The Confessions of Nat Turner
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~
In 1831, about thirty years before the Civil War, in the state of Virginia, a slave uprising resulted in the deaths of 59 white people and significant destruction of property over the course of two days. A slave named Nat Turner (he heard voices and had visions) planned the methodical attack for years, believing he was following the will of God. He saw himself as an avenging angel. He didn’t act alone in the uprising; he recruited followers from among his fellow slaves who were more than willing to wreak havoc against the establishment.
American author William Styron (1925-2006) published his historical novel The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967. It is a fictional account (historical accuracy not verified) of the only slave uprising of its kind in the Southern United States. The mastermind of the uprising, Nat Turner, narrates the story in his first-person voice. Through the character of Nat Turner, William Styron gives an articulate voice to the enslaved.
The irony of Nat Turner, according to this novel, is that he was favored among slaves. He was intelligent, he could read, he was a skilled carpenter and he possessed mechanical abilities beyond his station in life. He possessed an uncanny knowledge of the Bible, better than most preachers, as one character in the book observes. He passed through several owners, some of them cruel and callous, but, for the most part, he was with people who cared for him, valued his abilities and wanted only the best for him. Already we see the irony of this situation. Why would such a man plan and carry out a bloody and violent attack of vengeance?
Nat Turner spent years planning the bloody insurrection, working out every small detail, even drawing maps. He thought of it as a military operation. He shared his plans with his group of loyal core followers, swearing them to secrecy. They were all willing to give up everything to make the undertaking a success. They hoped that, as they made their bloody way across the landscape, hundreds of other slaves would join them and their numbers would grow into an invincible army. Their plan was to kill every white person in their reach (eventually numbering in the hundreds or thousands), and when they were finished with their march of death and destruction, they would escape into the swamp and never be seen or heard from again.
The operation fell far short of Nat Turner’s expectations. The group of renegade slaves killed 59 white people, including at least one small child, and attracted about two dozen additional slaves to their ranks. The problem with most of these “recruits” was that they were undisciplined and wanted only to drink whiskey and run wild. Ironically, Nat Turner killed only one victim, a young white woman named Margaret Whitehead. She had shared her views of the Bible with him and had only ever been kind to him; he had no reason to want to kill her except for her whiteness. Most of the white people killed were not known for their cruelty or mistreatment of slaves.
The Confessions of Nat Turner is the psychological portrait of a subjugated man and the cruel times in which he lived. It is a fascinating glimpse into a chapter of our long-ago history. It is a thoughtful, intelligent book, beautifully written, filled with bitter irony. If you read no other “serious” book this year, you will have made a wise choice.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp
A Mother and Her Cigarettes
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
When Ruffin awoke early on Monday morning, he immediately began calculating how he might miss school that day. He could say he was sick, but if he wasn’t vomiting or didn’t have a fever, his suspicious mother wouldn’t believe him. He had to be visibly sick. Not always easy.
He realized, after a couple minutes of deep thought, that he was going to have to go to school no matter what. There was no way around it. He already had more than enough absences for the semester; any more would result in disciplinary action, which meant tedious lectures about the tragic consequences of not taking school seriously enough.
He splashed some water on his face, made a feeble effort at brushing his teeth and dressed in the same clothes he wore to school on Friday. Taking a quick look at himself in the mirror, he went downstairs to the kitchen, where his mother was sitting at the table smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee. She hadn’t yet put on her wig and makeup and looked like a derelict old man.
After pouring himself a cup of coffee and adding milk, he sat down at the table, squinting in his mother’s cigarette smoke.
“Boy, I feel lousy this morning!” he said. “I didn’t sleep a wink last night. I have a splitting head. I think I probably have the flu.”
“You’re not missing school again today,” she said.
“When you were young, I bet your mother didn’t make you go to school when you were sick.”
“I don’t believe you’re sick.”
“Can’t you tell just by looking at me? My color is terrible!”
“If you miss any more school, you know what’s going to happen, don’t you? They’re going to come after me for being a lousy parent.”
“You are a lousy parent!”
“The whole world doesn’t have to know it!”
“Just feel my forehead,” he said. “I’m burning up!”
She stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray and finished her coffee. “You’re not sick!” she said.
When she stood up to put water on her geranium in the window over the sink, he reached across the table and stole three cigarettes out of her pack and put them in his shirt pocket.
“I saw that,” she said, slowly turning around.
“Put ‘em back.”
“Put what back?”
“I’m not as stupid as you seem to think I am. I saw you steal cigarettes out of my pack.”
She started slapping him with both hands. He put his arms up in feeble defense.
“I’ve told you I don’t want you smoking!”
“I haven’t been smoking!” he said. “I would never smoke! It’s bad for your health!”
“You stole them!”
“All right, I’ll admit I took them. I didn’t really steal them. I didn’t think you’d mind.”
“So, are you telling me you’re stealing my cigarettes but not smoking them? If you’re not smoking them, what are you doing with them?”
“I took them for a sick friend.”
“You don’t know him!”
“I want to know his name!” she said, slapping him again.
“Harry Burgess! His name is Harry Burgess!”
“Tell Harry Burgess to steal his own cigarettes!”
“He can’t! He doesn’t have any hands!”
“How does he smoke, then, if he doesn’t have any hands?”
“I have to light the cigarette for him and hold it up to his lips.”
“You’re a liar!”
“No, really, mother. That is the Lord’s honest truth!”
“I want you to bring Harry Burgess to meet me. I’d like to meet a boy with no hands.”
“Well, he’s shy. He doesn’t like meeting people. People laugh at him and call him ‘meat hooks’.”
“He sounds like your type of friend.”
“I’m going to the school nurse today and tell her you beat me! I’ll have the bruises to prove it! She’ll call the police and they’ll come and take you away in handcuffs.”
“Put the cigarettes back in the pack and get your ass to school!”
On his way to school, he stopped at Finklehoff’s Sweet Shoppe and bought his own pack of cigarettes. Hungry from not eating breakfast, he also bought a donut, which he ate in a few quick bites.
Being within sight of the school building always made him feel despondent and a little suicidal. He loitered out in front for a while before going in. Soon he was joined by his friend Harry Burgess.
“Did you study for the American history test?” Harry asked him.
“Me either. All that stuff just goes right out of my head as soon as I read it. Why should I care about history stuff?”
“My old lady beat the crap out of me at the breakfast table this morning,” Ruffin said.
“You mean your mother?”
“Yeah, I mean my mother.”
“Why did she beat the crap out of you?”
“Because she’s evil.”
“Yeah, there’s a lot of that going around.”
“I have cigarettes, though.”
“Yeah? Where’d you get ‘em?”
“I stopped at Finklehoff’s on my way to school this morning.”
“Did you steal ‘em?”
“No, I didn’t steal them! What do you think I am? I bought them!”
Together they went into the school building. It was still a few minutes to first bell, so they made their way to the boys’ restroom on the first floor. All the way in back was the traditional smoking space between the last stall and the wall. It was fairly private and there was a window there that might be raised to let out any excess smoke.
Ruffin took the pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and opened it. He gave one to Harry and took one himself. They lit up and puffed greedily.
“Boy, that tastes good!” Harry said. “I’ve been having a nicotine fit all night long!”
“I know what you mean,” Ruffin said. “Smoking is one of life’s greatest pleasures!”
“Does your mother know you smoke?”
“I think she knows but she doesn’t want to admit it. She smokes like a fiend all the time, but she tells me if she ever sees me smoking she’s going to knock it down my throat.”
“That might cause you to get choked!”
“Yeah, if she caused me to choke to death, she’d go to jail, but she’d swear I had it coming. How about you? Does your mother know you smoke?”
“She doesn’t pay any attention. If she saw me smoking, she’d scream at me and lecture me, but five minutes later she’d forget about it.”
They heard the door open and close and then quiet footsteps.
“Who do you think that is?” Harry whispered.
Harry opened the window a little higher and began fanning the smoke with his hands.
“Don’t worry about it,” Ruffin said. “So, we’re smoking! What of it? Who cares?”
They heard the water running and relaxed. Whoever had come in didn’t care what they were doing. They kept smoking, generating an unusually large amount of smoke.
“What’s going on here?” a loud voice said behind them.
Startled, they both turned and looked into the face of Mr. Emmett Terry, school principal.
“Are you smoking?” Mr. Terry said. “Hiding in the bathroom and smoking?”
“No, we were just taking a little break before going to class.”
“You’re not smoking?”
“No, we’re not smoking,” Harry said, grinding his cigarette out under the heel of his shoe.
“There’s enough smoke in here for a forest fire!”
“Oh, that! We were wondering about that too!”
“My office! Right now!”
“Yes, sir!” Harry said.
The penalty for smoking on school grounds was a three-day suspension. Mr. Terry, in this case, was not inclined to be lenient.
“The three days of your suspension will go on your permanent record as unauthorized absences,” Mr. Terry said gravely. “This could severely limit your ability to get into a good college.”
“This is going to kill my mother!” Harry said.
“Now, I’m sending a letter home with each of you for you to give to your parent or guardian. At the end of your suspension, you will not be readmitted to school until your parent or guardian comes to the school for a sit-down meeting with me, the superintendent, and the guidance counselor.”
“When you boys sneak cigarettes in the boy’s restroom, it’s a serious breach of discipline. School administration seeks the help and intervention of the parent or guardian in a situation this serious.”
“You make it sound like we killed somebody!” Harry said.
When Ruffin got home in the middle of the day, his mother was dozing on the couch.
“What are you doing home from school so early?” she asked.
“I’ve been suspended from school.”
“I said I’ve been suspended from school for three days.”
His hand shook as he handed her the letter from Mr. Terry. She looked at the letter, front and back, but before she opened it she lit a cigarette and blew a cloud of blue smoke upward into his face. He was sure he was going to vomit. He was more afraid of her than he was of Mr. Terry.
Copyright 2022 by Allen Kopp