What Would Nat Turner Do?

Portrait of enslaved African American Nat Turner (1800-1831), who led a rebellion in 19th-century Virginia. Illustration from a book published in 1922.
Interim Archives/Getty Images

When I was 9 years old, my closest friend was a swaggering, wayward, foul-mouthed Puerto Rican who counterbalanced those attributes by also being smart, precocious and charming. He was the coolest kid in my building, and it flattered my fragile ego that he chose me, a sports-obsessed bookworm, to be his sidekick. For a few months I rewarded him with an unflinching loyalty—I was his alibi when he skipped school or shirked an errand; I justified his fighting by always finding blame with and assigning ultimate provocation to whomever he fought; finally I argued on his behalf with security at a supermarket called Food Emporium when he was (correctly) accused of shoplifting.

We were held in a back room until our mothers retrieved us, and my mother’s silence during the walk home was as off-putting as it was surprising. No loud and expletive-laced reprimand, no minor beating, nothing. When we finally got home, she fixed me with as weary a gaze as I can recall from her and said, her voice deep and low with disappointment, “When you argue with authority, you argue principles, not sides.”


Principles, not sides.

My mother ruined sports for me this way. Or, at least, she ruined my ability to watch it with the unquestioning zealotry of the local fan who roots for a team because Mom and Dad and an uncle and neighbor rooted for the team. She also cured me of blind allegiance, and the warped process that allows unfounded opinion and flimsy belief systems to dictate experience and slant observation rather than have experience and observation inform conclusions.


This past week, my mother’s voice has echoed in my mind, as deep and low and disappointed as it was then. Nate Parker, director and star of The Birth of a Nation, a big-screen adaptation of Nat Turner’s story, was accused of committing rape 17 years ago. The courts exonerated him; the court documents, on the other hand, are damning. The nonapology Parker released only made him appear less sympathetic and more narcissistic.

The reactions have been extreme, the divide predictable. Women have been more apt than men to examine the court documents; men who have examined the documents are more apt to find the transcripts and testimony inconclusive rather than disturbing. Some have speculated that black women are less supportive of Parker because he has a white wife; others have pointed to a conspiracy to suppress the telling of Turner’s story, both on the part of conservatives and Hollywood.


Of course, Turner’s story is not new, and the books dedicated to his story are numerous. Hollywood, which invested more money in Parker’s film than in any independent project to date, has a vested interest in supporting Parker rather than tearing him down. I’m not sure of the “right wing” role in all of this, but maybe that information is sealed in the same safe as the files on Bill Cosby’s attempted purchase of NBC.

What we do know, quite factually, is that Parker and his then-roommate, now collaborator, were accused of raping a woman in college. He was acquitted; his friend was later found guilty of sexual assault, but the case was eventually overturned. She is no longer here to tell her story, but we have an ethical duty to honor the dead with more than curt dismissiveness. We have testimony from a doctor who treated the victim; we have confirmation of her state from a third man who witnessed her being seemingly unconscious, and who was invited into the bedroom by Parker to join in intercourse with her; we have a transcript of phone conversations that do not prove rape but certainly raise reasonable skepticism of claims of consent.


With the widespread dissemination of this information came a frantic scramble to figure out and then choose sides. If we’re against Parker, are we against the promotion of Turner’s story? Is there a greater good that trumps however squeamish Parker’s past makes us feel? By assailing a black man’s character in public, are we aligning ourselves with white oppression? Do black women who support Parker sacrifice their integrity as women in the name of the greater good? What is the greater good?

The scenario of Parker’s alleged rape rings familiar to me. When I was in college, a friend of mine collapsed, weeping, in my arms the day after being gang-raped by a group of football players. She’d consented to have sex with one man, and he “accidentally” left his dorm-room door open so that three of his teammates could walk in during the act and join.


My friend didn’t want to press charges, didn’t want anyone else to know: Her shame and her fear left her victimized twice over. By then I had evolved from a bookworm into a 6-foot-6-inch athletic young man who excelled at basketball and was familiar with the scenario my friend described, as well as the culture in sports that breeds that sort of misogyny, aggression and entitlement.

The rate of rape on college campuses is staggering, and though we reflexively bemoan the horror of rape, the overall discourse is shamefully inadequate. College athletes are accused of rape and sexual assault so often that hyperlinking even the recent examples is a Herculean task. Since college athletes exist in service to and under the protection of institutional power, the charges are often covered up or scuttled or fail to stick. But those of us who have any sense of how institutional power and big-time college sports work long ago came to terms with the horrific truth about the regularity of sexual assaults committed by athletes, reported and otherwise.


Of the women I’ve dated, half have had stories of rape and sexual assault. I do them and myself a grave disservice by rationalizing rape accusations as specious, racist, conspiratorial, too complicated to judge. I will not stand with men who rape, who intimidate women into “consensual” sex, who pounce on women too inebriated to decline their advances, who believe that consent to a previous sexual act is tantamount to a lifetime pass. Whether they be teammates, casual acquaintances, celebrities I enjoy on television or political heroes, these are not my people, my brothers. We do not have common ground, and they do not deserve my support.

Rape, like police brutality, comes with an endless stream of rationalizations of circumstances and motives that seek to put the burden of proof on the victimized. But trying to pinpoint why men rape is a pointless exercise, a red herring. Rape takes a variety of forms and has countless warped motives. Rape is homoerotic, degrading, voyeuristic; rape is homophobic and violent; rape is political, indicative of self-loathing, and the by-product of the same twisted hypermasculinity that fuels war; rape is often about power and sadism; rape is often about entitlement and control. There isn’t logic to this sort of evil.


Our reactions to accusations (and, in general, staggering proof) of rape fascinate and frighten me. Much like mainstream denial of police brutality, denial of rape both as pandemic and on a case-by-case basis is about preserving a sense of pretend innocence. And as long as we continue to feign innocence in the face of monstrous action in our society, we run the risk of becoming monsters ourselves.

Worldwide, there's so much rape, violence and injustice against women that when a columnist called on us, several years ago, to acknowledge how much men hate women, my then-girlfriend—who is judicious, even-tempered, smart as can be—adamantly thrust her hands into my face and said, "At least someone is talking about it."


As I get older and more situated in the world—which means, often, more lost—I feel increasingly sympathetic to my ex-girlfriend’s near-macabre enthusiasm for an open discussion of hatred. Ask a group of men if they agree that worldwide evidence confirms a pathological contempt for women among men, and you’ll be met with overwhelming indignation. Ask a group of women the same and the responses might surprise you.

Similarly, when I talk to my white friends about the outright contempt so many whites feel for blacks, I get hemming and hawing and a skepticism that has more to do with personal defensiveness than reality. When I mention the same notion to blacks I know, a significant number give weary smirks that say, “Tell me something I don’t know.”


So how is it that so many of us understand the need to dismantle the dominant perspective on police brutality and racism, yet inhabit the same perspective when it comes to crimes against women?

It seems that a significant portion of men have done precisely what my mother warned me against, and sacrificed the principles they loudly claim in service to protecting their side, their innocence, their right to embrace a toxic masculinity. Fighting for a principle means moving beyond the narrow constriction of self-interest. Fighting for a side establishes a dichotomy between our values and our actions.


Fighting for a side is the path of least resistance; fighting for a principle is a risk that can cost you the support of institutions, communities and friends. But fighting for a principle is the only thing that can unite us in social betterment. Fighting for a side will always make fools of us in the end, collapsing under the weight of our ethical contradictions. It’s how we cede the moral high ground and create systems of built-in hypocrisies.

It’s how we get Al Sharpton completing a cycle that has brought him from championing the cause of a woman who falsely reported a rape to defending a man who may have committed one. Sharpton’s activism on Parker epitomizes the Orwellian logic born of our choosing a side over principle: “If you go to court, charge somebody with the crime and the courts in Pennsylvania in 1999 find you not guilty, you can’t have it both ways.” I wonder if he feels similarly about George Zimmerman, Darren Wilson, Timothy Loehmann or any of the police officers who killed Freddie Gray. We live in an era of murders without murderers and rapes without rapists; exoneration is proof of a flawed justice system rather than innocence.


I won’t be going to see The Birth of a Nation because I cannot shake the sounds of my mother’s voice, my friend’s sobs and my ex-girlfriend’s exasperation.

What happens to women in the wake of a rape and the denigration of rape victims is the same sort of soul murder I know all too well from watching so many black men killed by police without any justice. We all, as a society, condone this soul murder against our women when we fail to react to such instances with anything that isn’t incontrovertible outrage and defiance.


It is shameful to rationalize Nate Parker’s behavior, to shift the blame to the racism that has always marked Hollywood, to imagine right-wing conspiracies, to retroactively smear the dead victim. In doing so, we lower ourselves to reinforcing the most despicable status quo of white patriarchy, all under the guise of honoring Nat Turner’s righteously rebellious spirit.

Turner fought against the American power structure of his time, against the wanton rape carried out by slave masters, against the unbridled entitlement of whites, against the dehumanizing of victims in order to preserve the illusion of innocence for those who were criminals both in deed and indifference. I would rather protect and honor Turner’s legacy than Parker’s—the principles and sides at play couldn’t be clearer to me.


T.D. Williams was born and raised in New York City, where he spent his youth in a welfare hotel for the homeless in Times Square. He has been a soda salesperson, camp counselor, a parking lot attendant, a waiter, a bartender, a civil rights activist, a dean of college admissions and an adjunct professor. He is currently finishing his first novel, and his writing on sports and societal issues has appeared in various publications, including Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter.

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