Content Note: The subject matter in this post contains images, words, and phrases of a racist nature, some of which may be graphic.
Those of African descent have long been ‘othered’…treated as if they aren’t part of the human race…treated as subhuman…or only part human; certainly not deserving of the same rights as everyone else (often read as white people). This othering has resulted in racist caricatures of Blacks. These denigrating caricatures treat Black people in a dehumanizing manner. One such racist caricature is ‘The Nat’:
The Nat caricature portrays African and African American males as angry, crazed, revengeful brutes with a bloodthirsty hatred for whites. Like many anti-black caricatures, the Nat portrayal was popularized during American slavery. John Wesley Blassingame, a prominent historian, reviewed slavery era literary stereotypes of black men and argued that three dominated: Sambo, a submissive, childlike buffoon; Jack, a sullen, rational pragmatist; and the hateful Nat. Blassingame (1972) contrasted the Sambo and Nat caricatures this way:
“Nat was the rebel who rivaled Sambo in the universality and continuity of his literary image. Revengeful, bloodthirsty, cunning, treacherous, and savage, Nat was the ravager of white women who defied all the rules of plantation society. Subdued and punished only when overcome by superior numbers of firepower, Nat retaliated when attacked by whites, led guerrilla activities of maroons against isolated plantations, killed overseers and planters, or burned plantation buildings when he was abused… Sambo, combining in his person Uncle Remus, Jim Crow, and Uncle Tom, was the most pervasive and long lasting of the three literary stereotypes. Indolent, faithful, humorous, loyal, dishonest, superstitious, improvident, and musical, Sambo was inevitably a clown and congenitally docile.”
Sambo was a devoted house servant; Nat, an angry field hand. Sambo’s love for his “master” was all-consuming; Nat hated his enslaver. Sambo often gave his life to protect his master; Nat wanted to kill his enslaver.
Slavery was an institution brutal beyond words. How can one describe a system where humans are treated like chattel — thinking, feeling animals? Slaves were property, legally real estate, sold in living rooms, churches, workplaces, and at public auction houses. Slaves were insulted, spat on, slapped, punched, kicked, and beaten for sport and “correction.” In 1705, Virginia law stated, “If any slave resist his master…correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction…the master shall be free of all punishment…as if such accident never happened.” Slaves had no legal rights. They worked without wages. They could not legally marry. They were bred, their children, like themselves, chattel property. Imagine a society where you did not own yourself. At the whim of their enslavers they could be sold, separated from loved ones. Living under compulsory ignorance laws, slaves were beaten for learning to spell, read, and write. They could not own property without the permission of their enslavers. If they fled they were hunted, and when found, their backs whipped or their limbs amputated. Obviously, they could not own guns.
Think of what it would be like for one race to have complete domination over another race: a society where the “subordinate” race is considered inferiors, subhumans, lesser children of God. Imagine this racial hierarchy being supported by all major societal institutions: government, education, economy, religion, and family. There you would have an entire society aligned against a race — all significant norms, values, beliefs, and laws legitimizing the victimization of the “subordinated others.” There would, of course, be some enslavers who are relatively kind, but with little or no social control to regulate interactions between the superordinates (enslavers) and the subordinates, the abuses of power and their expressions would be staggering. It is not surprising that slaves, lacking real political, social, and economic power were often the victims of their enslavers’ desires to satisfy scatological and sadistic fantasies. It is also not surprising that some slaves would hate their enslavers and want to physically assault or kill them.
Pro-slavery advocates may have tried to convince themselves and others that slavery was a benevolent institution and plantations were filled with obedient, docile Sambos, but Nats, real and imagined, dominated the white consciousness. One wealthy Louisiana enslaver stated, “I have known times here, when there was not a single planter (enslaver) who had a calm night’s rest; they then never lay down to sleep without a brace of loaded pistols at their sides” (Bremer, 1853, p. 190). Whites, including non-enslavers, fearing rebellion among the slaves, used many strategies to ensure that angry slaves did not rebel: slaves were routinely searched for weapons; rebellious slaves were punished, publicly and harshly — including cropping ears, castrating, hanging, burning, and mutilating; the all-white army and militias were constantly on guard; and, anyone, black or white advocating rebellion among the slaves could be lynched. Despite these measures and others, slavers lived with the constant fear that slaves would rise up and kill whites. According to Herbert Aptheker (1983), a historian, there were over two hundred and fifty documented cases of organized slave rebellions in the United States.
(read the rest of this article, including the story of Nat Turner, the 19th century African-American in who’s name the caricature was created and who organized and carried out the most celebrated and bloodied slave rebellion in the history of the United States, here; once again, Trigger Warning-the punishment and murder of Nat Turner is enough to turn your stomach)