The Proper Response to Violence
Kyle Baker is probably best known as a talented cartoonist specializing in the humorous and often veering toward an almost caricature-ish sensibility in his art. However, he has also displayed a willingness to take on more serious issues, such as his stint as artist on Truth: Red, White, and Black. This Marvel mini-series, which met with mixed reviews and much controversy, told the story of the “first” Captain America. According to this story, the Captain America we all know, Steve Rogers, was not the first American soldier to receive the super-soldier serum; instead, in a reference to the shameful Tuskegee Experiment, the serum was first tested on African-Americans. Perhaps working on that storyline inspired Baker to continue exploring racial issues in America, a subject he has tackled in the four-part miniseries Nat Turner.
For those unfamiliar with pre-Civil War U.S. History, Nat Turner was a slave who organized a violent rebellion in Virginia in 1831. Though it only lasted two days and eventually resulted in Turner’s capture, trial, and death by hanging, the rebellion sent a shockwave through the slaveholding society. Virginia even came close to abolishing slavery, but ultimately the immediate after-effects of the rebellion were a severe curtailing of the rights of free blacks and widespread lynching of free and enslaved blacks.
Turner himself is missing entirely from this first issue. It focuses instead on events entirely before his birth: the raid on his mother’s village by other Africans in the employ of slave traders; the capture of Turner’s mother and others and their horrendous voyage to America; and the shocking resolve of one woman in protecting her family from slavery in an event, apparently witnessed by Turner’s mother and retold by him, that recalls Toni Morrison’s celebrated Beloved.
Baker here sets the stage for Turner’s rebellion by depicting some of the horrors inflicted upon slaves. Rather than trying to give an all-encompassing description, he focuses on a few moments, and presents them up-close: haggling over money, branding, death in the hold of a slave ship. Baker forces the reader to confront these terrible images and leaves no room to distance oneself from the pain his characters experience. His most effective strategy is his almost complete lack of any sort of verbal narrative. Apart from two small excerpts, one from a slaver’s diary, the other from Turner’s confessions, there’s no actual dialogue or description in the entire comic. Describing the slave trade seems limp and weak, like an academic gloss over a human cancer; but actually showing it carries an emotional force that cannot be denied. When I was in school, the famous image of the slave ship plans showing the slaves packed in with maximum “efficiency” really brought home the reality of the slave trade; the small black figures, dehumanized and presented as commodities, exposed the truth of the slave trade better than any written passage could. Baker’s comic carries the same strength, but conversely by showing the tortured humans and the tortured humanity affected by the trade.
The most difficult aspect of this story is the violence. Nat Turner is regarded as a hero, and rightly so. He fought against an unjust and violent system, a system that murdered many Africans, including many in Turner’s own family. Despite this, however, one should always ask about the proper response to such violence. Turner’s own response directly caused the death of many whites, slaveholders and their families. Many of these people were probably murderers and rapists, but were there any that we might consider “innocent”? Children too young to understand the unfeeling economic system that fed them? Even those who were guilty of horrendous crimes, did they deserve death? The desperate mother of this issue and Toni Morrison’s Sethe, they also responded to the violence of slavery with violence of their own; were they justified? And when the end result of Turner’s rebellion was primarily more death and suffering for enslaved blacks, can it be said that he made the right decision?
The African slave trade was one of the worst, if not the worst, crimes against humanity in recorded history, and justice always has the recourse to violence. But this is not the story of a grand movement of humans against evil. This is a story about individuals pushed to the brink of their humanity and must respond in kind. Perhaps Turner had no choice but to fight back, and in any case, he should be honored for his fight, as Baker seems set to do in this series. But maybe the important questions to be asked about this man and this moment in history are how such violence, on all sides, comes about, and how it can be avoided in the future.