John Brown, Nat Turner, & Armed Embryos

Published:June 4, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe



In a post the other day, I mentioned that a blogger for the Atlantic had compared Scott Roeder, who allegedly murdered a doctor because he performed late-term abortions, to John Brown. Another Atlantic blogger, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has now brought Nat Turner into the discussion. Coates’s point, actually, is that if we’re going to engage in this kind of historical name-dropping, then Brown makes more sense, analogy-wise, than Turner. (I’m not sure who ever mentioned Turner in the first place, but whatever.)

Says Coates: Brown, like Roeder, was fighting on behalf of a group (Brown, slaves; Roeder, embryos) and was not a member of the group itself. Turner, who led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831, was different. He belonged to the oppressed group—an observation that provokes from Coates a sentence that is kind of ridiculous-sounding:

That said even in accepting Brown as a stand-in for to pro-life vigilantes, you must also say that pro-life vigilantes generally don’t have armed embryos raiding with them. [sic]

This, I think, is indisputable.

Still, David S. Reynolds has noted the interesting similarities between Brown and Turner:

Both knew much of the Bible by heart, and both saw themselves as chosen by God to liberate America’s slaves. Turner in Southampton County and Brown at Pottawatomie chose the strategy of killing defenseless people at night, using similarly crude weapons, although Turner was indiscriminate in his slaughter. Brown at Harpers Ferry adopted Turner’s plan of a retreat to the wilderness, a strategy that had been used with success by the maroons of Jamaica. When captured, both candidly confessed their motives—emancipation of the slaves—and both endured their incarceration and execution with unflinching firmness.

The illustrations above this post, meanwhile, come from Kyle Baker’s graphic novel, Nat Turner (published as a three-part serial in 2006 and then collected in 2008). One critic has described the book as “rich, angry, and impressionistic,” which is pretty much dead on, pun intended. The art is visceral and energetic, but it also indulges the story’s violence in a way that feels both gratuitous and—we’re talking about Nat Turner, after all—appropriate.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Baker’s instincts as a visual artist drew him to Nat Turner’s story. “I thought it would make a good comic book,” says Mr. Baker, noting the story has “lots of visuals, action, and fights.” Mr. Baker’s most recent series about the Iraq War, “Special Forces,” features similarly explosive content.

What one doesn’t get, of course, is any real historical treatment. (Mr. Baker is no Mr. Styron.) That’s fine, though. This is a kick in the gut, and that can serve its own purpose.

PREVIOUSLY: The voice of Nat Turner