October 26, 2023
In Gaza Substack
NAT TURNER IN GAZA
by Norman Finkelstein
In 1831, a slave named Nat Turner organized an insurrection in Virginia. It proved to be the largest slave revolt in American history. Turner hoped to stir into action the whole of the slave population but was only able to enlist 70 others. It’s unknown whether Turner expected to achieve a military victory or, short of that, force a national reckoning with slavery. He exhorted his fellow insurrectionists to “kill all the White people.” (It appears that he intended to spare women, children and surrendering men once the insurrection gained a firm foothold.) The unfolding scene was ghastly: babes decapitated, other Whites disemboweled and hacked to pieces. With only the rarest exception, for 48 hours no White in their tracks was spared the slaves’ accumulated wrath and fury. Some 60 Whites perished: “whole families, fathers, mothers, daughters, sucking babes, and school children butchered, thrown into heaps, and left to be devoured by hogs and dogs or to putrify on the spot.” (Turner himself, it seems, displayed forbearance. He killed only one person.) In the course of quelling the rebellion, Whites randomly murdered and mutilated some 120 Blacks “in ways that witnesses refused to describe,” often severing heads and mounting them on poles as a portent “to all those who should undertake a similar plot.”
A biographer of Turner (Stephen Oates, The Fires of Jubilee) observes that his “rage” sprang from the “prodigious chasm” that separated his talents and aspirations—by all accounts, Black as well as White, he was a match for any White man’s wits—and the slave’s fate which Turner was born into and to which he was consigned for his terrestrial existence. Possessed of a “prodigious knowledge of the Bible,” Turner was for certain a religious zealot. He contrived that his bloody revolt was ordained by God, he was the vehicle and executor of God’s will, and his actions had been sanctioned by God. He was an, as it were, premature jihadi. But it’s also true that he found in scripture a “rational” vision of divine retribution and earthly redemption that resonated with his plight. After the insurrection was repressed, Turner’s rage was ascribed by Whites to his religious delirium so as to obscure the slave uprising’s real taproot: not “fanatical delusion” but the system of bondage that stoked the flames for vengeance. White southerners, Oates muses,
had to believe that the insurrection sprang from religious fanaticism, which had bewildered and deranged Nat’s mind and had led him and his “band of savages” to commit atrocities beyond the capacity of ordinary slaves. Whites
could not blame the rebellion on their own slave system—they were too much a part of it to do that.
Turner was demonized by Whites after his death, the honorable exception being the White Abolitionists. William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the anti-slavery Liberator, championed moral suasion to win the public over to manumission. Yet, whereas he stated that the “excesses” of Turner’s revolt could not be justified and he was “horror-struck at the late tidings,” Garrison conspicuously did not condemn the slave revolt. Instead, he railed against the hypocrisy of those who sang paeans to the sanguinary struggles for liberty then being fought out in Europe, but who fell deathly silent when it came to the enslaved, lacerated Black population in their midst. It took uncommon courage to take Garrison’s stand. A $5,000 price was put on his head in North Carolina while Georgia offered the same amount to anybody who would kidnap him and drag him for trial. The “radical” podcasting universe of our day wouldn’t risk two “likes” and one “share.”
Even as none contested the gruesome facts of the rebellion, southern Blacks did not recoil in horror at Turner’s name. On the contrary:
He became a legendary black hero … enshrined in an oral tradition that still flourishes today. They regard Nat’s rebellion as the “First War” against slavery and the Civil War as the second. So in death Nat achieved a kind of victory denied him in life—he became a martyred soldier of slave liberation who broke his chains and murdered Whites because slavery had murdered Negroes.
The above words were written by Oates in 1973. In 1988, a book on Turner’s life (introduced by Coretta Scott King) was selected for inclusion in the “Black Americans of Achievement” biography series for children. By now, Nat Turner occupies an honored place in American history.
The 2,000 young men who burst the gates of Gaza on October 7, 2023, had been born into a concentration camp. For fully two decades they had been immured in a 25-mile long by 5-mile wide sliver of land that was among the most densely populated places in the world. The vast majority of them could never hope to leave but only to pace each day the camp’s suffocating perimeter; never aspire to gainful employment or eat a full meal; never expect to marry or raise a family. Abandoned by everyone, they were “remaindered” to languish and die. To expedite this process, Israel periodically launched “operations” visiting death and destruction on Gaza: thousands methodically mowed down; homes and critical infrastructure systematically pulverized. It might sound like the script of a bad B-movie, but on the night of
October 6 each of those 2,000 men probably kissed his mother, then his father, goodbye. Forever. And then each silently vowed to vindicate the remorseless torture of a twilight existence, and to avenge the murder of a grandparent, sister, brother, niece, nephew by that Satanic power that cursed their lives.
“The owl of Minerva spreads it wings,” Hegel famously said, “only with the falling of the dusk.” That is, one only acquires wisdom into an epoch with the ripeness of time. It’s still high noon and thus too soon to resolve what verdict History will cast on the slave revolt in Gaza on October 7, 2023.
Norman Finkelstein is the author of Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom.