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July 28, 2003

He Who Must Not Be Named

I've been surfing this morning, the Tavis Smiley website, not because I like Tavis, but because I've got my new Real One media player hooked up and now I can listen to the KPCC simulcast. Along the way, I have encountered Nat Turner.

One of the most interesting things I ever recall Denzel Washington saying had to do with the reason he declined a role in the film 'Amistad'. He didn't want to put the conflict of slavery into the context of a courtroom drama. He said, why not just have a story where the slave picks up a sword and cuts off the master's head? And then he said "That's what I'm talking about."

So I'm considering what it would take to get that script written. There has never been a movie about Nat Turner. If there had, we'd all know about it. It would be the kind of horror film nobody could match.

The only way to talk about slavery is horror. This is the lesson of Beloved. At bottom, it is so inhumanly cruel, so dastardly that it is a miracle to survive it. Slavery is the violence in America's heart. It's where we all come from. It is the center of gravity of our nation's history and soul.

I don't often think about him, but it is probably most true that my greatest hero is John Brown. The reason is Russell Banks' book. I have never quite been so moved. There is much to say about Brown and me personally but I will save that for another time. I wonder what I would be if I had learned as much and as well about Nat Turner. What kind of visions would I see?

Nobody learns about Nat Turner or Denmark Vessey or Gabriel Prosser. They are just names. They are just correct answers to black history questions. They are just three paragraphs on a website. They don't resonate in our imaginations; we don't even know how to think about them. We don't even know how to talk about them. We are as mute as the miners, digging holes in frustration.

Film is our shared popular culture, and so is Harry Potter of late. So it is from the context of Rowling that I think about rebel slaves as those who cannot be named. The horror attending that peculiar institution we'd rather not speak about, lurks beneath the surface. It's so much easier to talk about the Civil War as a war won by the good guys delivering its proxy salvation to a people who needn't have revolted. The Civil War Won civilizes the entire affair of slavery, it came from the top down, by fiat of the Educated and Sensitive.

But 1000 slaves designing to take over a state? That's terrorism. Riders on horseback killing families while they sleep in the night? That's unspeakable.

Yes, and that is where we come from.

Posted by mbowen at July 28, 2003 09:53 AM

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