Hopefully I can keep this short, but I want to offer this as a reflection piece as I read a Facebook post that said:
The spirit of the prophet Nat Turner has descended upon Dallas. We must pray for all. King said that “riots are the language of the unheard”! But when riots are unheard blood will always fill the streets. Wake up America, subversion has begun. But as a pastor, I pray for peace because love is the only light that can drive out such darkness.
For a quick reference, Wikipedia lists 22 separate instances in which it was documented that slaves organized to the point that a rebellion happened. Seven of those happened before the Declaration of Independence was signed; two happened on slave ships; two were prior to English colonization of the soon-to-be United States; four never got out of the planning stage, ultimately meaning that 12 fully documented times slaves (discounting John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry) were able to arm themselves (with guns or other weaponized agricultural) and commence a bloody revolution. Of these, Nathaniel (Nat) Turner’s insurrection in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831 gets the most public play. Most famously, the white author William Styron wrote a fictionalized novel about it and won a Pulitzer Prize for it–much to the dismay of the black community that was in the throes of King’s death and at the height of the Black Power movement.
Even today, in 2016, a white author can write about science fiction and slavery and be proclaimed as “creatively and professionally risky” without any mention of Octavia Butler as a prize-winning pioneer of this intersection, it’s the obvious ways in which history gets conveniently forgotten and dismissed.
For starters, Nat Turner’s insurrection is one of the few that make it into the history books across the country. Meanwhile, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry is seen as pivotal to the ignition of the Civil War. Forgotten is the fact that Nat Turner’s rebellion along with the others all spurred the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and acted as a catalyst for white fear. Acknowledging that enslaved Africans were smart enough, tactical enough and ultimately bold enough to organize insurrections in the face of their enslaved status completely debunks white supremacist ideology about Africans being an inferior race.
Daniel Rasmussen, in his book American Uprising: the Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, shows the ways in which local reports after the German Coast Uprising in 1811 in southeastern Louisiana, a mere 20 miles from the center of New Orleans, were retold and simply not told. Essentially, the white slaveowning planters acted as if it didn’t happen. There were reports that refused to report on the size and magnitude of which the uprising took place. Historical research shows, estimates of 200-500 armed slaves from the various Mississippi River plantations on what was known as the German Coast, marched east with the intent of taking the city of New Orleans and establishing a black Republic. This rebellion took places after hearing about the only successful slave rebellion in world history a few years earlier on the island of Saint Domingue–now known as Haiti.
Reflecting on the knowledge that enslaved Africans across this country consistently had an insurrection spirit, and that the story of Nat Turner was not an isolated incident got me to wondering. What if these slave rebellions were taught in public schools the same way we had to learn about the Boston Tea Party or Custer’s Last Stand? How much does that shift the historical narrative? Every battle that revolutionary colonists fought against the Crown was seen as a spirited and worthy fight and ultimately is lauded. The use of strategy, military know-how and the use of armed aggression against a tyrannical state, against oppressive practices, against occupation is one that is lauded. But the stories of slaves who used violence for their freedom becomes barely a footnote in our historical re-telling of American history. Every story about “how the West was won” is told for how the white men were “men of valor” who bled and died for the “great American way.” The use of guns in the American west is fundamental to that story. Yet, by the time we get to the modern civil rights movement, and the years afterwards, it’s clear that non-violence is a narrative lifted up over that of violence. Somehow it was okay for American occupiers to use guns to “win” the West, yet when black men take up armed resistance in defense against the KKK night riders and against death threats, it’s considered aggressive and belligerent Negro behavior.
If you can tell where I’m going with this, good. Keep reading.
Every bit of world history from the earliest recordings until the present show us that revolutions are bloody. There is no such record of a non-violent revolution. The long arc of human history leads me to believe that bloodshed will be at the heart of every revolution to come–at least within my lifetime. The French and American revolutions of the late 18th century were bloody; the American Civil War was bloody; and the combined death totals of World War 1 and 2 are astronomically high when all coupled together–literally in the tens of millions were killed at the expense of a revolution.
What happened in Dallas, with the sniper Micah Xavier Johnson killing five police officers is only seen as a terrorist act through the eyes of a non-oppressed and dominant culture. His story becomes that of anarchy if it is divorced from the knowledge of slave insurrections in this country. His story becomes one of black nationalism and militancy without knowledge of why the Black Power movement began and the original role of groups like the Black Panther Party.
Images of white men with guns is standard in our country. Especially in seemingly benign ways such as the American TV and cinema. While images white men armed in movies are seen as powerful and the gun is used as tool of domination, the images of armed black men are seen as dangerous or only used in defense. Let’s be clear, James Bond has a whole and authorized “license to kill.” Name me one movie in which a black character had such wide-spread power? Having recently binge-watched AMC’s “Hell on Wheels,” the notion of arming the freedmen who worked on the Transcontinental Railroad was just as telling in a show that took place in the late 1860s as it is now: white people don’t want armed black men. Specifically because of revolt. It’s always been this way. An armed black populace is a black populace that not only can revolt, but also start a revolution.
Part of the problem with the way the dominant culture has created the narrative of protest in this country is to lift up Martin Luther King and quell the ways in which others protested. Rasmussen highlights the story of Robert F. Williams in Monroe, North Carolina who, through armed resistance, fired back against the local KKK and ultimately got the city to pass an ordinance banning KKK motorcades without an official city permit. It needs to be said that Williams and his family suffered what I consider to be the most severe of punishments, exile (he and his family ultimately fled to communist Cuba and China until 1969), but it shows that, to borrow the title of Charles Cobb’s book, this non-violent stuff’ll get you killed.
I wrestle with what words to say; what is publicly and politically correct to say in these moments. My immediate human reaction is grief for spouses that don’t come home that night, for children that are left without a parent, for parents who have to bury a child, for sisters and brothers that mourn the loss of their sibling. While at the same time, at what point do we as a society connect the actions of Johnson to the larger ways in which the laws and policies of this country allow for police officers to shoot and kill unarmed black men at a disproportionate rate and suffer zero consequences. Philando Castille and Alton Sterling leave behind families and friends to mourn their loss as well. Through this lens, these things are not separate incidences. As the news story broke Thursday night in Dallas, black folk nationwide were praying a silent prayer “Please don’t let the shooter be black,” because we knew what the fall out would be.
No, I’m not going out tomorrow and buying a gun. And I scarce believe that if black folk suddenly did so that instances of police brutality and excessive use of force cases would suddenly cease. What I am saying is that black folk as a whole could learn from the stories of slave insurrections in that the spirit of freedom and liberty for the black body and soul was something many died for. I am also saying that white folk need to have the reckoning in their minds that Pax Americana is not something that can or will last in perpetuity. Until this larger society decides to rectify the laws on the books with that of the way justice is meted out with impunity by police officers, we are playing a dangerous game of chicken with our own perceived stability.
The ultimate question we have before us is do we have the mental and spiritual will power to have a bloodless revolution? The inertia of human history says no. We know that “power concedes nothing without a demand,” but the national narrative is that black folks need to use the proper channels of reform rather than protest in the streets. The status quo says, don’t demand, just ask politely and the request will be taken into review. Frederick Douglass spoke the following words in 1857 that may highlight the historical significance of what is happening in our country today:
Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. …If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.
This sounds a lot more Malcolm X than Martin Luther King doesn’t it?
Black women and men, prior to this country even existing, had no problem protesting their oppressed lot. Be it the destruction of farming tools, the poisoning of animals, to the mixture of dirt or bodily waste in the food of their masters whom they were forced to serve. Africans enslaved in this country and their descendants have always found ways to resist. The story of slave insurrections let us know that sometimes, that resistance was armed.
I leave you with the words of Langston Hughes:
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble and kind:
Beware the day
They change their mind!