When Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” broke out and set a purchase price record at the Sundance Film Festival in January, one of the things it promised was an uncompromising look at one of the most fraught incidents in American history: Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, which lasted three days and prompted widespread restrictions on slaves’ already-limited opportunities for education and assembly. Now, the renewed attention to a 1999 rape charge against Parker and his collaborator Jean Celestin seems to threaten a movie that told a story Hollywood has avoided until now.
But the story of American slaves’ resistance shouldn’t rely solely on a single movie, novel or even a single rebellion. When I visited South Carolina last December to cover Charleston’s efforts to build a museum at the site of the wharf where a huge number of enslaved people arrived in the United States, I was struck by the ways Charleston has worked to incorporate the story of another slave revolt into its official history and public spaces.
In 1822, nine years before Turner’s rising in Virginia, Denmark Vesey, a skilled carpenter who had purchased his own freedom, planned an uprising to coincide with Bastille Day. Betrayed by conspirators he was trying to recruit, Vesey was arrested, tried in a secret court and executed. The involvement of some white South Carolinians in Vesey’s plot heightened the atmosphere around the revolt, and Charleston broke up a black church while the state made it harder to free slaves and ordered free black sailors to be imprisoned while their ships were in port.
While Vesey’s plans for a rising might be the sort of incident that some historical sites prefer to sweep under a magnolia-scented rug, Charleston has been finding ways to incorporate Vesey into the city’s official history for decades.
Many of the city’s acknowledgements of Vesey have come at the urging of former Charleston mayor Joe Riley, who retired in January after 40 years in office. In 1976, Vesey’s house was designated as a National Historic Landmark, and a portrait of Vesey was hung in the Gaillard Center, Charleston’s most prominent arts venue.
In 2014, the city unveiled a monument to Vesey in Hampton Park, near the Citadel in downtown Charleston. Unlike John C. Calhoun, whose statue was vandalized so frequently that it had to be placed out of reach on a vaguely ludicrous-looking pillar, the Vesey statue is accessible and dignified. The statue was a particular point of pride for Riley when I interviewed him in December. “Isn’t it impressive? I mean, it’s really, really wonderful,” Riley said, speaking about the statue and portrait as part of his efforts to reclaim Vesey’s image from those who portrayed him as a “brutal would-be killer of white people,” and to affirm that Vesey’s main goal was to free slaves who were still being held in bondage.
These honors for Vesey are of a piece with a larger reassessment of history in the Charleston area. Alphonso Brown, who runs Gullah Tours, told me that when he initially started his business, he assumed he would have to minimize slavery to make his customers comfortable. Instead, he found that “tourists are some brilliant people. They ask these questions.” After his first customers told him that they chose his tour specifically because they wanted to learn about black history, he scrapped his initial program and rewrote his tour from scratch. And he’s seen plantations in the area drop euphemistic language about “dependencies” and talk more frankly about slave quarters and the people who lived in them.
Of course, not everyone’s going to make it to Charleston for an education in the slave trade, the plantation economy and the history of free African Americans in the Confederate states. But if a city that was once the site of a potential slave revolt can acknowledge that history, and even embrace the man who planned it as a founding father, Hollywood ought to have the courage to make sure “The Birth of a Nation” isn’t the last word on black resistance to slavery.