his sermons, his acts, and his heroism live in the hearts of his race, on every cotton, sugar, and rice plantation at the south.” Brown works here to cement Turner’s legacy as a hero worthy of great reverence. 

The entire text and XML/TEI source are available at Documenting the American South.

William Wells Brown, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievement. From the collection of the American Antiquarian Society.