Daniel Panger, Ol’ Prophet Nat, 1967
Daniel Panger published his novel Ol’ Prophet Nat in 1967, the same year that William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner emerged on the literary scene as a Book of the Month selection. Panger was a white Unitarian minister; his book did not receive a fraction of the attention, the acclaim, or the fierce condemnation that Styron’s novel attracted.
In Ol’ Prophet Nat, a narrator from the twentieth century happened upon a Bible in a used bookstore that had belonged to Nat Turner. While in hiding after the rebellion, Turner had written the story of his life and his thoughts about that story in the margins of the Bible. The bulk of Panger’s novel consisted of the narrative Turner had recorded in the Bible, which included events leading up to the rebellion and Turner’s account of the revolt itself.
In many respects, the tale that Panger’s Turner told closely resembled the story that contemporary sources had depicted. One notable exception is that in Panger’s story, the slave rebels burned the houses of white slaveholders as they moved from farm to farm.
[Back cover of the book]
THAT FIRST LONG HOT SUMMER . . .
It wasn’t in 1964 when Watts burned, or in 1967 when the Newark ghetto went up in flames, but in the summer of 1831 when Nat Turner, following a sign from Heaven, led a slave army in a desperate, bloody and abortive rebellion, a rabble armed with hoes, axes, scythes and shovels—the very tools with which they had labored as slaves.
Nat Turner’s vision was the vision of a Muhammad, a John Brown, the vision of a Malcolm X over a century later. It was in the mind of this talented, fanatical and dedicated man that the protest movement really began…and reached its first awful flowering that Sabbath night in August on a Virginia plantation…when the killing began.
[p. 14 – Nat Turner is in hiding during the weeks after the revolt has been suppressed. He quietly leaves his hiding place in the middle of the night.]
. . . About a hundred steps from the building I had the strangest notion; I wanted to yell and scream, to jump up and down, to turn cartwheels, for wasn’t I fooling all those white men, hadn’t I thrown the fear of the Lord into their bodies so pale on the outside and so filled with the blackness of Satan within? I said, “Nat, you fool, yell out now and they’ll stretch your neck before the sunrise.” Yet at that moment after being cooped up for six days I felt that nothing could touch me, that all their dogs and guns and fast horses were not as sly as this one black man. I stuffed my hand into my mouth and jumped up and down not caring for the moment about breaking twigs or rustling leaves. . . .
I sprang forward forgetting everything but my crouching enemy and he ran, ran like the wind, ran like a white fool dog, ran like a turkey when the man with the axe is about. He didn’t even bark, no not once, just a little scared cry came from that big white man’s dog as he lit out. That dog was scared, he never saw a colored man stand up to him like that—just like all the white folks when we marched against them. They were scared and their white faces were whiter still when they saw Old Nat and his fellows come along.
. . . I hope and pray that my life may be spared, that somehow I can stay hid long enough so that they stop their search. Then under cover of dark make my way to the great swamp where all the white men with all their dogs will have a pretty time before they find me. Yet if I life, though the chances of that seem woeful thin, I will not leave my people and light out for freedom. I will stay and bide my time. I will lay my plans again but this time they will be surer. Then on a certain day we will rise up again, rejoicing in the glory of His Name, and I will lead my poor people and show them the way to freedom.
[p. 48 – Turner has begun to record the story of his early life. He had been a preacher but was stopped from preaching after the Denmark Vesey insurrection conspiracy in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822.]
. . . A few of the older slaves that missed the weekly preaching and longed to hear the Word of God again asked me if I would chance a meeting. Four, five, together, no more than six men, no singing, just the Word of God, the words of hope. I was fearful lest I move too quickly. Mister Moore had made me more anxious for my hide than I ever believed could happen. His broad, ugly face would come to me when I was sleeping so that I would awaken in a fright.
I took the pleading of the slaves as a sign that my work must start again.
I determined to use the greatest caution so that if discovered by Mister Moore he could not fault me. My Bible must remain hidden in my cabin; the thought of losing that precious Book made my stomach tighten. I would copy out the chapters to be preached. In addition there were some I already knew or could know if I read them through and worked to hold them in my mind.
I secured a flat white board. By the use of a small sharp rock I made the board as smooth as a piece of ice. With another reddish stone I formed the words small and neat. In this way I covered one side with chapters from the Book; the other side was left untouched.
Six gathered to hear me. A cruel wind was blowing. The six who were waiting beat their arms against their sides. We huddled together to fend off the wind, our heads nearly touching. I started to read. The slaves, as was their habit, repeated back some of the words as I read them—then blessed the name of the Lord. Had we not been so close together, if the wind had been less harsh, we might have seen the Master before he was upon us.
The first I knew of his presence was the iron grip of [p. 49] his large hand squeezing the flesh of my shoulder. I dropped the board on which I had done the writing, and it lay unnoticed on the ground. Mister Moore kept his fierce grip on me. The pain brought water to my eyes and I found it hard to breathe.
For some reason, I have never determined why although I have often thought about it, I resolved that come what might I would not cry or beg. The resolve gave me a brief moment of comfort. Old Master Moore ordered two of the men to hold me. If they let me go, he said, they would take my place.
“So you preaching and carrying on just like you a white man?” The master’s face was close up to mine—the soury smell of his breath made me wince. “I been keeping watch on you, my fine fellow. I suspicioned you would try your old ways spite of what Turner said. I suspicioned you would try and stir up my niggers first chance you got.” Those words of old Mister Moore are still fresh in my ears. The dull cold feeling in my guts that I felt that day is still alive in my mind. All the terrible stories I had heard of this man came racing back. I began to wonder if this might be my last day on earth. I couldn’t help thinking of that black man, found all shot through with his manly parts clean cut away. For a few moments I lost faith and stood there all alone.
Without warning, with no chance for me to tighten up my muscles, his powerful hand struck me in the middle. I gasped and sparks of fire burst before my eyes. Before I could struggle in a single breath he hit me again in the selfsame place. A cry tore out of my throat; my resolve to stand in silence had been quickly broken. My head snapped as a crushing blow closed one eye. My ears filled with pounding noises. My head jerked back again; the fist struck me full in my forehead. The pain was less than that of the previous blow, [p. 50] but a silver ring on my master’s hand tore the flesh down to the bone and my blood quickly stained my face and chest. Master pulled back his fist once more, twisting his face in a terrible scowl. I saw the hand rush towards me. I wrenched one arm loose from the man who held it and caught the blow meant for my face on the elbow. This fearsome blow sent streams of hot fire racing up my arm. The arm grew heavy and I could feel sharp pins pricking in my flesh. The terrible pain caused me to sob and gasp. My blood mixed with my tears and spittle. I could feel the warm stickiness of this substance on my neck and shoulders.
Master stood there breathing hard. Some of my blood had spattered on his clothes. The other slaves stood, shrunk inside themselves, waiting. I fully expected this to be my last day alive. One or two more such blows would have served to send me on that long journey into another life far better than the one we know.
The blow never came—perhaps the seven hundred dollars paid to Mister Turner stayed his arm. Perhaps the Lord in some mysterious way held him back. For a full minute he stood there, his ugly face made uglier still be his twisted scowl. “I’ll serve you the same or worse next time if I hear of your preaching.” My body sagged weak as I realized that there would be no more blows that day. “I’ll not have my saves gathering together except for work or singing songs. Do you gather again I’ll serve each one of you the same as I have Nat. Mind, I say what I mean; try my patience at your peril.” The other slaves shrunk deeper into themselves. Mister Moore wiped his red-stained hands on my shirt and without another word turned and walked away.
My first feeling was of relief. The two men who had been holding me dropped my arms as if they were made of heated iron, burning to the touch. Within a [p. 51] moment all six slaves had vanished without a word spoken.
The feeling of relief lasted until the master was out of sight; then came the choking burn of rage. I wanted to sink my teeth into that man’s throat. I hated him with a pressure so great my brain felt as if it would explode. I longed to tear his white belly open and rip his white guts clean out of his body with these two hands. I damned that man to Hell. I cursed him, spat on the earth and ground my heel into the spit. My loathing caused my tears to flow afresh. They mixed with the sticky blood and ran down my body until even my feet were splashed with drops of red. The terrible pain I had suffered dissolved for a moment. I had no room for anything but pounding anger. I hated that white man and all his kind. I hated Old Master turner for selling me away from the place where I had been born and lived so long. I wanted to bathe the world in the blood of their sick white bodies for what they had done to me. At that moment I didn’t care about all my poor people, their misery and woe. I only thought of my own shame, my pain, my hurt manhood.
“Why did You let this happen?” I turned my face to the sky, one eye shut tight from swelling, the other clouded with bloodied tears. “Why did this thing happen to me? It was Your Word I preached, no other!” The cry burst from my sobbing chest. But all at once I knew. It was a test. My suffering was a measure of my faith. It was the trial by fire. How could He ever know if my belief was real, if I wouldn’t fall back when faced by fear or danger?
My rage still stood high in my throat but it was mixed with a new gladness, a wonderment. I had passed the test. I had suffered grievous hurt for His sake. Like the Christian martyrs I had endured blows and tortures for my beliefs.
[p. 52] At that moment my weakness passed away, my breath came deeply, the pain was like old bee stings, sharp but not oppressive.
A little while before I had felt that one more blow would cause my death. Now, I was strong again, filled with His blessed presence. It was a sign, another sign pointing the path my feet must travel.
[stopped, end p. 52]
From Daniel Panger, Ol’ Prophet Nat (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, 1967).