Chinelo Okparanta on William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner and Writing Across Racial Identities
“I did wonder about the implications of writing, albeit fictionally and satirically, from a white liberal-minded man’s perspective.”
Nat Turner, a Black man who lived and died in the state of Virginia in the early 1800s, is often credited with leading “the only effective, and sustained slave rebellion in U.S. history.” For his efforts in freeing his people, Nat Turner was eventually hunted down by the state militia consisting of 3,000 men (3,000 men to hunt down just one man!), captured, tried by the American white legal system, hanged to death, and possibly also later beheaded.
Much is made of Nat Turner’s rebellion, but equally important is his personal life. Historians claim that Nat Turner married a woman by the name of Cherry Turner. It appears that the couple had children, but there is no consensus on how many. Several books mention Cherry as a keeper of Nat’s secrets, who despite being tortured, did her utmost not to divulge any information on the rebellion. It seems likely that Nat also wanted to protect her: he avoided mentioning Cherry in his confession to Thomas Ruffin Gray, who represented him during his trial.
William Styron was a white American novelist whose work was so highly regarded amongst the critics of his day that they “ranked him among the best of the generation that succeeded Hemingway and Faulkner” (“William Styron, Novelist, Dies at 81,” The New York Times, Nov. 2006). In his novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Styron took on the subject of Nat Turner, writing a story that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.
Initial readers of the novel, including John Cheever, Wallace Stegner, and R.W.B Lewis, expressed their admiration for the work. The book was almost immediately dubbed an American classic. Renowned African-American author and journalist, Alex Haley, agreed, remarking that the book captured “the essences of [Black] ethnic condition, and the true motivations of the social tragedies recently.” The New York Times went on to label William Styron an “expert in the Negro condition.”
It would appear from historical accounts that William Styron had no bad intentions in writing The Confessions of Nat Turner. In fact, much is made of his friendship with James Baldwin. According to a Vanity Fair article, Styron claims Baldwin encouraged him to take control of Nat Turner’s story. James Baldwin had been visiting Styron, and apparently Baldwin, before leaving for Chicago to interview Elijah Muhammad, “insisted, in fact dared, Styron to write Nat Turner’s story from inside the character’s own head.” Whether or not Baldwin actually dared Styron, the fact remains that Styron had Baldwin’s support on the novel. When other Black writers spoke out against Styron’s false portrayal of history, and of the Black race, and of Black psychology through his misrepresentation of Nat Turner, Baldwin famously responded: “No one can tell a writer what he can or cannot write.”
In William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, a group of African American contributors listed the many liberties that Styron had taken against the Black community in his Confessions of Nat Turner. Styron’s writing had, according to some claims, disrespected the legacy of Nat Turner. For one thing, why had Styron turned the character of Nat into a white-woman-obsessed predator who painfully lusts after the novel’s 18-year-old, white Margaret Whitehead? Had there not been enough hysteria against Black males and made-up stories about Black men raping white girls for him to add this racist trope to an ostensibly well-intentioned novel?
James Baldwin might have had Styron’s back, but he was also fully aware of the controversial nature of Styron’s project. “Bill’s going to catch it from Black and white,” Baldwin said, “…Styron is probing something very dangerous, deep and painful in the national psyche. I hope it starts a tremendous fight, so that people will learn what they really think about each other.”
Styron, on the other hand, did not appear to see the extent of the controversy that would surround the work. In true liberal fashion, he saw himself as a man without racial prejudices. Of the dismantling of his prejudices and James Baldwin’s role in it, he said: “I think that Jimmy broke down the last shred… of whatever final hang-up of Southern prejudice I might have had…” But in a world in which the power conferred to certain racial identities has led to so much racial hostility, which one of us is truly without racial prejudices?
“[Styron] has begun the common history—ours,” Baldwin said. And yes, The Confessions of Nat Turner was a story of both the enslaved and their slavers, but how would the descendants of the enslaved feel about a novel like his? Would their experience reading the novel be the same as the reading experience of the descendants of the slavers? Was the history really shared in the full sense of the word? Given the power differential between the slavers and enslaved, and between their descendants, could such a history really be deemed a common history?
I first read The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron in preparation for a course on the ethics of writing other cultures that I was teaching at Columbia University. Many books were involved—from Katherine Stockett’s The Help and Arthur Golding’s Memoirs of a Geisha to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. The one book that stood out to me was The Confessions of Nat Turner in the boldness of what it sought to do—the bravado with which Styron tackled the writing of a real-life man on a mission to attain his freedom and the freedom of his fellow Black citizens from slavery, and turned it into the story of a raging monster who, in all his fury, needlessly and violently massacred innocent whites.
In Styron’s depiction of Nat Turner, one almost forgets that Nat is simply fighting for freedom from unjust bondage. What is highlighted in Styron’s account becomes the loss of white lives. Why not the highlighting of the atrocity that was slavery in the first place? Why tilt the pathos to the side of the white slavers?
I also wondered why Styron chose to focus as much as he did on the predatory sex scenes between Nat and Margaret. In Styron’s next novel, Sophie’s Choice, I observed a pattern of sexual scenes in which the male main character objectifies and harasses a female character. By virtue of their repetition, I wondered if perhaps these disturbing sex scenes were in some way important in or relevant to Styron’s own life.
Regardless, I wondered at the reason why Styron would insist on projecting such violent rape fantasies and predatory sex scenes on an actual, historical Black man, who, by all historical records seemed to have had a happy marriage with a Black woman with no record of ever having raped or fantasized about raping either her, any other Black woman, or any white woman.Some might accuse me of being an ungrateful immigrant. How dare I complain about racism as an immigrant?
I noted that Styron also neglected to mention real-life Turner’s Black wife in his novel. Was this deletion a mere accident? Was it simply that Styron had not done his research substantially enough that he wound up accidentally mis-portraying Nat’s marital status? Or, was this deletion—this severe sway from the reality—necessary for the fiction in order to more convincingly portray his version of what a Black man was: Black men as perpetually aggressive and perpetually lusting after white women, a stereotype that has historically cost many Black men their lives?
Perhaps we will never know the answers to these questions, but upon attempting to write my novel, Harry Sylvester Bird, many of the questions that came to mind reading Styron’s works came to mind for me as a writer. I pushed them aside temporarily—for the sake of allowing myself the focus needed to work my way through my own novel. I wanted to feel the level of confidence and power that Styron must have felt when he penned the character of Nat. To feel what he must have felt—that he could do anything; that he was infallible. That his motives were good and pure, and therefore worthwhile.
Harry Sylvester Bird follows the titular character Harry from his teenage years in the fictional town of Edward, PA to his young adulthood in New York City. Throughout the novel, we witness Harry as he travels with his conservative (and racist) parents to Tanzania and back, and as he travels with his girlfriend Maryam to Ghana and back. Harry is a liberal-minded, sensitive soul, and he finds that his parents and upbringing are a hindrance to the person he wishes to be. From the early pages of the novel, we see a Harry who is anxiously attempting to distance himself from the conservative and racist culture of his upbringing.
Unlike Styron’s Nat Turner, I made sure not to base my protagonist on any real-life individual. Though it is true that there are many instances of living white people identifying as Black Africans (Rachel Dolezal, Martina Big, Jessica Krug, etc.), Harry was a figment of my imagination, and as such, I did not have to worry about mis-portraying his life in fiction and thereby tarnishing his legacy.
Further, even if mine had been a novel based on a historical white man, I was purposefully reacting against, rather than inadvertently making excuses for or justifying racism and the crime of slavery. I myself am a descendant of people whose family line was divided when members were taken as slaves—my family line spreading itself through Alabama, California, Maryland, Virginia, and more, even before my immediate family arrived in the US via immigration. Finally, to allow room for a little bit of levity given the gravity of the topic, and to really underscore the fictionality of my novel, among other reasons, I chose to write it as satire, rather than via the lens of literary realism.
Yet, I did wonder about the implications of writing, albeit fictionally and satirically, from a white liberal-minded man’s perspective. It didn’t escape me that there would surely be many readers who would be more comfortable had I “stayed in my lane,” that is, continued to write about Africans and African immigrants, and even better, about African women’s issues.William Styron was generally unapologetic about the discord that The Confessions of Nat Turner caused.
Some, I imagined, might even wonder why I was writing about America at all, having only lived in this country for a little over 30 years. The irony being that I have lived in America decades longer than I lived in Nigeria. Some might accuse me of being an ungrateful immigrant. How dare I complain about racism as an immigrant? “Then go back where you came from!” A sentiment I’ve heard before. As if that settles it.
Thus began my revisiting of the now well-known questions: who has the permission to tell certain stories? And how does one earn such permission?
Styron was generally unapologetic about the discord that The Confessions of Nat Turner caused. In his next novel, Sophie’s Choice, he shifted focus from a slave revolt to the Holocaust. Astonishingly, Styron chose to center a non-Jewish, Polish Catholic as the primary victim of the Holocaust in his novel. Meanwhile his main Jewish character ends up being an abusive “sexual fascist,” in the words of Gloria Steinem. It should be no surprise, then, that a large number of the Jewish population was affronted by the novel, much the same way that many in the Black community were affronted by Confessions of Nat Turner. The predominantly non-Jewish and non-Black academy, of course, went on to reward Styron with the American Book Award for Fiction, the National Book Award, and many other prizes.
Unlike Styron, I was not at all interested in fictionalizing historical atrocities to sympathize with groups who were not the principal victims of said atrocities. But when it came to writing from a different race’s POV, as in Confessions of Nat Turner, I still wondered if I could take the same risk as Styron—writing from a POV that I did not myself inhabit— even as a purposeful interrogation of and commentary on the history, power dynamics, and ramifications of such practice. I didn’t know. I still don’t know.
What I know is that a novel is a good space to explore the wide range of human behavior, even—and often—bad behavior. Books allow us room to have conversations about intentions, context, history, vulnerabilities, and a whole lot more. They grant us the space to equalize power. If the power of the world is indeed becoming more and more equally distributed, as many like to claim, then a Black woman should be allowed to explore the psyche and bad behavior of a well-intentioned white man, fictionally and satirically, of course, and to be praised (and critiqued) in the same ways a white man was when he did the same of a real-life Black slave. Even more contemporary novels by Western white authors continue to enter the POVs of POC and continue to be highly acclaimed, some, at the very least, becoming bestsellers: The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, Run by Anne Patchett, Little Bee by Chris Cleave, and American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, just to name a few.
Despite Styron, though, I continued to question myself, and the novel. Would I be crucified for writing Harry Sylvester Bird? Would the reading audience be willing to engage with the seriousness of the novel as well as with its playful satirical bent? Would Harry be seen as merely a stereotype of the white racist? And so, what if he were? Was that not part of the point? Had I not many times in my own lifetime encountered living breathing “stereotypes” just like Harry? Or, was the depiction of racial stereotypes a privilege reserved for only those specific glorified whites, who throughout history have made and continue to make film and literature out of stereotypes of Blackness?
To make my self-questioning worse, some early passes from editors made me wonder: Were they offended by my portrayal of this fictional white man in a similar way that the Black community was offended by Styron’s portrayal of Nat Turner? If so, should I care? Even if any publishing house were to buy the book, would the predominantly white publishing world give me the same recognition and awards as they had Styron, or would they punish me for doing something in some ways similar to what their own Styron had done and had been rewarded for? Would the gatekeepers try to keep me from showing some not-so-flattering undersides of white America? Would they feel implicated in Harry? Would they feel accused? Or, would their inclination be so anti-Harry that they wound up altogether denying the reality of the existence of people like Harry, without realizing that there was in fact some Harry in them? Even Harry took the time to look at himself in the mirror. Would these gatekeepers think so highly of themselves that they would not stoop to looking at their true selves in the mirror?
Still, the fact is that Harry represents a singular kind of whiteness. He certainly does not stand for all whiteness, though as I have said, I certainly know white Americans who have in some way carried out some of the affronts that Harry does, and which I, myself, have been the unsuspecting recipient of. I know, for instance, from my own trip to Tanzania, a well-meaning white man who asked my sister and me why we were there as Africans. He was genuinely surprised that Africans would be on a safari retreat, and not on the serving side of things. I know, also, of white Americans who have made comments about the unexpected edibility of various Nigerian foods. I have met white Americans who expressed their surprise that I didn’t live in huts or trees when I lived in Nigeria or personally know of any Africans who did.
What was clear to me as I wrote about Harry was that this novel is not a condemnation of all white people. It is simply a social critique of the kind of liberalism that is blind to its own faults. It is the satirical story of one fictional liberal-minded white man, who cannot for the life of him see how he is complicit in racism, even in his adamant liberalism. I might not have captured the voice and perspective of a general well-meaning liberal white man perfectly. Neither did Styron capture the voice, nuances, and contexts of the historic Nat Turner perfectly and yet he was highly acclaimed.
That said, for those of us who may see a bit of ourselves in Harry, (and I venture to say that many people, if truly honestly looking at themselves in the mirror, would see at least a bit of themselves in Harry), or in any of the other characters in the novel for that matter, the conversations that the novel raise are worth having.
For Harry Sylvester Bird is exactly that—a novel that welcomes conversations—on race, on art, on who has the right to tell what story, on who gets rewarded for telling what story, on how far we have come as a society with issues of race, and whether any of the questions even matter outside of the art itself. At its heart, I hope that this novel is a wealth of conversations; an avenue for us as a nation of people so hurt and divided to “learn what we really think about each other,” and forge a path forward.
Harry Sylvester Bird, by Chinelo Okparanta, is available now from Mariner.