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Graduation Term


Document Type

Dissertation-ISU Access Only

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Department of English

Committee Chair

Christopher Charles De Santis


Recognizing a breadth of intellectual and creative works on Nat Turner but no extended conversation on how all of these resources intersect with one another, Chamere Ranyail Poole explores how the texts in what she calls the “Nat Turner historical collective” function collaboratively to shape the continually divided remembrance of the slave rebel.

Chapter One begins with a review of multiple histories about Turner and his insurrection composed within various academic fields. The debate over whether Turner is a murderer, a martyr, or both, has been maintained through the research and writing of scholars interested in making sense of the known and assumed facts of Turner’s life and death. Spanning from 1900 to the present, these scholars’ book-length publications prove that Turner’s story continues to have what Barbara Herrnstein Smith calls a “contingency of value” in both academic and creative arts economies.

In Chapter Two, Poole covers the controversy between a group of black writers and academics and the white, southern novelist William Styron concerning his 1967 remake of Nat Turner’s jailhouse confessional narrative, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831). Styron’s fictional treatment of the Confessions features the same first-person voice of Turner, but with extensive revision to the language, motives and events shared in Turner’s original narrative. Considering Styron’s argument of authorial freedom and the appropriate use of fiction in self-defense against criticism of his novel, Poole articulates the significance of the slave narrative/neo slave narrative tradition to the study of issues of the form, function, and ethics of life writing.

Chapter Three starts a discussion on how black artists have begun to reinterpret the details of Turner’s insurrection in order to give a more humanist consideration of Turner’s revolt. Imbuing the largely unknown details of Turner’s life with what is known about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and American plantation slavery, graphic novelist Kyle Baker illustrates Nat Turner (2016) as a text through which Turner is seen as a son, husband, father, and community member. In Baker’s graphic novel image and symbolism is united with excerpts of the 1831 Confessions; the result is a call for the use of visual literacy in our continued study and understanding of the American slave experience.

In Chapter Four, Poole explores how the memory of Nat Turner has been affected by the addition of motion picture to the representation of the slave rebel. The conversation begins with a look at D. W. Griffith’s silent film Birth of a Nation (1915) and the protest raised by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on the film’s derogatory and damaging characterization of black personhood and social advancement in America following Emancipation. The film gave rise to a body of work called “race films,” whose presentation of black life and potential attempted to combat persisting racism in the American culture and film industry. The directors and all-black casts of these race films serve as the foundation for African American-based filmwork today. In this chapter Poole also traces the struggle to bring Nat Turner’s story to film, starting with a failed attempt in 1967-1968 to adapt Styron’s controversial novel into a blockbuster movie, continuing with Charles Burnett’s documentary Nat Turner, A Troublesome Property (2003), and ending with Nate Parker’s film Birth of a Nation (2016). Together, all of these artistic efforts connect the visual presentation of Nat Turner to the history of black artists contending with negative sightings of black life and culture in film.

Poole concludes with a pedagogical fifth chapter that utilizes foundational and recent theories on teaching African American literature to develop a college-level literature course on Nat Turner. Focusing on instructional factors including defining themes and resonances, articulating goals, and considering course participants, Poole proposes ways to create a dynamic, multi-modal learning experience in which students can creatively and intellectually explore the remembrance of Nat Turner. With this chapter, Poole encourages more frequent inclusion of Nat Turner’s Confessions as an essential text in slave narrative and African American autobiography courses with the necessary consideration of how it both represents and disrupts formal characteristics of the American slave narrative tradition.


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