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Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion," by Stephen B. Oates. Specifically, it will analyze the historical value of the book, and analyze the author's assessment that "His [Nat Turner's] rebellion illustrates a profound truth" (Oates ix). This book is part novel, part biography, and part heartfelt narrative of a time and place that no longer exists. It is a compelling tale of what it was to be a slave in the South in the 1800s, and how it drove some blacks to violence and hatred. Oates has done a masterful job of introducing Turner as a man, a father, a lover, and a slave, who tried to gain his freedom the only way he knew how.
THE FIRES OF JUBILEE - REVIEW
From the opening paragraph, historian and biographer Stephen B. Oates sets the stage for the slave rebellion that would shake Southampton County in Virginia on August 22, 1831. The author shows in graphic detail the abject poverty of the slaves, the cruelty of their owners, and the utter hopelessness of the slaves' situation, from the "pungent" outhouses, to the ramshackle houses of the poor. He is carefully setting the stage to introduce the main character of the book, Nat Turner, famous for fathering a slave rebellion, and for the "justice" meted out after he was caught. The early portion of the book lays the foundation for the rebellion, by explaining how oppressed the blacks were, and how they felt they had no other option than to take the law into their own hands, and revolt. Oates succeeds in laying this foundation well - making us understand the desperation and disgust that led to these rash measures.
He also shows the other side of the story - the whites that did not own slaves, and the poor slave owners who toiled in the fields right alongside their slaves (Oates 2-3). Clearly, it was not every white person in Virginia that the slaves had a grudge against; it was the large plantations with their huge numbers of slaves, who treated them more poorly than their animals.
Nat Turner grew up on the Turner plantation in Rosa Swamp, an area of Southampton County. His young years were spent as most slave children spent them, playing with other children his own age, both white and black. Nat's youth was not unusual, except that he distanced himself from the other children by learning how to read and write. No one seems to know who first taught him, but he was unusual in his abilities (Oates 13). By the time he was twelve, he had to go to work in the fields. His happy childhood was over, and he seemed to resent it the rest of his life. He became a "brooding" and religious boy, who did not join in holiday celebrations, but mostly concerned himself with trying to learn as much as he could, and praying, for he was a devout Christian.
Ever since Nat was young, his family felt he was a leader, someone important in the black community, because of his natural psychic abilities, and his special qualities. This seemed to be the case as he grew older. He began to have mystic religious experiences, and hear spiritual voices. Eventually he married a slave girl named Cherry, but they were sold to two different families, and had to live apart. She bore him three children, but he was an "absentee" father, and could never live with his family. Surely, this contributed to the unease and unhappiness that lead him to plan his revolt.
Knowledge increases sorrow" (Oates 32). Nat's knowledge may have been another element of his undoing. He was more educated than most slaves, and even free blacks. He understood perfectly the hopelessness of his situation.
When he was young, his master made much of his brains, and Nat had always hoped someday he might be freed because of his intelligence, but it never happened. This was a crushing disappointment to him, and was surely another contributing factor to his rebellious thoughts. He began to find references in the Bible, particularly Exodus, which pointed to freedom for all men, and his mystic thoughts led him to share these revelations with other slaves. He felt the calling to preach, and became a Baptist minister, and preached about his revelations in the black churches on Sundays - and the people sat up and listened to what this eloquent man had to say.
While his masters did not find him dangerous, some other whites in the area did, labeling him "a Negro of bad character" (Oates 38). They began to view him as a troublemaker, stirring up their own slaves. He frightened them, and some of them would not allow him to preach to their slaves on Sundays. The Southern whites lived in fear of a slave uprising, even "Gabriel's Rebellion," an earlier insurrection in Virginia, where no whites were even attacked, was viewed with fear, and the perpetrators were hanged. Nat was a dangerous man to many whites, and simply a harmless dreamer to others. As he preached, he traveled around southern Virginia, and got to know many of the people. He became a familiar face, and was allowed a certain amount of freedom to travel from church to church on Sundays. He also met many free blacks, and saw that their lot was not much better than the slaves lot; they were just "free." He formed a nucleus of about 20 men, and by 1826-1827, they began to plot "something large but as yet unspecified" (Oates 39).
Believing he was called by God to save his people, Nat and six trusted accomplices set out to "kill all the white people" early in the morning of August 22, 1831. Nat was convinced that more slaves would join the small band, and rise up against their masters and other whites of the county. They started with Nat's original seven, and marched from farm to farm, killing the whites with unspeakable violence, and gathering cohorts along the way, until they numbered 40 or more. They killed women and children along with the men, and frightened many slaves into joining with them. They planned to attack Jerusalem, the closest town, but some slaves who did not agree with the rebellion forewarned some of the farmers. They rode into Jerusalem, blocked the bridge into town, and formed groups to go fight the rebellion. By the time Nat and his troops were ready to head into town, the group was perhaps 60 strong, and the whites were on their way.
A small force of whites found and attacked Nat's forces. No one was killed, but many slaves ran away to rejoin their farms and families. Nat and his men got away, and reconnoitered, but lost more men in the process. By Tuesday morning, his force was down to about 20, which after another white attack, dwindled down to Nat and two others. By the time of Nat's capture, about 60 whites had died, and in brutal retaliation, whites had killed at least 120 Negroes, maybe more. The insurrection was a grisly failure, and Nat paid with his life.
As Nat's story unfolds, the reader is caught up in the action. By the time the rebellion is about to take place, it is difficult not to turn the pages too fast, to find out what happens next, even though the inevitable outcome is already known. Oates fills the pages with minute details, such as the weather, the scents of the morning, and the appearance of the rutted, dusty dirt streets. The setting seems real, and draws the reader into the action about to take place.
The story is at one macabre and fascinating. Nat Turner's rebellion is one of the most significant moments in Black and white history, and shows the fear, anger, and absolute rage that encircle the races in the South. The whites have never stopped hating the Blacks; they still blame them for causing the Civil War. The Blacks still do not enjoy the same lifestyle as the whites, even though things are slowly changing. The South is still filled with hatred and despair, and this books helps to show why. Humans were held in bondage against their will, and that can never be right or just. The Blacks can never forget either.
Oates spent several days researching the area where the rebellion took place in Southampton County. What he found was nearly as disturbing as Nat's biography. The South was still sharply divided in 1973, and probably always will be. "We quickly learned that whites and blacks were separated by a strict racial caste system at the same time that they were bound inextricably together" (Oates 148). "The Fires of Jubilee" shows this system as it existed in the early 1800s, (Nat and his master were both ostracized when Bartley allowed Nat to baptize him), and clearly shows that while blacks gained their "freedom," they still do not have their equality,…[continue]
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Woman / Plantation Mistress / Fires of Jubilee The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. By Stephen B. Oates. (New York: HarperPerennial, 1990). 208 pages. Stephen B. Oates was a professor African-American and U.S. history at the University of Massachusetts for most of his academic career. His most notable works chronicle the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras of American history. He is particularly well-known for his biographies of the period