The Consequences of a Revenge Reality

Painting of Nat Turner Preaching
Nat Turner preaching to fellow slaves

In my last post I mentioned that when I go to see a movie, especially one by Quentin Tarantino, I go to be entertained, not to receive a history lesson. However, upon further reflection on the meaning of “Django Unchained,” the historian in me remembered that there was an actual instance in which the “revenge fantasy” became the “revenge reality”: the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831. Turner was a devoutly religious slave in Virginia who had apparently received visions from God to “slay his enemies,” which he and his slave cohorts did with alacrity, killing between 55-65 whites.

Whether or not Turner viewed his mission from God as a success or failure is something we’ll never know. What we do know is that the consequences of Turner’s actions directly affected almost every slave in the United States at that time. Immediately following the revolt 48 of them were accused of treason and inciting an insurrection, 55 were executed by the State of Virginia, and roughly 200 of them were killed without due process or a fair trial by groups of white mobs acting as “the will of the people.” Furthermore, while researching my undergraduate capstone paper a few years ago I discovered that there were 35 instances of mob violence in reaction to believed slave insurrection plots after the Nat Turner incident in 1831 until the Civil War in 1861. 448 people were killed in these attacks, 447 of them were the intended victims themselves, 422 of them were black, and no criminal proceedings for whites who falsely accused blacks of insurrections ever followed these cases.

The legal and religious consequences of Turner’s actions also proved devastating to blacks. According the book Virginia: A Guidebook to the Old Dominion (the quickest source I could find), page 78: “laws were passed that forbade reading and writing among slaves and that banned all Negroes, slaves or free, from preaching or holding religious meetings unattended by a white minister.” My home state of Missouri passed a somewhat similar literacy law in 1847 which stated that “No Person shall keep or teach any school for the instruction of negroes or mulattos, in reading or writing, in this State.”

So, as you can probably imagine, slave revolts similar to the Nat Turner Rebellion were very rare in the United States. It would be safe to say that many slaves understood the ultimate consequence of such an action: death. Sure, you might kill your master and have a brief respite from slavery, but the slave patrols and state authorities were right there, ready to snatch you as soon as you showed your face. In “Django Unchained,” we see that Django may have won the day by blowing up the “Candy Land” plantation and getting his wife back, but for the slaves still on the plantation or the surrounding area, they faced the threat of false accusation, guilt before innocence, and death by hanging or shooting, compliments of the advocates of mob violence.

Perhaps an acknowledgement of the consequences of a “revenge reality” in 1858 prevented me from rejoicing in Django’s “victory” as much as I should have. I don’t know, it might just be me.