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The Return of Nat Turner and the Return of the Controversy

“You have sold the movie rights for 650,000” dollars!” Gloria Jones said to Bill Styron, as we sat at Cafe Brassier on the Isle St Louis, in Paris.

Gloria, wife of the James Jones (From Here to Eternity) was correct. William Styron’s novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (1968) not only had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and international acclaim, but the Hollywood sale was the largest amount of money paid for a novel at that time.

The controversy swirling the opening of Nate Parker’s film The Birth of A Nation is not the first time that the legend of the black revolutionary Nat Tuner has gripped the American imagination.

Fifty year ago, Mr. Styron himself was sitting across from me along side his wife Rose. “You have made so much money off Black people,” Gloria Jones laughed. “Now help this young black writer,” she added, pointing to me.

For his part, Mr. Styron just grinned. After all, he was a southern gentleman, born in Virginia and descended from slave owners. I also knew that African-American critics didn’t like the novel.

This was mid summer, 1974. At the beginning of the summer, I met had James Baldwin and Jimmy, as I began to call him, introduced me to the Jones’s, who gave parties where expatriate American writers would appear. Gloria Jones arranged this lunch with Styron with the idea that might recommend me for a PEN fellowship.

I was a little uneasy sitting across from the celebrated writer. White critics had praised his Turner novel as a major literary achievement. Published in 1967, “The Confessions” won a Pulitzer Prize and the film rights were acquired for a record sum by 20th Century Fox. When awarded an honorary degree at the historically black Wilberforce University in Ohio, Styron was greeted with thanks and praise.

But black writers and intellectuals were offended. They argued that Styron was lying about Nat Turner and Black History. The chairman of the Black anti-Defamation Association wrote in the Times that “only the truth about black people will set u all free from our racial nightmare.”

That same year, Beacon Press published William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond,  a collection of writers who hammered and railed against Styron’s perceived manifesto for white supremacy.

John Henrik Clarke, the editor of the Beacon Press book, asked an important question: “Why has the book received so much applause from the established press and a large number of well known ‘scholars’?” he asked, “Have they failed to see Nat Turner as a hero and a revolutionist out of ear that they might have to see H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael the same way?”

The reason I was nervous was that I was one of those Black writers, and one of the first essays I ever published was my own objection to Styron’s novel.  I got most nervous when Styron began to rail against the Ten Black Writer’s Respond book and I wondered if he would have remembered my name.

Styron’s novel was to be made into a movie (starring James Earl Jones, and directed by Norman Jewison), but it ran into problems when they were scouting for locations in Virginia where they were met by angry black and white protesters.

Eventually, under pressure from actors like Ossie Davis, Twentieth Fox dropped the project.

Since the time I sat with Styron in Paris discussing Nat Turner, a sea change has taken place in American attitudes towards Black History.

“What changed was the death of the civil rights movement–the death of Medgar Evers, Bloody Sunday, Birmingham, bombings and churches set on fire demanded nothing less, and a country that had little experience talking about race — and in particular, slavery — struggled to find the right words.” to quote Thomas Curwen, author of  “A black director, white author, and their differing accounts of rebel slave Nat Turner,” Los Angeles Times, Sept 3, 20016, ‘.

However, what really changed was the birth of the generation that produced Nate Parker, which enabled Parker to begin to see the literary bias against Black History early in his life.

“On the interview circuit, Parker, 36, speaks eloquently about “the shortage of heroism” in the history he was taught as a child growing up in Virginia. Not until college did he learn about Turner, and he was dismayed to find out the revolt occurred less than 100 miles from his home.

“Determined to tell this story, he put his acting career on hold two years ago and began to line up investors.”

Parker set out to dismantle Styron’s image of Nat Turner. “By the time Styron’s ink dried,” he said to an interviewer,  “Turner was an impotent and cowardly self-hating Uncle Tom whose ambitions regarding rebellion had little to do with the rampant torture and degradation of his enslaved people, but instead was steeped in his desperate sexual desires for white women.”

In his vision of Nat Turner, Parker describes the rebel slave as “a measured, self-determined man of faith, whose courage and sacrifice left him a martyr.” He calls his movie “the black ‘Braveheart.'”

The film’s reception at Sundance — “instant rapture,” by one account — has been explained in part as a reaction to the allegations of exclusion and discrimination that have fueled the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Yet the Nat Turner story has never failed to inspire a passionate response.

Styron, who died in 2006 at age 81, grew up in Virginia, as had Nate Parker, near the site of the revolt, and wanted “to portray an era of history which we are now beginning to understand to our enormous heartbreak and misery.”

He started writing in 1962, turning Turner’s confession to lawyer Thomas Gray — one of the most haunted slave narratives, half a zealot’s accounting of faith and half a terrible reckoning of the revolt — into “a meditation on history.”

Styron’s vision of Nat Turner was that he was a homosexual, who was infatuated with a white woman; and it turns out that she was the only white he actually kills.  In order to accomplish his goals, Styron abandoned the historical facts (there aren’t many) and, simply, made up stuff to suit his vision. What he never seem to have realized was that his view of Nat Turner was filtered through the eyes of a white southern man descended from slave owners. What the world has waited for is a view of Nat Turner filtered through the eyes of a descendant of the Nat Turners.

I can still recall Styron’s ruddy, bloated face. “Nat Turner was a ruthless fanatic, a monster, who murdered women and children,” he said, with anger, “But I made him human. I gave him dignity.”

I hated that comment, but couldn’t say so at that moment. What I wanted to say was that Black readers needed a hero imagined by a black writer.

During a discussion about the novel in Beverly Hills on May 28, 1968. Ossie Davis shared the stage with Styron and their mutual friend, the black novelist, essayist, poet and playwright James Baldwin.

“The old language no longer holds water,” Davis said. “What is really happening … is that the black community is speaking in a new language to which it hopes the white community will respond in a new fashion.”

“I need from Nat Turner and the facts of his history to make that thing which glorifies blackness in a society which is horrified by blackness,” said Davis.

“Whether Nate Parker’s portrait of Turner will answer this call remains to be seen,”  Curwen argues,  “The need for a hero is different than the need for a historical reckoning and an understanding of what fostered this brutal revolt.”

Along with Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin was one of the few major black intellectuals to defend Styron’s novel.  As I argued with him about Styron’s Nat Turner, Jimmy averred that every writer has the right to pick his own topic. “It is his provenance,” he said, “to write about anything under the sun.”

For the critics of Nat Parker’s film, who say that he doesn’t deserve to make this film, I say to them what Baldwin told me fifty years ago, when I objected to his supporting William Styron, “Every artist has the right to pick his topics.”

If we allow Styron to write his own white view of Nat Turner, can we not allow this Black filmmaker to exercise a similar creative bliss?

After my lunch with Styron, Baldwin and I met up in one of Jimmy’s favorite cafes, and he said, “Look, that was Bill’s book,” meaning that it carried psychological underpinnings that had to do with Styron’s own family history of owning slaves, “It’s not my book or your book.” Baldwin meant that if blacks want to read about Nat Turner on their terms, then blacks will have to write the book.

“Where is my book on Nat Turner?” Ossie Davis asked at that meeting on Roxbury. “Where is my Nat Turner?”

Nate Parker has answered the call. This is my, and our, Nat Turner.

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