The Speech of a Slave


When we put the concepts “civility” and “free expres­sion” alongside each other and locate them in a polity that we describe as a “constitutional democracy” we are engaging in a time-honored American exercise: checking and balancing. Taken together, the con­cepts propose an ideal of constitution­ally guaranteed freedom of expression (both speech and action) balanced by a civic commitment to respect the expres­sion of others with whom we may dif­fer, resulting in a democracy exposed to the full spectrum of expression, hence informed by and composed of that full spectrum.

In this exercise, though the con­cepts seem naturally to complement one another, they also express necessary tensions. If “civility” is to have effect, it must be allowed to check unrestrained (uncivil) freedom of expression. Simi­larly, “constitutional” must be allowed to check uninhibited (destructive) democracy. And because none of our key concepts come with substantive guarantees, their reconciliation must be actively produced procedurally, that is through dialogue. Our expectation is that in a mature polity the requisite checks and reconciliations will be nego­tiated by all, more or less consensually, to maximize participation, and that the results will be valued as a public good.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case historically. For much of the 240 years that the United States has represented itself to the world as a constitutional democracy, meaningful participation has been narrowly con­fined. Neither civility nor freedom of expression has been available to large segments of the population—those for whom, for one reason or another, the costs of claiming civic recognition or exercising speech were simply too great to risk: the poor, the subaltern, certain cultural and ethnic minorities, and, above all, people of color.

This history notwithstanding, we assume that with enough effort the ide­al can be realized, that the problem lies in insufficient commitment to the ideal, that the key concepts do not go so far as to contradict each other. But of course, for much of our country’s history, if you were a slave or the descendant of a slave, they did. You were physically located within the borders of a con­stitutional democracy, and subject to its decrees, but you existed outside its civic ambit, excluded from its realm of legal and political action. Denied civic existence, you were owed no civility. You possessed no freedom of expres­sion (or freedom of anything else, for that matter). You and your descendants were described as “beings of an inferior order . . . altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations” (Dred Scott v. Sand­ford, 60 U.S. 393, 1857). You were pos­sessed of “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” You had been “justly and lawfully . . . reduced to slavery.” You did not speak.

How do we proceed when con­fronted by those who are denied speech altogether? Speech is raw material for history. Historians deal all the time with speech recorded in one form or anoth­er—private records such as letters and diaries, newspapers, published public records such as legislative proceedings and court reports, or unpublished pub­lic records such as depositions. This speech is all, ultimately, individuat­ing—behind every instance is a particu­lar speaker. There is, of course, plenty of speech about slavery, both pro- and anti-, but it is almost invariably white speech. The great mass of African-American slaves remains anonymous and inarticulate to us. Historians know better than to ventriloquize (speak for) them. And so when it comes to slaves, historians tend to deal with them in the aggregate. This means that most of the history of slavery, when it is not the his­tory of white speech about slavery, is social history—the collective history of an institution and its denizens told using aggregate data, such as census records or plantation inventories. (One could of course argue that these records are sim­ply white speech in another form, but at least they have the advantage of provid­ing metrics.)

On the rare occasions slaves do speak it is almost never under circum­stances of their own choosing, so much so that their speech becomes suspect, hostage to the conditions under which it was recorded. Some years ago, for example, the historian Michael Johnson criticized several histories of an alleged 1822 slave conspiracy in Charleston, South Carolina, in which authorities charged 131 men with conspiracy. Sixty-seven men were convicted and 35 hanged, including Denmark Vesey. Johnson criticized the histories because their authors had relied upon the Offi­cial Report of an inquiry into the affair which had itself both relied on, and dis­torted, testimony summarily coerced from defendant slaves to manufacture the appearance of a plot. According to Johnson, scholarly histories that depended on the very sources used to convict those accused made their authors “unwitting co-conspirators . . . in the making of the [1822 Denmark] Vesey conspiracy.”

How then can a slave’s speech be accorded authenticity? For the past year I have been mulling over exactly that question because I have been studying one of the most famous narratives attributed to an African- American slave, a 24-page pamphlet entitled The Confessions of Nat Turner. The pamphlet was published in Novem­ber 1831 by a thirty-year-old attorney named Thomas Ruffin Gray, who had gained access to Turner prior to his trial on charges of conspiracy to rebel and to make an insurrection. It purports to be Turner’s own full and voluntary account of what has come to be known as “the Turner Rebellion,” the most violent slave revolt in American history, which took place August 21–22, 1831, in South­ampton County, Virginia.

The body of the pamphlet (entitled “Confession”) is written in the first per­son as if spoken by Turner, with occa­sional interjections from Gray. Circum­stances suggest, however, that much of the pamphlet existed in draft prior to Gray’s conversations with Turner, and so clearly falls into Michael Johnson’s category of “suspect” speech. Gray had already published one lengthy report on the rebellion in a Richmond newspaper, and the pamphlet deviates little in gen­eral from that account, though it adds considerable detail. Gray also embel­lishes the body of the pamphlet with a preface and a conclusion in his own voice that “frame” the part attributed to Turner.

The first five pages of the Confes­sion, however, dwell on Turner’s life from his birth until the rebellion, mat­ters of which Gray could have had little detailed knowledge. And whereas the Confession’s account of the rebellion itself is written confidently in full gram­matical sentences, and skillfully punc­tuated, these first five pages are much rougher—sentences interrupt and spill into each other; grammar, syntax, and punctuation are all sloppier than what follows. The first five pages of the Con­fession appear much more hastily pre­pared than the remainder, as if they owed much more of their content to Gray’s jail cell conversations with Turn­er. They tell of the ascent of a deeply religious personality to a state of grace (“made perfect”) and the consequences attending that outcome.

The Confessions of Nat Turner, in short, is a document inhabited by two personalities, Gray and Turner, each “speaking,” each offering a com­pletely distinct account of the Turner Rebellion. Gray’s account is rational and empirical and secular—in a word, modern. His account is an accounting, complete with careful lists of deceased whites and captured blacks. It takes 24 hours of confusion and methodically organizes it into an easily recognizable form of modern knowledge. Turner’s account is eschatological, or theologi­cally oriented towards the end of the world or humankind. In other words, the rebellion is an act undertaken for God. “The Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had born for the sins of men, and [I was to] take it on and fight against the Serpent.” Gray, of course, has the last word. His conclusion (written in his own voice) is that Turner was “a gloomy fanatic,” by which he means irrational or mad, pos­sessed by religious frenzy. Gray argues that the very disjunction between Turn­er’s thought process and his imputed worldly situation—a calm and peaceful environment, a kindly master, no prov­ocation given, no vengeance sought— proves him insane.

Notwithstanding this rare opportu­nity to hear the speech of a slave, listen­ers have tended to discount what the slave actually said. The most influential discounter was the late William Styron whose Pulitzer Prize-winning fictional­ized autobiography, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), is perhaps the prin­cipal channel through which the mod­ern American mainstream has made its acquaintance with the Turner Rebellion. In appraisals of his work long after the book first appeared, Styron stressed the repulsion he had felt for Turner’s “reli­gious mania.” Styron had not wanted to write about a “dangerous religious lunatic” but to explore, as he put it, “subtler motives, springing from social and behavioral roots” that would allow the man to be “better understood.” And so Styron invented a Turner that he thought he (and we) could understand, a Turner whose ideas were formed by his oppressive worldly situation. Ironi­cally, though he detested the slavery that Gray defended, Styron is just like the Virginia lawyer. Both are modern, rational, and secular. For both, ideas are explained by social circumstance. For both, ideation that social circumstance is unable to explain is insanity. For both, the real Nat Turner was insane.

One rather obvious conclusion one might draw from all this is that those denied civic recognition and opportuni­ties for free expression may eventually turn to violence with potentially dire consequences for constitutional democ­racy. But that would be to turn the Turn­er Rebellion into a cliché—a “lesson of history”—and in the process we would once more fail to listen to what Turner actually said. We might instead try to listen for history, and incidentally for ourselves. Nat Turner is a rare histori­cal actor—a speaking slave. If we wish to understand him and his actions it behooves us to extend to him the civil­ity denied him in his lifetime, that of respecting his speech and listening to it on his terms, rather than deeming it insanity because his terms are not ours. Perhaps if we can do that we will begin to listen to others we too often deem too alien, or insane, to be understood. Per­haps then, in turn, our insistence that our own speech be heard on our own terms will seem to those who hear it a little more reasonable than at present. Perhaps as a result our constitutional democracy will seem more worthy of respect.

Christopher Tomlins is a professor of law at the University of California- Irvine School of Law. His research specialties include American legal history and the intersection of law and society. He is the author of Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580–1865.



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