Those Docile Laughing Creatures

Published:July 3, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

I’m still stuck on that sentence from Mary Tucker Magill’s Virginia history textbook: “Generally speaking, the negroes proved a harmless and affectionate race, easily governed, and happy in their condition.” It reminded me of a passage from William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, a long, lyrical, devastating paragraph that comes near the end of the novel, as Nat is standing over the bed of his master, in the dead of night, about to murder him with an ax.

“In the many weeks since that night I have wondered more than once what passed through Travis’s sleep-drowned senses when with such violence and rude suddenness we flung ourselves into his presence and made clear those designs which even he, a forbearing and lenient master, must have considered a nightmare possibility but long since put away from his thoughts as one puts away all ideas of remote and improbable ruin. For surely in the watches of night, like all white men, he must from time to time have flopped over with a sick groan, thinking of those docile laughing creatures down at the rim of the woods, wondering in a flash of mad and terrible illumination what might happen ifif like gentle pets turned into rampaging beasts they should take it into their hearts to destroy him, and along with him all his own and dearest and best. If by some legerdemain those comical simpleheads known for their childish devotion—so affecting along with their cunning faults and failings—but never known for their manhood or their will or their nerve, should overnight become transformed into something else, into implacable assassins, let us say, wild dogs, avenging executioners—what then would happen to this poor frail flesh? Surely at one time or another Travis, like other white men, had been skewered upon such disquieting fancies, and shuddered in his bed. Just as surely his pathetic faith in history had at last erased these frights and apprehensions from his head, allowing him more often sweet composure and pleasant dreams—for was it not true that such a cataclysm had never happened? Was it not fact, known even to the humblest yeoman farmer and white-trash squatter and vagabond, that there was something stupidly inept about these people, something abject and sluggish and emasculate that would forever prevent them from so dangerous, so bold and intrepid a course, as it had kept them in meek submission for two centuries and more? Surely Travis put his trust in the fragile testimony of history, reckoning with other white men that since these people in the long-recorded annals of the land had never risen up, they never would rise up, and with this faith—rocklike, unswerving as a banker’s faith in dollars—he was able to sleep the sleep of the innocent, all anxieties laid to rest. Thus it may have been disbelief alone that governed his still-drowsing mind, and no recollection of past fears, when he shot upright in his bed next to Miss Sarah, cast his eyes at my broadax in a gaze of dull perplexity, and said: ‘What you all think you’re doin’ in here?'” [emphasis mine]

It was as if Styron, through Turner, were responding directly to Magill. Harmless and affectionate? I’ll show you harmless and affectionate!

But the irony here is striking. After all, Magill was writing more than seventy years after Turner’s insurrection, an insurrection that (if one puts faith in Styron’s imagination) Turner believed would overturn the idea that slaves were mere docile simpleheads, that they would never rise up. Instead, his violence only seemed to harden people’s views. Magill writes that the slaves were “easily governed, and happy in their condition,” and then, pausing only for a semicolon, points out that “history records but two attempted insurrections in Virginia during the existence of the institution.” But two! Nat Turner is proof, then, not that slaves can take history into their hands, but of the opposite. That, but for two instances, they would not. They could not.

Harmless, you see. And don’t forget affectionate.