A Glaring Omission

It’s difficult to tell whether much of anything is going to happen here in Virginia this weekend in acknowledgment of Lee-Jackson Day.  Yes, there is the parade tomorrow in Lexington, but that’s not surprising given the fact that the city serves as their final resting place.  It would be very strange indeed if the city didn’t mark the day with a public celebration, especially one organized by the SCV.  Given the apparent lack of interest, perhaps we need a new holiday.  So, which Virginians do you believe deserve his or her own day as a state holiday?  Don’t be shy.

I’ve been giving this some thought, not so much in the context of a state holiday, but in reference to our collective memory here in the good state of Virginia.  We have such a rich history here and there are plenty of important and obscure individuals who deserve to be remembered in one way or another.  It seems to me that the one glaring omission is the lack of any kind of monument to Nat Turner.  That’s right, I said Nat Turner.  I’m not suggesting that what is needed is something overtly celebratory, but some kind of acknowledgment of his role in Virginia history and the broader civil rights movement.  The fact that we still do not have a public site dedicated to Turner (even in Southampton County) tells us quite a bit about how we choose to remember our past.  More specifically, it tells us what we as a community have difficulty coming to terms with.  We will see this on Monday as the nation remembers Martin Luther King, Jr.  Schools will perform the mandatory rituals and local news teams will cobble together the standard narrative that celebrates King’s commitment to non-violence and his role in singlehandedly bringing an end to racial injustice.  Perhaps we will see a few hoses from Birmingham.  The point is that most Americans would much rather celebrate the expansion of freedom in this country as emerging through non-violent means rather than through violence.

Turner raises all of these issues and more.  Can you imagine a Nat Turner day here in Virginia?

Update: Thanks to everyone who stopped by today. Friday is usually slow around here, but yesterday’s- and especially today’s posts clearly made an impact. My stats counter went through the roof. There is something quite powerful about blogging. On this Lee-Jackson Day I managed to steer at least a small portion of the public discussion in the direction of another Virginian who I believe deserves to be acknowledged in a more public way. [Please keep in mind the nature of a blog post.  Most of my posts reflect topics that I think about over time and rarely reflect conclusions that are set in stone.  Please feel free to challenge me and offer a different perspective.  I have nothing to lose, but ideas that I had not considered.]  A number of Yahoo groups picked up the post as well as the Civil War Talk Forum.  Even my friend in Fredericksburg, who never fails to point out how unimportant I am, chose to link to one of my comments. It’s a sign of just how unimportant I am that he would devote his blog to me on this Lee-Jackson Day. I am truly blessed with so many devoted readers.

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15 comments… add one
  • Prizmm Jun 16, 2012 @ 6:03

    A monument to a man who died for freedom is a valuable contribution to the public discourse. The problem with dedicating for Nat Turner is the cultural dissonance relative to who the “bad guys” were. How does a man who did what the revolutioary era soldiers did, “fight against Tyranny” become a bad guy. We are looking at history throught the eyes of liars and that is the only answer. Nat Turner is a reminder to those who benefitted from white supremacy that there is another side to that story.

  • EarthTone Feb 4, 2010 @ 1:52

    In South Carolina, plans are underway to build a memorial the the Denmark Vesey Conspiracy:


  • msimons Jan 15, 2010 @ 15:19

    I see your point Kevin when I was still teaching History most Textbooks had maybe a page some only a Paragraph on Nat Turner and his rebellion. His life and actions dialed up the mistrust and retoric between the North and South and between Slave owners and Slaves. Lots of Slave Laws were passed in Southern states as an reaction to Nat's Murderous activities. Plus add to the Mix the Slave Revolts in the Caribbean and you have a nasty political/ social situation.

  • laurarobertson Jan 15, 2010 @ 14:31

    One of my students in African American Literature asked why we celebrate MLK day and not Malcolm X day. My answer was similar to yours here. I think that our discomfort with violent means extends beyond Virginia and given Nelson Mandela's fear of voicing “by any means necessary” in Spike Lee's biopic may even extend beyond the nation.

    • EarthTone Jan 15, 2010 @ 8:55

      Laura, I’m a 55 year old African American. I am very familiar with both persons.

      Malcolm X was a very important historical figure, and his oratory is required reading for those who want to understand black Americans during his era. In NYC where I grew up, he was considered a hero.

      But the bottom line is, Malcolm X did not really accomplish much. Whereas MLK was a key figure in actions that directly leading to desegregation in the South. The MLK holiday is a recognition that King actually “did” stuff.

      As an aside, my own issue with King day is that it centers on him, and not the movement. We know that dozens (hundreds?) of people died during the era. We know that thousands of people took part in the civil rights movement. I don’t begrudge King’s recognition. But I would have preferred a Civil Rights Movement Day that centered on the contributions of all these people, rather than a day dedicated to King.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2010 @ 14:36

      Hi Laura. I think the student's question hits the nail on the head. Malcolm functions as a foil against King. On the one hand we downplay King's references to violence (especially his anti-Vietnam speeches of 1967-68) and we do the same in reference to Malcolm's supposed violent tendencies. What is lost between both King and Malcolm is the fact that thousands of black and white Americans struggled under adverse conditions to bring about important civil rights victories.

      Turner complicates our view of ourselves and our preferred narrative of racial progress.

  • jfe Jan 15, 2010 @ 13:28

    The problem, Kevin, is that the man's claim to fame is leading a revolt which led to the murder of scores of women and children. I don't think people like that get monuments.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2010 @ 13:37

      Excellent point. Keep in mind that I am not suggesting that we celebrate Turner. The question is whether his actions are worthy of being remembered in a public setting such as a monument. Your point raises the crucial question of whether Turner “murdered” women and children. We can accept any number of scenarios where the killing of women and children is not understood as murder – for example, the bombing of European cities during the WWII.

      Does the environment in which Turner operated affect our understanding of what it means to “murder” or who counts as innocent? Thanks for the comment.

      • jfe Jan 15, 2010 @ 13:45

        I think I understand what you are getting at, Kevin. But most people won't. To most people, we should only put up monuments to Good Guys. It's like the problem Time has when it names Hitler or Khomeini as “Man of the Year.” Now, a *marker* at some site significant to his rebellion might be possible w/o raising too many hackles.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2010 @ 13:47

          “But most people won't.” Exactly and that is the point of the post.

      • Sherree Jan 16, 2010 @ 9:52

        “We can accept any number of scenarios where the killing of women and children is not understood as murder–for example, the bombing of European cities during the WWII”.

        I don't accept that scenario, or any other scenario, that involves the killing of women and children, and excuses that killing as not murder–(what is the sanitized phrase we use?–oh yes, “collateral damage”)

        That said, I well see your point about Nat Turner. Nat had many reasons to be enraged. So did Dr. King and all of the African American men and women who worked with him to secure equality–that work involving being beaten, scorned, and sometimes murdered. That is one of the things that is so extraordinary about Dr. King. He brilliantly employed non violent resistance as a lethal weapon to tyranny.
        Malcolm was a brilliant leader, too, and, if I remember correctly, after his trip to Mecca, he began to question violence as a way to achieve equality. Of course, he died–violently–before he could implement his new ideas. I think we need to reframe the question, and see non violent resistance, as Dr. King practiced it, for what it was–a deadly weapon for those in the way of progress. Why do we extol violence? On the other hand, how do you stop violence when there is no system in place to stop it. Gandhi forced the British to live up to their laws and to their ideals. Dr. King did the same in America. What were Nat Turner's options?

    • David Rhoads Jan 15, 2010 @ 17:42

      Some people like that do. John Brown, for one. There are statues of him here and there–at the site of his farm in North Elba, New York, and in Osawatomie, Kansas, among others–and at least one famous and frequently reproduced painting: the mural by John Steuart Curry in the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka. I don't think there's a John Brown day anywhere, though.

  • Jason Phillips Jan 15, 2010 @ 9:00

    Kevin, I wish I could agree with your statement that “most Americans would much rather celebrate the expansion of freedom in this country as emerging through non-violent means rather than through violence.” Let’s look at the Washington Mall, the epicenter of national memory. It shows us that America celebrates the expansion of freedom through violence. Three wars inhabit the center of that space–The War for Independence, the Civil War, and World War II. Violence that failed to expand freedom, like Vietnam and Korea, also has space on the mall. No space is reserved for the expansion of freedom through nonviolence. In principle, America loves freedom-FIGHTERS. The fact that he fought for freedom, rather than passively sought it, is not the reason why Nat Turner lacks a holiday or monument.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2010 @ 18:18

      Hi Jason. Nice to hear from you. You make a good point and it reminds me that I should have taken more care in writing the post. I think we should distinguish between fights for freedom that take place internally as opposed to external fights. In reference to the latter I agree with you 100% that “America loves freedom-FIGHTERS.” However, if we consider the Civil War our popular memory is of a peaceful story of emancipation that highlights Lincoln's signing of the EP as opposed to the hard fighting that black soldiers engaged in on the battlefield. I maintain that we have difficulty acknowledging the violence that was necessary to bring about the end of slavery and racial equality.

      In addition, I do not want to reduce our understanding of why Turner doesn't have a monument to what is contained in this post. It's a much more complex story than anything I've suggested here. My guess is that we probably agree on much of that narrative.

      By the way, you will be happy to know that one of my students is reading a chapter in “Diehard Rebels” as part of his independent study.

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