They did not teach us about Nat Turner at the nearly all-white public schools I attended. Nor at the nearly all-black ones I went to.
While our lessons, especially and almost solely during Black History Month, were festooned with images and chronicles of nonviolent freedom fighters, there was little if anything about the slave rebellion led by Turner that unfolded in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831.
So this January, I cheered when the feature film The Birth of a Nation—co-written, directed, and produced by Nathaniel “Nate” Parker, another of Virginia’s native black sons—was bought by a major Hollywood studio. The period drama based on the life of Turner is set to make its debut in early October.
That news did not happen in a vacuum and it certainly did not happen without controversy.
Historically neither diverse nor inclusive, Hollywood did not just happen to finally recognize the value of black filmmakers. It took #OscarsSoWhite, the viral hashtag launched by @ReignOfApril on social media, to force the industry’s hand in supporting black filmmakers. The record $17.5 million deal for Birth of a Nation, coupled with the move to diversify the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, was the answer many of us were waiting for.
I knew little about Parker, outside of his standout theatrical performances in Beyond the Lights and The Great Debaters. But I believed Turner’s story was necessary and long overdue.
“Be careful who you let tell your story,” I mused when the deal was announced.
At the time, I was woefully oblivious to the tragic irony in my own personal mantra. I only knew that the story of Turner, who was hunted down, convicted, and hanged for leading the bloody insurrection—one that claimed the lives of 65 white people, to say nothing of the 200 black people massacred in its aftermath—would finally be available to the masses.
Unbeknownst to me, Parker had previously declared in an interview published by BET that he would never play the role of a gay black man because he wanted to preserve what it meant to be black and male.
“I refuse to allow any piece of work to emasculate me for very specific reasons,” he reportedly said at the Essence Music Festival in 2014. “That kind of shrinks the pool of available material, but the material that I am blessed to do is material that I can be proud of, that my kids can watch, that my grandmother can watch. And I think that those are the things that over time create legacies.”
And, like most people, I was unaware then that Parker had been previously tried and acquitted in the 1999 gang-rape of a Pennsylvania State University student.
Reading through the list of charges, transcripts of witness testimony, and tape-recorded telephone calls between Parker, his co-defendant (who now has a writing credit on The Birth of a Nation), and the accuser—I was immediately uneasy about the film and about personally supporting a work produced by Parker.
I am, it should be said, a sexual assault survivor and, irrespective of the jury’s verdict, I could not divorce myself from the notion that by seeing the film I would be potentially supporting a culture of rape and violence against women. Then too, my late brother Donnie succumbed to HIV/AIDS after a decade-long battle. My nephew Teddy, my brother’s eldest son, was a gay black man. In 2006, he was knifed to death outside a nightclub in Lake County, Illinois.
They were men—black men—whose deaths arguably stemmed directly from their sexual orientation. I suffered a million spiritual deaths after a series of sexual assaults and childhood molestations. I survived, in so many ways, but they didn’t.
The “Jane Doe” in Parker’s case ultimately committed suicide. By evidence of this writing, I did not kill myself. But I wanted to and I tried. The weight of the grief became too awful: losing my father, who was gunned down in St. Louis, and later my brothers and nephew. I wept aloud for myself, a woman who has struggled with debilitating depression and whose passions and pains run as deeply as the great Mississippi on the banks of which I was raised.
Now I have a decision to make—to see Parker’s movie or not. Unlike other thoughtful columnists like Roxane Gay, who wrote that she would not watch it, it hasn’t been an easy choice for me. Columnist Michael Arceneaux, for whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration, agrees with Gay.
To recognize that the American criminal justice system is broken evokes a folly of generosity—for rape victims and for black men. I have spent a lifetime fighting for both—for their equal protection under the law and for their recognition in the broader society. Those were not fights I ever wanted, but ones thrust upon me and from which I cannot turn away.
That Parker’s alleged victim was white played no part in my thinking. In fact, until I read a deeply reported piece published on The Daily Beast, I never knew her race. And for me, it didn’t matter.
But while Parker was acquitted, I wondered if I could watch The Birth of a Nation without recalling the moments when someone drugged and pinned me to a mattress. My circumstances were different from those alleged by Parker’s accuser in many ways, but all too familiar in so many others.
“She wanted it,” my rapist said years later. “They all did.”
For the record, there were no slave rebellions in my eighth grade history book and, if there was even a paragraph in the AP American History text I studied in my junior year, then I missed it. That negroes were transported from African shores on monstrous ships—many dying torturous deaths, stacked atop one another, without name in the Middle Passage—sold as human chattel, and then freed after the Civil War was certainly no secret. The awfulness of it all, however, was another matter.
The stories of rape, torture, murder, family destruction, and disease were absent from the schoolbooks. It was as if there had been no struggle, as if the negro—man, woman, and child—had suffered in silence until a right-minded president deemed slavery an immoral enterprise and waged a bloody battle to destroy it. It wasn’t as simple as all of that, of course, but we were led to believe that slavery was finally abolished by American Exceptionalism as the nation demonstrated a unique ability to heal itself without the complications of foreign intervention.
Not unlike rape victims, the colored soul was expected to be docile, never violent, and always noble.
That was not the truth, but it is the one we were taught—about American slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow—one that was filled with joyful songs to a benevolent God, an unseen power that moved over, through, and among us.
In grade school it was acceptable, I recall, to submit glowing reports about the heroism of the likes of Harriet Tubman—though no one dared speak of her gun-slinging ways—W.E.B. DuBois, George Washington Carver, or Rosa Parks. According to the history books, the American negro’s road to freedom, to fully join the citizenry and be afforded equal protection under the law, was paved by peaceful men of great letters or orators like Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King. Missing were the blood-soaked narratives like Turner’s, in which the oppressed took up arms to fight, not only metaphorically, for our liberty. Brother Malcolm and Huey Newton were missing, too.
For centuries, we were fed the Disney-fication of our struggle—one that paid almost exclusive homage to nonviolence and worked to diminish the uneasy truth of the complicated, at times brutal, corridors through which we trod. Let the history textbooks tell it, and every battle was waged within the well-polished confines of state and federal legislatures, in the hallowed halls of a courthouse or along the bridges, highways, and byways by Bible-toting, peace-loving civil rights activists.
We were taught that freedom was won by a deeply moral crowd, largely led and populated by men. They were peace-seeking people who worshipped an Almighty God and who eschewed the impulse to murder and maim in the name of righteousness. Turner’s story was, until now, deemed inconsequential and unworthy of celebration.
In his unreleased film, judging by the trailer, Parker directly challenges the strictures of that narrative. Although his is a fictionalized version of Turner’s life and our collective history, Parker does not turn away from the brutality of the era. He does not leave barbarism and malice on the cutting-room floor.
Notably, the famous silent film of the same name—released in 1915 and based on the book The Clansman—portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force. It inspired the resurrection of the terrorist organization that same year and was the first American motion picture screened at the White House under then-President Woodrow Wilson.
In the final months that the first black president will inhabit the Oval Office, Parker is not only reclaiming the name—The Birth of a Nation—but righting some of the wrongs we were taught to believe. That the controversy surrounding Parker would erupt now, in the height of his career, is not lost on me.
In November 2015, I wrote an Ebony magazine cover story charting the fall of Bill Cosby and the legacy of the hit television show that bears his name. I was able then to cast aside my own history to listen fully to the academicians and cultural critics who said it was impossible to separate the man from his art—no matter how egregious the actions, no matter how good the work. Invited to join NPR’s podcast Code Switch, which aired Wednesday, I grappled with the same dilemma.
Let me now answer a few questions.
Do I believe, from the public information I have reviewed, that Parker knew that his alleged victim was so inebriated that she could not consent to sex with one or multiple partners? Yes. Do I believe the revisiting of his long-ago trial now is a grand conspiracy to keep black voices and our stories out of Hollywood? No, but Parker’s newfound prominence has everything to do with it. Do I think we would care about Parker or Cosby’s alleged crimes if not for their fame? Absolutely not.
But ultimately, will I pay my hard-earned dollars to see strong performances by Aunjanue Ellis, Aja Naomi King, and Gabrielle Union—who is another sexual assault survivor? Yes.
That may well mean I am putting money in Parker’s pockets. Though, unless and until he publicly owns the pain he caused that night in 1999, it will almost certainly be the last time I do so.
In my heart of hearts, I need this film to be successful despite Parker. I do not have it in me to let the legacy of Nat Turner, a man our history books hid from us, die.