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The Boston professor on trail of the real Nat Turner

Professor Kenneth Greenberg (above) has devoted his career to studying US slavery and the rebellion led by Nat Turner, subject of the new film “The Birth of a Nation.”
Professor Kenneth Greenberg (above) has devoted his career to studying US slavery and the rebellion led by Nat Turner, subject of the new film “The Birth of a Nation.”Barry Chin/Globe Staff

One thing is clear about the hotly debated new feature film “The Birth of a Nation:” filmmaker Nate Parker has spent an impressive amount of time poring over the details of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion of 1831.

But Parker has nothing on at least one person who was in the audience at Sundance last January, when his film premiered to a rapturous reception. That was Suffolk University professor Kenneth S. Greenberg. Having devoted a nearly 40-year career in academia to the slavery era — and to Turner’s rebellion in particular — Greenberg knew he had to be there.

Greenberg, a distinguished professor of history who recently stepped down as Suffolk’s dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, is the editor of a new edition of “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” the document that described the revolt Turner led in Southampton County, Virginia. In August 1831, dozens of men under Turner’s charge carried out the biggest slave uprising in American history, killing more than 50 white men, women, and children before their capture and, in many cases, execution.

Greenberg’s assessment of Parker’s film, he said, sitting in his 10th-floor office at the university, is “tricky. I would say it’s a moving film, but I’ve been moved by many other films.”

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He was careful to note that Parker’s version of Turner’s story takes the usual liberties when it comes to historical storytelling at the movies.

“It would be bad to quibble over the facts he got wrong,” he said. “Every historical film gets hundreds of things wrong.”

To cite one simple example, Greenberg said, Turner’s name itself has been problematic for historians. Slaves of the time were typically known by their first names only; “Turner” was Nat’s master’s last name. Moreover, abolitionists largely referred to the rebellion leader as “Nathaniel.” They considered the diminutive Nat to be demeaning.

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But it would be absurd, Greenberg acknowledged, for Parker to try to explain all that in a feature film. And as with “Lincoln,” “Schindler’s List,” and other historical feature films, he believes, “The Birth of a Nation” will have done its job if it leads audiences to seek more knowledge about the real rebellion.

Fictional depictions have led Americans back to this difficult history before. It happened in 1856, when Harriet Beecher Stowe published “Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp,” a follow-up to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” inspired by Turner’s rebellion. And it happened again in 1967, when the novelist William Styron published his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner.”

But how people react to fictional adaptations of historical events is always about their own era’s concerns, as well. At the time, Styron’s decision to make a key plot point an imagined infatuation between Turner and a young white girl generated considerable controversy.

Alexandra Styron, the novelist’s daughter and the author of the memoir “Reading My Father,” was a child when the novel became a source of intense debate.

“I think he felt blindsided by the reaction,” said Styron, who lives part time on Martha’s Vineyard. “He thought maybe this would be a galvanizing, uniting event. Instead it was tremendously polarizing.”

Today, Greenberg worries that director, writer, and star Nate Parker’s own recent controversy might distract from an opportunity for the American public to explore the meaning and impact of Turner’s rebellion. Parker was acquitted in a 1999 rape charge while he was a student at Penn State. Years later, the young woman committed suicide. That story, resurfacing since the film broke out at Sundance, has threatened to obscure the lessons of Turner’s insurrection. “It’s sad to see,” Greenberg said.

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Greenberg was aware of Turner’s story before the Styron novel appeared. As an undergraduate at Cornell in the mid-1960s, he was assigned the original “Confessions” — Turner’s jailhouse account, transcribed by a local attorney named Thomas Gray — in a history class. The immediacy of Turner’s voice, even filtered through Gray’s interpretation, struck Greenberg as a unique glimpse into a troubling episode of the nation’s past.

Ever since, he’s been seeking answers to a central question: how much real resistance to slavery occurred in America? For almost a century after the Civil War, American popular culture depicted slaves as a submissive underclass. Yet although the scale of Turner’s rebellion paled in comparison with the massive, sustained revolts in Brazil and Haiti, for example, evidence has mounted in recent decades that African-American slaves protested the inhumanity of the institution in many ways.

A slave could attempt escape, commit arson, or simply slow the pace of work to protest his servitude, Greenberg said. “You could’ve put ground glass in your master’s oatmeal.”

Like John Brown’s ill-fated insurrection, which helped trigger the Civil War, Nat Turner’s rebellion has been cast as both a heroic blow against an unjust institution and an indefensible act of terrorism. The man at its center, meanwhile, is still something of an enigma. Greenberg, who sits on the board of Boston’s Museum of African-American History, may know as much about the life of Nathaniel Turner as anyone, but he makes no claim to truly know the man.

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“I look at him with tremendous respect,” he says. “As a historian, I came to realize I have an enormous responsibility to people who are long dead. They can’t talk for themselves.”

Even if a fictionalization like “The Birth of a Nation” is not quite as true to the facts, though, it offers a forum for discussion in a fraught moment over race, with police shootings of unarmed black men driving the Black Lives Matter movement, and a growing cultural discussion about the lack of recognition for black artists in Hollywood.

“Race relations have not been in good shape the whole time since I went to grad school,” Greenberg said, but “clearly we’re at a low point. A conversation about Nat Turner would be a healthy thing for this society.”


James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.