Touring Richmond with Nat and Nate

Published 11:36 am Monday, November 28, 2016

by John Railey

Nate Parker and I sat in the back of a stretch limo last weekend, rolling through the night streets of the Confederate capital that ruled until the Union took it down just a few long generations ago. We’d grown up just an hour’s drive apart, he in Norfolk, and I, several years earlier, in rural Southampton County.

So close, but worlds apart. Parker grew up black in a crowded housing project. I grew up white in a nice house.

But we have both, just as so many other Americans, long wrestled with the legacy of slavery. That legacy has both defined us all as Americans even as our differences over it still keep us from becoming whole as a country.

We met at an event last weekend held by The Richmond Forum, a fine group led by Bill Chapman that brings in big names like Parker to speak. I moderated the event with Parker, who has sparked nationwide controversy with his new film about Nat Turner, a black slave preacher who, in 1831 in my home county, led the nation’s only sustained slave fight for freedom, killing almost 60 white men, women, children and babies. Whites, in retaliation, killed as many as 100 blacks.

Parker’s movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” makes Turner, who was convicted and hanged, out to be a hero. That’s heresy for many in my homeland. I can certainly understood why Turner and his followers, with no access to the courts, used violence to rebel against a system that had used violence against blacks for two centuries to keep them working for free. But Turner as a hero?

I thought about that as Parker and I rode in the limo along with several others. We made small talk, knowing we’d tackle the big questions soon enough. Someone made a joke about not wanting to accidentally call “Nate” “Nat.” It’s certainly happened before, Parker said with a laugh.

At the event site, the venerable Altria Theater, Parker and I sat in the Green Room waiting to take the stage. He paced the floor, winding himself up. I sat in a chair, reading over the questions I would ask him.

Parker took the stage first with a short speech. “I’m not here to entertain you,” he told the large crowd. “I am here to challenge you. Today we grow. That is my hope, even if I just make you angry to the point where you wake up tomorrow feeling different about your beliefs.”

Then I joined him on stage. He gave me a bear hug and we began our chat. I started by telling him that his movie blew me away. Parker co-wrote, produced and directed the film that came out last month, and he plays Turner.

The movie starts with a disclaimer that it’s based on a true story, as opposed to every scene and line being factual. Once I saw that disclaimer, I just decided to not take the film literally. It’s a movie, not a documentary, and it’s a movie that, like the best art, can transform you. When, in college, I read William Styron’s 1967 novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” I saw Turner, for the first time, as a complex and smart human being. Parker’s movie took that process an uncomfortable step further, making Nat even likeable.

The movie does not show the killing of the young, but does refer to it, suggesting that Turner felt justified by an Old Testament-inspired vision he had before he began his revolt. Nat only killed one person himself, but he led in all the carnage.

“In my opinion, Nat Turner is a great black hero, just like some people would say Patrick Henry is a great white hero,” Parker told me and the audience.

He asked me what I would have done in Turner’s shoes.

“I’m Quaker,” I replied. “But then, I’ve never been an enslaved person.”

Parker smiled and nodded.

Touché, I thought. You’ve made me think, to at least try to get inside the heads of Turner and his men who revolted against the brutal and sustained madness of slavery: all the rapes, all the beatings, all the murders, all the families being split apart. I don’t condone any violence, whether it was that done in slavery, toddlers being killed by Turner’s men, the Klan in later days or police officers being killed or killing today. But I do try to understand the motivations behind it all.

By a simple twist of fate, I could have been born a slave or even been born as Nat Turner. Parker could have been born his owner. We’re all related, more than many of us ever acknowledge.

One of Parker’s overarching messages is that the fight against injustice is far from over, especially for African-Americans.

“We have to be honest about the history of this country, and we need to confront it,” Parker told the crowd and me. “I think if an alien dropped down to this planet, his assessment of what is going on would be a lot more practical. I want to get to the place where when we see injustice, we do something. Right away …We have to clean the wound, sew it up and see to it that it will heal.”

Parker, whose work includes a nonprofit foundation to help African-American communities, hasn’t always had an easy path. While he was in college almost 20 years ago at Pennsylvania State University, he was charged with sexual assault but acquitted. Big Media revisiting of that case overrode publicity about the film itself, probably causing many people to stay away from the movie.

That’s regrettable. Parker’s movie, and his message about fighting injustice, couldn’t come at a better time. That fight, always crucial, must be waged with peace in the modern era. We should all be riding that road together.

JOHN RAILEY is the editorial page editor page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, which published this column. Contact him at