The Sex Thing

March 5, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

As you may know, when NT was published in 1967 there immediately followed a firestorm of criticism, controversy, indignation, scorn. It was a novel written by a white Southerner impersonating the voice of a black slave uprising leader, and it was 1967/68, for God’s sake. Between MLK’s assassination in April 1968, the Black Power movement, the rise of Black academia, and the times’ generally radical politics in intellectual circles, it was bound to stir things up. (Styron probably saw at least a measure of this coming: his carefully worded “Author’s Note” at the beginning points out that he took liberties, but based his account on the sources he could find, and tried to remain truthful to those meager sources whenever possible.)

One of the sticking points for a number of black intellectuals was— ahem— the sex stuff. Here are, so far (I’ve just started Part III, around page 275), the major juicy bits in question: Nat masturbates as a teenager, always to a fantasy of a white girl (see p. 172-73, and 180-183). A little later he befriends another slave, Willis, and the two end up pawing and masturbating each other after Nat has slapped Willis for swearing (203-04). And years later, as his hatred for white people increases, he has a detailed fantasy of raping a white woman who is crying in the street, unable to understand the black man from whom she asked directions (262-66).

There are some other things we could bring up, but I think this is probably enough to give you the idea. Obviously Styron has taken liberties here— scary, questionable, even objectionable liberties. I feel offended by this stuff, frankly, especially the rape fantasy— I can only imagine what a black person would feel reading that, seeming to corroborate and perpetuate hundreds of years of ridiculous miscegenation terrors and myths of black men endlessly craving white women.

That being said, a review of events like the one I gave above is always a bit of a lie without the scenes’ context, and (especially) without the nuances of experiencing the book as a whole. There are, in two of the cases, adjacent negative-exposure scenes of a white overseer raping Nat’s mother, and Nat’s second owner, Reverend Eppes, groping and propositioning him (unsuccessfully). But more than that, there’s the details of language and mise en scene that I can’t get into fully; they bring into focus Nat’s religious self-denial and the disgust for most blacks which he harbors from his (limited) education and his upbringing in the big house. They foreground Nat, I guess I’m trying to say–the individual, not the representative of a race. And I think we’re building to a crucial element at the climax of the book— Nat’s single personal murder, of Margaret Whitehead, a girl who had been kind to and even (after a fashion) befriended him. So the jury, for me, is still out.

But of course Nat always remains a representative of his race. Styron would seem to have no truck with ideological interpretations of literature— all the better— and the examples above should indicate that he was, if nothing else, fearless in his attempts to get at the truth of the matter, not at some kind of allegorical depiction of what we’d like to imagine the truth should’ve been. He was building a story based on the limited facts, but more than that, he was trying to build a story that would resonate not as history, but as meaningful literature for his time (and, I would think, all time). It’s troubling, though, and I wonder where it’s headed.

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