I am a son of Virginia. My late father was a native of Portsmouth and admitted to study at the University of Virginia’s Law School. He then submitted a photograph to the school that indicated that he was a man of color. His admission was promptly rescinded.
He worked his way through Howard University, carrying luggage at Virginia Beach hotels and waiting tables on a steamboat that carried commuters from Norfolk to Washington, D.C., braving the notoriously rough confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River.
He worked that his younger son might some day have the opportunity to study history and theater and to combine those interests in an ever-evolving career inspired by his Southern heritage.
To tell the story of Nat Turner, another native son of the Old Dominion, is to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors, among them aboriginals, immigrants, slaves and masters.
My grandmother was an invalid poet, my grandfather a one-eyed red-headed colored cabbie and my great grandmother was a self-educated midwife, who brought more than 500 children — of all colors — into this world. And, of course, my uncle was an undertaker.
They lived and died where Nat Turner had done the same, in bondage and, then, in nominal freedom, the promise of Reconstruction betrayed by the rise of Jim Crow.
When Douglas Wilder ran to be the first Virginia governor of admitted African descent, my parents plastered their van with Wilder posters and drove cross-country from our California home to join the campaign trail. His victory in 1989 signaled to them the rise of the “new” South and the death of the status crow.
Our nation eight years ago was emboldened by the possibility of a “post-racial” America, as my elder daughter and I celebrated her 16th birthday freezing on the National Mall, our pilgrimage to the banks of the Potomac not unlike her grandparents’ southern sojourn.
And now on that same Mall there rises a great new museum, which holds Nat Turner’s Bible, 13 pages of the Book of Revelation mysteriously torn asunder. Perhaps one day it will be reunited with his terrible swift sword, presently encased in Southampton County, where it was famously bloodied in August 1831.
And perhaps his skull — said to be in Gary, Indiana — will someday will be reunited with his other mortal remains in Southampton, which have been diligently pursued by the the makers of a forthcoming documentary about Nat Turner. This remembering is a fascinating archeological and biographical expedition and has been distinguished by scholarship that has illuminated his peculiar moment in our nation’s history.
The growing body of literary, theatrical and cinematic work inspired by Turner’s saga has in turn inspired volumes of debate and will continue to do so, at least through the coming Oscar season.
But the search for Nat Turner is not simply the pursuit of one man. It is, rather, the ongoing search for the American soul, in which our relentless pursuit of freedom has been enslaved by our collective national amnesia, as we attempt to make “great again” that which was always flawed, and still in progress.
“He’s a God of love” my Isaiah reminds Nat Turner in Nate Parker’s upcoming film “The Birth of a Nation.” “And He is also a God of wrath,” Nat responds.
The uncivil war of 1831 is still being fought in America and the weapons are just as primitive. The rebirth of this nation will be a bloody enterprise.
Just ask my Great Grandmother the midwife. And my Uncle the undertaker.
Award-winning actor, writer and director Roger Guenveur Smith co-stars in Nate Parker’s critically acclaimed film “The Birth of a Nation,” which drew praise at the Sundance Film Festival in January and recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Smith continues the national conversation of Nat Turner’s story as the host of an upcoming documentary about the historical figure, which is set to air the week of the October 7 release of “The Birth of a Nation.”