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Fires of Jubilee

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Review of Oates's FIRES OF JUBILEE, an account of Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831.... More...
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Paper Abstract:
Review of Stephen Oates's THE FIRES OF JUBILEE, an account of Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831. The slave experience. Theme of injustice. The religious context.

Paper Introduction:
In The Fires of Jubilee Nat Turner\'s Fierce Rebellion Stephen Oates givesan account of the brief but deadly slave revolt in and around Southampton Virginia in His controlling theme is that of religion and theprofound influence that it had on the development of Nat Turner\'scharismatic persona and his rationale for engaging in a project ofdeliberate murder of people who had at least in the context of slavery asa given of Turner\'s experience treated him quite decently Oates developsa portrait of the revolt\'s

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Gray on whether he had been divinelyinspired, Turner answered: "Was not Christ crucified?" (Oates 122). The secondchapter's title, "Go Sound the Jubilee," is from a poem titled "AfricanHymn," which calls on the Lord to break slavery's power and which exhortsslaves who "weep and groan" to "sound the Jubilee" (Oates 57). The first chapter, which sets the scene ofaction, is titled "This Infernal Spirit of Slavery." That phrase is takenfrom an account of an itinerant Methodist antislavery preacher namedFrancis Asbury who, as early as the 178 s, in the formative years of therepublic, wanted to "banish the infernal spirit of slavery from thy dearZion" (9), with Zion in context referring to the new nation. His controlling theme is that of religion and theprofound influence that it had on the development of Nat Turner'scharismatic persona and his rationale for engaging in a project ofdeliberate murder of people who had--at least in the context of slavery asa given of Turner's experience--treated him quite decently. But it would be a mistake to dismiss theimportant role of religion in shaping American political and socialhistory. It does notappear to have occurred to any whites that Turner's religious sensibility,whether genuine or not, could lend moral power and physical effectivenessto the murder spree. Thus too, the gradually buildingrage against injustice, which could feed the religious fervor of slaves whowere bound to be overmatched in weaponry and manpower when whites startedopposing them. Oates developsa portrait of the revolt's moral climate around the fateful and powerfulencounter between religious feeling, limited education, and a profound,real, and unlimited capacity to identify injustice as the fundamentalcondition of slave experience. His personality appears to have beendistinctive in various ways. The book is divided into chapters that aretitled with religious themes. Whites denied Turner and otherslaves the privilege of being baptized in a regular church, thus theceremonies of baptism in the countryside. Equally, theytended toward the apocalyptic; that appears to have been a function of thedesperation of Turner's situation as a slave. Challenged by Thomas R. Unlike many slaves, he was able to read. The title ofthe third chapter, "Day of Judgment," is religiously self-explanatory, inthat it describes the progress of the murder spree undertaken with NatTurner's leadership. Equally, however, given the religious/moraljustifications that the American antebellum slaveholding society hadconstructed for slavery as an institution, the reaction of authorities andsociety more generally to the rebel slaves after they were apprehendedvividly demonstrates the (fierce) extent to which slaveholders were willingto go to protect relatively narrow economic interest and privilege. It is therefore curious that the book does not expand on theuniversal significance of that fact, by observing as a conclusion whatseems fairly obvious from the evidence of the text: that religiously basedconflicts are particularly violent and ugly and that Nat Turner's rebellioncan be considered as part of a pattern of cruelty and destruction that hasdominated the interplay of culture, politics, and religion. Even in the early period of the American republic the lines ofcontentious slavery discourse had been drawn, with slavery-friendly grandjuries accusing foes of slavery such as the Quakers of "agitating" unrestin the slaves and the Quakers responding "that it was not theirpronouncements but the slave system itself that caused Negro unrest" (9).The basis for opposition to slavery came from certain religious quarters,and it was articulated in religious terms. Combinedwith his reputation among both blacks and whites for uncommon intelligenceand curiosity and being given to spiritual contemplation, that attributemarked him out as a charismatic leader. Meanwhile, in this context,there was the maturing figure of Nat Turner, referred to as the "smartnigger" of Southampton, Virginia. New York: Perennial, 199 . What becomes clear very early on in Oates's narrative is that therewas a religious context in which the 183 s discourse and socialrelationships regarding American slavery was being played out. The religious-war theme that Oates develops can be seen in the waythat he organizes the text. The religious foundation of Turner's revolt cannot be overstated, letalone overlooked, and Oates's abundant citation of documents to support theidea that religion drove partisans as well as opponents of slavery ispersuasive. The result ofthis dual track of religiosity, which was aggravated by occasionalincursions of antislavery preaching from northern white churchmen, camedown to a war of religion that was manifest as a slave revolt. Religionplayed a role in the lives of both slaves and their white masters, withwhite churches well established and anchored in slaveholding communitiesmore or less providing moral cover and sanction for slavery and the more orless informally configured slave churches, "now a forest clearing, now atumbledown shack" (Oates 25), articulating Christianity in a way thatcreated a longing for freedom among the slaves themselves. Even so, Nat Turner's slave rebellion came as a surprise. The symbolism of the day, however, wassubordinated to the apparently more sensible idea that they could beeffective in exterminating all slaveholders. That isimportant because slaves either had no last name or were given the surnameof their masters. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. Works CitedOates, Stephen. The chapter titled "Legacy" deals with the aftermathof the rebellion, which was marked by a profoundly reactionary response anda further hardening of attitudes toward slavery, both pro and con. That fueled the fires of abolition. In The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion, Stephen Oates givesan account of the brief but deadly slave revolt in and around Southampton,Virginia, in 1831. The fact of failure, by theway, did not prove to Turner that his spiritual mission had beenmisdirected. Spiritual experience andimagination appear to have fostered in Turner the comportment of a prophetand the conviction that he had been "ordained for some great purpose in thehands of the Almighty" (Oates 124). As Oates explains, Turner was "generallyregarded him with mixture of disdain, curiosity, indulgence, humor, andeven a little respect. That is because the dominant social norms frustratedhis religious as well as life convictions. Yes, it is truethat the racial hatred implicit in slavery, which survives to some extenttoday in race prejudice and discrimination, is very important to thehistory of American slavery. The naturalphenomenon was that of an eclipse, which Turner took to be a sign from Godthat rebellion was the answer to his longing for freedom. But the fact of slaveryperforce stunted any meaningful assertion on Turner's part. Just ask the Christians, Jews, and Muslims of today's world whocannot seem to do enough to set jubilee fires all over the place. Over a period of several years in Turner's speeches there was anaccretion of signs, symbols, and interpretations that in Turner's religiousturn of mind were linked to the unbreachable condition of slavery. Indeed, how Turner's preoccupation withChristianity could be reconciled with the murder spree seems inexplicable,until the importance of Turner's religious experience emerges. His sense ofgreatness of purpose, however, was lent resonance in February 1831 by thesolar eclipse and by his interpretation of natural shapes as signs fromheaven that the day of judgment was imminent and that it was time to "ariseand prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own weapons" (Oates122).s Turner planned to start the revolt on July 4, 1831, a date loaded withsignificance for white Americans. That encounter accounts for the "fierce"character of Turner's behavior. The confession that Turner made to his defense attorney Thomas Grayshows that he was preoccupied with the spiritual and especially apocalypticcontent of the Christian narrative. They let him have a last name" (Oates 52). Thisperiod was coincident with Turner's late twenties, a time in whichassertions of adulthood are likely to emerge. By 1831, public discourse of slavery and antagonistic North-South debate had heightened, with the appearance of Garrison's abolitionistnewspaper The Liberator. In his powerless situationand in a society that valorized Christianity and Christian texts ingeneral, his reading preferences tended toward religion. The whole matter wasaggravated by two events--one institutional and one natural and local inSouthampton. More generally, history is even more full of examples of religiouszeal that gets transformed into justification for war and other kinds ofmurder.

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