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The De-Queering of Nat Turner


Was this icon of black liberation gay? Not on Nate Parker's watch.

Slavery did a number on African Americans. Its worst legacy is a vile pathology of misguided ethics. Slaves were beaten -- we beat our kids. Just like massa's livestock or dogs, slaves were prized, based on fecundity, strength, stamina, virility, and pedigree. All the boastful locker room banter, the whole toxic tyranny of hyper-masculinity, stems from slavery times. Its warped standards are even biblically based. They follow from Solomon's many wives and concubines, from God decreeing "Go forth to be fruitful," and from St. Paul's invocation calling same-sex love an "abomination."

What does it matter that the world is overpopulated -- that blacks no longer sharecrop, making a dozen children a good thing? This matrix of hyper-heterosexuality -- sex, early and often with descendants in super-abundance -- assures one is straight and proclaims a worthy being. Seen in the light of history, black history, and biblical history, it's understandable why being straight has been so esteemed and why many in communities of color reason still: The greater our numbers, the greater the strength of our people.

These are but a few of the issues brought to the fore by Nate Parker's table-turning epic, The Birth of a Nation, which dramatizes the 1831 revolt of slave-turned-liberator Nat Turner.

Determining that black lives must be seen to matter leaves scores of African Americans clamoring for cultural offerings affirming justice. The new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., helps to satisfy this need. So does a new black TV superhero, Luke Cage, who in our era of police shootings reminiscent of updated lynchings is expediently bulletproof. But it's this film -- acclaimed with glitz and glory at Sundance as a narrative a generation and a people have waited a lifetime for -- that perhaps fits the bill best.

In the days of my childhood in the 1960s -- the time of Dennis the Menace and Donna Reed, before the Internet, when Gone with the Wind was still extolled as the finest film ever made -- I and other African Americans passionately sought out affirming portrayals of ourselves. This is what makes the story of a seemingly servile slave-preacher who led an uprising of 70 or so black slaves and freemen in Virginia long ago so powerful now. Like the American Revolution, Turner's messianic three-day melee was a bid for independence. It was hoped that in murdering their way -- farm by farm, plantation to plantation, slaying about 60 white men, women, and children -- they'd be joined by others disgruntled and ripe for retribution.

Mishaps mushroomed. Alcohol and adrenaline steadily diluted the marauder's focused discipline. Timely arrival of the state militia was the biggest blow. Turner and his followers were quickly subdued, captured, and executed. At least 100 additional blacks were killed in reprisal. Immortalized through martyrdom, Nat Turner and his band have been hailed as heroes among African Americans ever since.

Their mission is like that of the gay Caribbean born poet Claude Mackay's hero in, If We Must Die, that Sir Winston Churchill made England's fighting anthem during the Battle of Britain:

...Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

So embodying such hope, why suddenly, despite its long anticipation, is The Birth of a Nation stirring up controversy and an ass whipping of criticism, from every direction?

What's happening today eerily reflects what's occurred before. Turner's revolt was almost made into a movie a half-century ago. But so scandalous was the conflicted hero depicted in the book that it was to be based on -- a novel by a white Virginian, William C. Styron, called The Confessions of Nat Turner -- that the contentious movie project had to be abandoned. This only occurred after more than a million dollars was spent unsuccessfully attempting to identify suitable and willing black actors, and to adapt a screenplay acceptable to the black community.

At first winning considerable praise from blacks and whites alike, including a Pulitzer Prize, the book soon prompted an anti-Styron symposium that was turned into a 1968 best seller, William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. The retort of these writers and others among the black literati was so harsh as to leave one still questioning, 50 years later, why?

Nate Parker criticizes Styron's Nat Turner as "a defamation." He insists that "By the time Styron's ink dried, Turner was an impotent and cowardly self-hating Uncle Tom whose ambitions regarding rebellion had little to do with the rampant torture and degradation of his enslaved people." Parker, who has a white wife, decries the "desperate sexual desires for white women" felt by what he sees as Styron's cliched character.

De-Queering of Nat Turner

Long before The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker said something quite different, but in the same strident way. "I refuse to allow any piece of work to emasculate me for very specific reasons... That kind of shrinks the pool of available 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." By contrast, Parker expresses wariness over fare like Tyler Perry's Madea movies that, he says, put black men in drag or portray characters of "questionable sexuality." He avows, "To preserve the black will never see me take a gay role."

So do we finally have the real answer to why William Styron's Nat Turner is reviled by many African Americans? Simply put, it's because Styron's Turner is gay! Better still, he finds an earthly joy with a boy in a sun-dappled river:

His round eyes were soft and childlike, trusting, and suddenly I felt a pang of guilt and pain at my anger, and a rush of pity swept through me, mingled with a hungry tenderness that stirred me in a way I have never known... I reached up to wipe away the blood from his lips, pulling him near with the feel of his shoulders slippery beneath my hand, and then we somehow fell on each other, very close, soft andcomfortable in a sprawl like babies; beneath my exploring fingers his hot skin throbbed and pulsed like the throat of a pigeon, and I heard him sigh in a faraway voice, and then for a long moment as if set free into another land we did with our hands together what, before, I had done alone. Never had I known that human flesh could be so sweet.

Minutes afterward I heard Willis murmur: 'Man, I sho liked dat. Want to do it again?'

For a time I couldn't bring myself to look at him, averting my eyes, keeping my gaze up toward the sun through leaves atremble like a forest of green fluttering moths. Finally I said: 'The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul...'

How revelatory and exhilarating was this passage -- more rapturous than even Baldwin's love scene in Giovanni's Room. Every so often art affectingly holds up such a mirror that reveals our reality, black and gay -- the rare song, book, TV show, or theatrical production -- sometimes beyond moments of diversion, transcending entertainment. They improve our lives and lend us hope and power. This is what can happen when people are given a true glimpse, undistorted by stereotypes, of who we are.

It's easy to imagine Styron adopting an outre gay angle at his friend James Baldwin's urging over cocktails. The audacity and the resultant book-selling controversy would have appealed to both, but especially to Baldwin, knowing how affronted so many blacks in authority would be.

And reliably, the black establishment was almost universally irate at what they considered to be the unnerving of a hero. To help man him up, almost immediately after Styron's Nat Turner debuted, black scholars were on the lookout for some plausible Mrs. Turner. A few claim to have found her -- "Cherry Turner" -- and offspring besides. Would she and any children not have topped the list for retaliation after the revolt? Wouldn't that have been written about? Why, yes, but a blank record persists to mock us all. Like most slaves, Nat Turner left little evidence to document his larger-than-life progress. This is what helps make him the scenarist's dream character. He is a blank canvas onto which almost anyone's dreams might be projected.

After a record $17.5 million bid for The Birth of a Nation by Fox Searchlight, Nate Parker's alleged gang rape with two black wrestling teammates came to light, an incident dating from Parker's time at Penn State University 17 years ago. Parker got off after being charged, because it was determined that he had had consensual sex with the alleged victim the day before the purported rape. When Parker invited his friends to join him with the drunk and unconscious girl after a party, one demurred; he would latter give testimony supporting the accuser. Parker's other teammate, Jean McGianni Celestin, credited as a co-writer of The Birth of a Nation, served six months before being freed because their accuser refused to testify in a retrial. After attempting suicide a couple of times, the troubled young woman took her life in 2012.

Will all the accolades and impassioned debate surrounding The Birth of a Nation be reduced to a white conspiracy designed to oppress African Americans, to humiliate and neutralize black manhood? Parker defiantly refuses to adequately empathize with all the people unsettled and suspicious about unseemly appearances from his college days. He also outright negates even the possibility of Nat Turner, a black man, having loved a white girl, as he has.

Asserting he was falsely charged and acquitted, Parker does not deny that he was busy and insensitive. "Put it this way, when you're 19, a threesome is normal," he told Ebony. "It's fun. When you're 19, getting a girl to say yes, or being a dog, or being a player, cheating. Consent is all about -- for me, back then -- if you can get a girl to say yes, you win." A devout Christian today, he feels he's evolved, telling Variety, "I'm a filmmaker. I have a family. I have five beautiful daughters. I have a lovely wife. I get it. The reality is, I can't relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now."

But is he really being his best? He has fashioned a film boasting of historical correctness and authenticity. But his is a movie that -- from costuming, architecture, and agriculture to the little information available about Turner's rebellion -- willfully dispenses with period accuracy. Where did Cherry Turner spring from? Are the trio of white men who savagely take turns raping her any less caricatured than white actors in blackface portraying African Americans in D.W. Griffith's 1915 The Birth of a Nation? And what's with Parker's passive black women, women without agency? They barely speak; do they serve solely as a vehicle for heroic rescue by black men? Are women and gays always deemed by people like Nate Parker to be only less than?

Determined to project an image of strength, Nate Parker is afraid. Super-pseudo-masculinity is the flip side of the American myth of the black man's Olympian sexual agility. It causes many in communities of color to perversely invest unwarranted worth in upholding an image rooted in slavery. Neither avoiding injury, nor life itself, is valued as highly as never showing weakness or appearing unmanly.

Under threat of being rejected by disapproving families and friends, gay men of color share this fear of displaying the very weakness said to be definitive of who we are.

And so it's thanks to William Styron that, if straight and strong but narrow-minded Nate Parker found Nat Turner and saw himself, so have I. Gay or straight, male or female, black or white, many others desperate for justice will too.

Michael Henry Adams is a graduate of the University of Akron in his hometown, He trained in Columbia University's graduate historic preservation program as well as studying English country houses at the Attingham Summer School. His books include Harlem, Lost and Found; An Architectural and Social History, 1765-1915, Monacelli Press. Currently, he's at work on the forthcoming Homo Harlem, A Chronicle of Lesbian and Gay Life in the African American Cultural Capital, 1915-1995. Adams is a passionate supporter of historic preservation, LGBT history, and Harlem restaurants.

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