In his preface to the graphic novel Nat Turner, Kyle Baker talks about his reasons for wanting to tell Turner’s story through the medium of comics. He states hat “[c]omic books/graphic novels are a visual medium, so it’s important to choose a subject with opportunities for compelling graphics.” The story of Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 provides just that opportunity. More importantly, Baker wanted to fill in the historical gaps that appear about Turner, specifically imagining the historical incidents that led him to lead the rebellion. Baker, in this manner, seeks to do what multiple authors work to do, fill in the gaps. He begins his preface by noting the seemingly lack of information about Turner in history books, typically a paragraph, yet the continued reference to Turner as an inspiration and influence of activists such as Frederick Douglass, Maclom X, and Harriett Tubman.
Consuela Francis points to the importance of Baker’s project and the scope to which he extends Turner’s story. She talks about the initial role of slave narratives, and Turner’s in particular, being geared towards white audiences. In the case of narratives such as Douglass and Harriett Jacobs, the goal was to persuade readers to fight for abolition. In Thomas Gray’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, it was to instill fear and to warn whites of the dangers of slave rebellion. In each of these instances, the enslaved individual’s voices becomes mediated through a white lens, thus subsuming it in favor of white respectability. Baker does not do this. Instead, he uses images in conjunction with texts such as The Confessions and even Theodore Canot to subvert the mediation that occurred. This is an important aspect of Baker’s project, but it is not necessarily what I want to focus on today.
Instead, I want to look at the ways that Baker argues for the role of literacy in challenging and upending oppressive society. Even before David Walker’s Appeal appeared in 1829, laws against enslaved individuals learning to read or write were nothing new; however, the circulation of Walker’s pamphlet into the South led to stricter laws against literacy. We can see examples of this of course in Douglass’ Narrative (1845), and we can even see earlier examples in John Marrant’s Narrative (1785). Baker points out that Turner learned to read and write in defiance of the law. Today, though, we “live in a free country where access to books is unlimited.” While this may be the case, issues still remain about what gets taught in classrooms and how individuals find books.
Even though the issues mentioned above exist, Baker continues by proclaiming, “If a man in Nat Turner’s circumstances was able to change history, imagine what you can do with the freedom you have today.” This is a strong pronouncement, and a very important one. However, I still go back to my previous point that individuals need to know about texts in order to read them. This leads us to think about the structure of our K-12 education system, which I have written about countless times, as well as what we foreground in our college courses and public discourse. If teachers, specifically, do not privilege underrepresented voices or stories, then they will become, as Baker says when taking about Turner, relegated to a mere paragraph or less in a history book.
Baker’s Nat Turner privileges Turner’s story through its mere existence, and he foregrounds the importance of sharing knowledge and information through texts that can ultimately lead to change. The frontispiece highlights this argument as it shows a book and a pair of eyes juxtaposed against an all black image. On the book, we see two hands holding it open as the eyes read. We do not know the name of the book, but we can assume it has to do with Nat Turner. This image, showing an individual in the shadows, in secret, foregrounds the necessity yet the danger of reading these texts. The individual is in secret, away from the light, hiding the act of reading. In the historical context, this makes sense, and the image shows the power of the text. In a contemporary moment, the image is also important.
The secretive nature of the act draws attention to the legal consequences the enslaved individual faces if the master catches him reading. It also draws attention to the blank spaces that exist all around us and to the continued need to learn what does not appear in the materials we imbibe on a daily basis. Taken in a contemporary moment, the image highlights the power of these stories because some still seek to suppress them. However, by knowing these stories, we can work to inform and push back against systems that seek to keep some in subjugation.
Baker returns, again and again, to the role of literacy. He shows a mistress denying Turner entrance into a lesson on language, shutting the door in his face; he shows Turner fooling his master by having the Bible upside down when his master enters; he shows Turner reading the story of the Israelities and their Exodus out of Egypt as a corollary to the plight of enslaved individuals. In these moments, Baker shows Turner’s thirst for knowledge, a quality that many slave owners and others denied Blacks, and he shows Turner’s subversion of the system in his quest for literacy.
Nat Turner ends the way it begins. The final panels show an enslaved woman picking up a copy of The Confessions and hiding in a dark room to read. The last panel mirrors the first page. It shows a door frame, a darkened room, and a book juxtaposed against the darkness. We do not see the woman, but we know she is reading the text. Leading up to this image, Baker provides a circular panel of the printing press to drive home the point that the circulation of texts such as this one is important.
The cyclical nature of the framing in Baker’s text need to be read in a manner that highlights two specific items. For one, it portrays the historical realities of enslaved individuals learning to read and write and the effects that their pursuit of these tools had on their lives. On a contemporary level, the framing points to the secrets that still reside within our collective memory. We need to know Turner’s story. We need to know that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were not necessarily the mythic heroes we hold them up to be We need to know the stories of Crispus Attucks and Margaret Garner. We need to know the stories of the Seminole Wars. These stories challenge power, and there are some, still, who do not want that power challenged. Yet, we must convey these stories, and others, to inform our present.
These are not all of the things I want to say about this. In fact, I am in the beginning stages of thinking about this topic in relation to Baker’s Nat Turner. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.