In August 1831, Nat Turner led a number of his fellow slaves in a rebellion against the slave-holding population and slave-holding enablers occupying Southampton County, Virginia. Before the insurrection ended as the sun rose over Belmont Plantation on the 23rd of August, Turner and his band of rebels would kill at least 55 and as many 65 people, thus ensuring his fame at least for setting a record for the highest number of kills during a slave rebellion in America.
While in prison, Nat Turner made a full confession of his side—not his crimes—to attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray. Rather than a mere expitation of criminal sins, in fact, Gray outlined what readers were to expect from this confession in its published form as The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia.
“…an authentic account of the whole insurrection, with lists of the whites who were murdered, and of the negroes brought before the Court of Southampton, and there sentenced…”
Along with appropriate research into Turner’s claims made during his confession, Gray published this account in November 1831, thus becoming an essential entry in the history of slave literature of America. More than century later, the text would form the basis of a controversial fictionalized historical novel by William Styron sharing the same title. Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1967, but also stimulated a backlash among the African-American literary community. This opposition to a white Virginia novelist co-opting the story of a slave rebellion culminated with the publication a year later of William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond.
Worth remembering, of course, is that the original Confessions were the result of a white attorney reputedly transcribing the spoken narrative of the black slave Turner. Obviously, of course, there is no possible way to confirm that what Gray recorded is, indeed, a completely factual transcription of Nat Turner’s own words. Despite the backlash against Styron’s fictionalized version of Gray’s transcription of Turner’ confession, the novel was not only praised by both James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison but Time Magazine included it on their list of best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.