Written and illustrated by Kyle Baker, the 2008 graphic novel Nat Turner focuses on the slave Nat Turner, his life, and his famous 1831 slave rebellion that led to the beginning of the end of slavery in America. The book opens by telling the story of the Middle Passage and the journey of a slave to America. Baker then brings the reader the story of Turner’s early life, his apparent religious calling to action, and the rebellion itself. Baker tells Nat Turner’s story through brutally honest illustrations like it has never been told before: exposing the truth behind slavery and shaping how its afterlife is viewed. This visual masterpiece defines a new genre of the slavery narrative. Baker brings the past to life and forces readers to take in slavery and Turner’s rebellion from a new perspective that attempts to take a neutral stance on the events. Kyle Baker has received much praise for his bold graphic novel that does not try to hide the truth. This book brings a new light to the history of slavery, as well as emphatically confronting sensitive racial issues with complete honesty and transparency. Ultimately, the combination of these factors results in a historically accurate and breathtakingly engaging account of Nat Turner’s rebellion.
Historical and Cultural Context
Nat Turner is rooted in in the history of slavery in America. Kyle Baker’s graphic novel accurately depicts the slave trade, the life of slave families, and contains accurate facts on Nat Turner rebellion. These accuracies can be attributed to the novel being based off the 1967 work The Confessions of Nat Turner, a book inspired by Turner’s personal account of his rebellion to his lawyer. Looking at the circumstances for slaves at the time of Turner’s rebellion helps to understand why he chose to lead a rebellion and take the lives of nearly 60 white men, women and children. Slaves could not legally get married, could not leave the plantation without their owner and were forced for work long and hard hours. Nat Turner had a wife and a son who was taken away from him. Parents and children would be separated, as they were bought and sold by different slave holding families. The brutal separation of slave families was surely a driving factor to Turner’s actions. The fact that slaves were forced to work for white families leading happy lives with their children while the slaves were not allowed to parent their own kids must have been incredibly painful and difficult to handle. This was a factor in the slave rebellion, as seen in Nat Turner when Turner glares through the window and sees the white family tucking their children into bed.
Not only were slaves not allowed to have start families, but they also could not receive an education or learn how to read. Slaves were not supposed to learn how to read because this knowledge was thought to be threatening to slave owners and inspire rebellion. Although it was illegal, Nat Turner was taught to read by the son of his slave owner, Benjamin Turner (United). This made all the difference, as reading the Bible inspired him to take acting and carry out his rebellion. He was a very religious man who was often caught reading the bible and because of this Turner believed that he “was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.” Unlike many people think, Turner was not a preacher but just “a man of deep religious and spiritual nature” who spent much time reading the Bible and in prayer which led him to “the performance of some extraordinary work” (Cromwell). Overtime, Turner would become more obsessed with the idea that he was being called to action and even stated that he saw “white spirits and black spirits engaged in a battle.” His adamancy for the fact that he was being called by God helped him gather a group of “his most confidential friends” and together these men would plan and later carry out “the bloody work” (Cromwell).
Themes and Style
The conventions that Kyle Baker uses in Nat Turner make this book unlike any other slavery narrative that has been written. Nat Turner is a graphic novel that tells Turner’s story with nearly all pictures and few words. This method of storytelling results in an extremely powerful immersion of the reader into the time of slavery and Nat Turner’s life and rebellion. The words that Baker does use are very meticulously chosen as they are all excerpts from The Confessions of Nat Turner, a book factually based on legal statements made by Turner to his lawyer, Thomas Gray, after his arrest. The fact that Baker does not use any of his own words in Nat Turner but all words spoken by Nat Turner develops a theme of transparency that can clearly be seen throughout the novel. Previous slavery narratives would be altered to appeal to the white audience, but Baker makes no attempt to sway the reader in any one direction. The third part of the book tells the story of the massacre itself and does not hide any of the bloody details. Had Baker intended to win over readers by championing Turner and his character, he would not have exposed, in possibly “the most ambivalent image of the graphic novel,” that Turner’s men returned to a house after leaving to “axe the head off of a white young boy” (Chaney). Continuing with the theme of transparency, the book contains a list of all
55 people who Nat Turner killed, including 26 children. This recurring theme makes the novel unique amongst its slavery narrative counterparts. The style of this narrative is so different from other narratives because it doesn’t concern itself with the opinion of the reader, but it tells the story as it happened. As a result of this, the impression that Baker’s novel presents a historically accurate account of the life of Nat Turner adds an additional sense of excitement and intrigue to the work. Due to this important thematic element, Nat Turner proves to educate the reader on the history of slavery in a unique and engaging way.
Because Nat Turner is so transparent about the history of slavery and Turner’s slave rebellion, the reader can see the pain that many people suffered during this time in history. Baker’s pictures are powerful, brutal and contain sharp shading contrasts. These dark and powerful pictures continue throughout the novel and establish a theme of suffering (see fig. 1, 2 and 3). This theme is clearly reflected in the evolution of Baker’s illustrations throughout the novel. While the illustrations initially adopt a lighter shading style, the escalation of Turner’s suffering and fury result in the latter illustrations taking on a much darker style. This reinforces the theme of suffering and the great pain that Turner both inflicts and receives. The use of progressively darker shading also aids the reader by providing a clear crescendo of the action and violence seen in Nat Turner, which serves to increasingly engage more as the novel continues.
Nearly every review of Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner has said only positive things about the graphic novel. Critics love the brutal honestly of this book, and this reflects the fact that people are looking for a shift to complete transparency in their literature. Britt Bennett explains this idea in her article “Ripping the Veil” when she questions if “a new generation can rewrite the rules” of the slavery narrative. Slavery narratives have always been popular, but because of this, they have become too predictable. This predictability began when the authors started caring less about the truth and more about writing “anti-slavery propaganda” that targeted their white audience. Michael Chaney wrote an extensive analysis of Nat Turner in which he offers praise to the fact that “even though Baker’s professed allegiance to a heroic view of Turner’s Rebellion is made clear in the preface” he is not afraid to show the reader the darker sides of the rebellion by incorporating “a few scenes dramatizing the murder of innocent children” (Chaney). Baker’s honesty in Nat Turner is exactly what Britt Bennett is referring to when she calls authors to “rip the veil” and “force their own readers to look” (Bennett). In an interview with Baker, Steve Morris points out that Nat Turner addresses the “unpopular truths” surrounding slavery. Baker responded to this statement by saying that people will often choose “comfort over progress” and that he wanted to change that. Baker didn’t intend for Nat Turner to be a best seller or popular in any way, but he just wanted to tell a story that he thought was important (Morris). The fact that Baker is not afraid to tell the past as it happened garners critical acclaim for his efforts in writing Nat Turner. There are no negative reviews surrounding Baker’s work, but a potential issue does arise on the credibility of the source text that he uses though out. The Confessions of Nat Turner was written by William Styron and his work is laced throughout Baker’s graphic novel to enhance the story. Many critics have claimed that Styron was an “unreconstructed southern racist” which caused the black characters in The Confessions of Nat Turner to be “dehumanized” (Gross). These are very serious allegations, as Styron’s book is supposed to tell the whole story as told by Nat Turner himself. Although this could pose an issue for Baker’s book, no known sources have had an issue with the credibility of Nat Turner.
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