Witness and Testimony: A Black Woman’s Battle to Tell the Truth About Nat Turner
A few days ago, I received an e-mail from a gentleman named Chase Taylor, who was inspired to write to me after reading my daily Black History Month posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter celebrating black writers and works, which I titled “28 Days of #BlackLit!” Noticing that the vast majority of the works I was celebrating were authored by black women, Chase wanted me to know the story of his mother, writer and author Sharon Ewell Foster, a black woman who has been fighting a battle against forces who wish to erase, discredit, and demean her contributions as they relate to her literary telling of the story of Nat Turner, the enslaved black man who led a legendary rebellion against the forces of white supremacy.
This is the firsthand account of what Ms. Foster has endured, which she sent to me via e-mail.
“For almost two hundred years, the story of Nat Turner has been told and controlled by men. Until recently, the most popular tellings have been by white men, slave owners, and the descendants of slave owners.
In about 2003 or 2004, I was at a dark period, wrestling with publishing companies, and considered giving up writing. I went to bed and when I woke, I could see in my mind’s eye very clearly an image of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner resting on my mother’s night stand. Though I was a precocious reader, I did not read the book. But in 2003 or 2004, I thought I should try to retell Nat Turner’s story (the story of the 1831 slave uprising memorialized by Attorney Thomas Gray in his pamphlet, “The Confessions of Nat Turner”). I felt I could humanize him by telling the story of his mother and others around him. One thing that stuck with me was a Biblical passage that said, “by faith . . . we could bring our dead men back to life.” I kept thinking how many of our men are dead and hopeless; if I could write something to inspire them, I would.
I read everything about Nat Turner I could find, even Styron’s novel and one written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Unexpectedly, I loved Stowe’s novel and hated Styron’s. Though I never expected to get a book deal, I kept researching. Also, playing over and over in my mind was the thought that I should find Nat Turner’s trial records and read them. How unrealistic was that? Also, unrealistically I got a contract with Howard Books (Simon and Schuster) to write the novel, which I estimated would take me six months.
Eventually, I made contact with someone over the Internet who connected me with the actual trial records (there are at least two handwritten versions of the record of Nat Turner’s trial. So, I made my way to Courtland, Virginia (which used to be called Jerusalem), accompanied by activist/attorney Richard Manson in 2007 to view the records.
Outside the Southampton County Courthouse, which held the records, was a Rebel Monument, and I thought how unlikely it was that anyone Black, other than Nat Turner, was at his trial, and how unlikely Black visitors would have been to the courthouse in the 1830s.
Standing in the courthouse, deciphering the handwritten records, I realized there was no mention of Thomas Gray as Nat Turner’s attorney. There was only one witness against Nat Turner, Thomas Waller, and the story Waller told differed a great deal from versions of his story that he told at other trials. I got weak in the knees. I tried to think of male historians I could share the story with; I was a woman and no one would believe me. There were dozens of trials related to Nat Turner’s November 5, 1831 trial. Who was I to question the stories these historians and teachers had told us? Who was I to question history?
But I was the one into whose hands the truth had fallen. It took me years to figure out what had happened — I interviewed descendants and analyzed trial records. I put what I learned in my two-part novel, The Resurrection of Nat Turner. I was so committed, I paid for my own publicist. We set out to tell the real story. Soon, I found out that my own publishing company was blocking sales. My publicist spoke with someone at Barnes & Noble (B&N) purchasing who was initially excited about the book. She then recanted and said B&N could only sell what the publishers wanted them to sell.
Johnathan Merkh, then vice president of Howard Publishing, told me, during a meeting just outside Nashville, in 2013, that he had directed his sales team not to try to sell the book because “books by Black authors don’t sell.” He smirked as he said it, even though my work had won awards and already placed on the Essence bestsellers list and on Christian bestsellers lists. They coded the book so that it could not be displayed in stores; people could order it, but stores could not display them. It was heartbreaking. I ended up in the hospital. Merkh killed my career because of the sales numbers — why? Because I didn’t have the skin color or gender that he favored?
The book garnered lots of publicity, but few sales. It even showed up in Hollywood newspapers in 2011–2012 before Nate Parker ever tried to tell the story. This weekend, I’m traveling to Los Angeles to speak with a producer about the possibility of making my Nat Turner script into a movie, one that tells more than lies about Nat Turner. I want the truth about Nat Turner to be told. I want my book to be given a fair shake. I want publishers to be shamed about taking actions to block books by Black authors and give us treatment that will promote our work.”
— Sharon Ewell Foster, February 22, 2018
Praise for Foster’s works:
“Foster uses her strong research skills and her skill at turning historical names into living, breathing humans to great advantage.” — Kirkus Review
“Every once in a while a book shakes the very foundation of what you believe, like Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X. The Resurrection of Nat Turner is in that category. A liberating book, both psychologically and historically.” — Dr. Ray Winbush, Professor, Morgan State University, consultant on PBS’s, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property
“We can learn a lot from Foster’s reconstruction of the Turner rebellion and the responses to it, especially as her re-interpretation of it challenges us to see the motives behind the system of slavery and the impulses towards freedom that clashed in Southampton from August through November 1831.” — The Faculty Lounge, Alfred L. Brophy, UNC, Judge John J. Parker Distinguished Professor of Law
2012 Winner of the Civil War Institute’s Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction
For more information, visit Foster’s websites: