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In the psyches of Americans, black and white, there are powerful links between slave insurrections and modern urban revolts.Published during the apex of Black Power’s civil disturbances, Styron’s distorted portrayal of Nat Turner served not only as a fallacious psychohistorical study of plantation uprisings, but also as a searing reactionary commentary on the riots and rebellions of the sixties.In spite of Phillips’s exacting empirical research methods, his work, while not polemical, was laden with Southern white supremacist values.
Written five decades after the Civil War, Phillips’s was a pro-slavery panegyric.7 Though he was a masterful historian, Phillips, a white southerner who grew up in the post-Reconstruction era of jim crow, was undoubtedly an ideological product of his times.
He sought to dismantle the arguments of the ante-bellum abolitionist historians through a meticulous, monumental empirical investigation of plantation life, records, and statistics.
Sambo, the typical plantation slave, was docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing; his behavior full of infantile silliness and his talk inflated with childish exaggeration.
His relationship with his master was one of utter dependence and childlike attachment: indeed it was the very key to his being. It’s not merely the gatekeeping system which denies meaningful numbers of students of color entry into graduate school; it’s not merely the glass ceiling which prevents administrators or professors of color from advancing up the ranks or getting tenure. It’s also the white supremacy which permeates scholarship and lurks under the guise of scientific objectivity and value-neutrality.
The folkloric Sambo was not yet laid to rest, however.
It was to receive its most vigorous and robust incarnation in Stanley Elkins’s 1959 work, Elkins gave Sambo definitive nomenclature.
…And William Siren is going to commit suicide when he finds out that Nat Turner made love to his great great grandmother And he has taken our most violent and militant leaders and stuck lollipops up their ass to pacify their black power farts And he is beginning to assume that all of us were born under the sign Taurus the Bull Because all we do is Bullshit…
In these penultimate lines of his disturbingly political and hauntingly surrealistic poem, “This is Madness” (1970),1 Umar Bin Hassan-of the legendary black nationalist spoken word/recording artists ensemble, The Last Poets-deftly manages to strike three well-placed blows in swift succession.
White reactionaries and black nationalists battled over the hotly contested image of Nat Turner, each regarding him as a distant mirror reflecting their divergent perceptions of contemporary black militancy.
This battle prompted the publication of (1968),3 edited by the late eminent Harlem-based historian John Henrik Clarke.