The Fires of Jubilee by Stephen B. Oates

HomeEssaysBook ReviewThe Fires of Jubilee by Stephen B. Oates

The subject of slavery remains a difficult and controversial issue of the American past. Among the literary works focusing on the slavery and the life of African-Americans of the time, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion presents a true story of the bloody slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. The author of the book, Stephen B. Oates, describes an insightful account of the horrible events. The dramatic representation of the rebellion and the fierce reprisals that followed destroyed the myth of the obedient and speechless slave. In particular, the Nat Turner Rebellion became a meaningful event that challenged the whites’ view of slavery in the scope of American history. The resistance to the white dominance intensified the forces of change that would lead America to the Civil War. At the same time, the theme of religion has a significant role in the narrative. While religion was the tool of the white people to control and intimidate the slaves; it eventually united African-Americans against the white supremacy. Therefore, The Fires of Jubilee is an informative and thought-provoking book that depicts the struggle of the black people for their freedom within the scope of Nat Turner’s life.

At the beginning of the book, Oates represents the biography of Turner. The boy was born on October 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Virginia. Since his childhood, every person who encountered him knew that he was a special child. To be precise, Nat was an intelligent, religious, and educated person that contradicted stereotypical outlook on the black slaves. Many African-Americans believed that he was a prophet who would lead them one day. The first Nat’s lord, namely Benjamin Turner, praised his intelligence and claimed that he would never be a slave. However, his son did not share the father’s opinion, and once he became Nat’s master, the boy started to work at the age of twelve. The particular event was crucial to the youngster because he recognized himself as a slave for the first time in his life. According to Oates, “So it was a rude awakening for Nat, just as it was for many other slave children who passed through that traumatic time: the first anguished recognition that I am a slave” (21). At the same time, this episode can be regarded as a starting point of Nat’s resentment toward the white people. During the next couple of years, the boy will work hard on the plantation and attend religious meetings to listen to the white preachers that the black people are bad and should obey the instructions of the whites. Thereby, with the death of Benjamin Turner, who believed in Nat and appreciated his reason, the reality of slavery covered the youngster showing him the attitudes between the blacks and the whites.

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Throughout American history, African-Americans were oppressed by the whites who dictated them what to do and how to live. Before the birth of Nat Turner and after his death, hundreds of black people were brutally tortured and killed by their masters. As a child, Nat was always told that he would avoid the fate of the slave because of his intelligence. However, the future of the two slaves’ son was predicted before he came into the world. According to Oates, it was “an especially painful time, for he had been led to believe he might be freed one day” (21). After years of working hard on the plantation, the man had nothing but food and shelter. Furthermore, the death of Samuel Turner separated Nat from his wife because he was again sold to another white slave-holder. Thus, the life of the slaves meant nothing for their owners. Moreover, they could be sold numerous times, deprived of their family and children, beaten, and murdered. Being forced to live under white supremacy, the black people had no right, voice, and life as it should have been. Hence, the deed of Nat was a significant move forward for African-Americans who were deprived of their history, culture, and more importantly, freedom.

At the same time, religion played a significant role in the rebellion. In the times of slavery, African-Americans greatly depended on the religious beliefs of their masters. In particular, the white slave-holders were confident that while God is supreme, he allows slavery making them superior to the black people who should obey their will. A good slave had no right to question God’s authority and thus dominance of the whites. The slave-holders tried to teach the black people to make them perform their duties cheerfully. Moreover, it was taught that if a slave was lazy or spoke of the morality of slavery, he or she would burn in hell for doubting God’s will. Oates stated, “Such religious instruction reflected a growing malaise about slavery in Virginia’s white community” (14). In this respect, the majority of slaves were afraid of contemplating their freedom and escape from slavery due to the possible punishment. However, Nat questioned the particular ideology of the white masters. The character thought that God had something better for the black people; therefore, he started spending his Sundays in prayers. The protagonist began to organize praise meetings within the slave cabins to convince African-Americans that they deserve better life. At the age of twenty-one, Nat stated, “Having soon discovered to be great, I must appear so, and therefore studiously avoiding mixing in society, and wrapped myself in mystery, devoting myself to fasting and prayer” (Oates 27). Thus, the man realized his importance and value to the lives of other slaves he could lead.

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Furthermore, the depiction of Nat Turner as a boy and as a man allows the author to show his way of living to the audience and thus conveying the effect of his death on society of the time. In his life, Nat witnessed many horrific cases that eventually forced him to rebel and fight for his rights. In particular, when Samuel Turner’s wife, Elizabeth, sold him to Thomas Moore, the man’s life did not become easier. The new master was not cruel, but he worked hard to satisfy his ambitions. In the summer of 1825, Nat started having visions, which foreshadowed the approach of Judgment Day. Oates claims, “Still enslaved as a man, Nat zealously cultivated his image as a prophet, aloof, austere, and mystical” (27). However, the whites did not care about the visions because they belonged to slaves. Being convinced that God was calling him to lead the people and start the rebellion, Nat set the beginning of the bloody revolt that took place in 1831. Oates states, “In spite of his enslavement, in spite of his own preaching and prophecies, he did not know that he could do it” (54). The small group of Nat’s followers executed the whites across the county farm by farm. The events resulted in the fear amongst the white community and forced many slave-holders to live in horror during the three bloody days. However, the revolt for freedom eventually turned into a massacre. Consequently, more than 200 black and 60 white people died during the rebellion and 21 protesters, including Nat, were hung for their actions.

Nevertheless, violence can be hardly punished by the similar violence because it also involves the cruel actions. Although Nat struggled for the freedom of the black people, his bloody acts cannot be justified. At the same time, the character was convinced that God forces him to lead the black people out of the slavery. However, whether the Bible can make a person to deprive a man of his life or not remains a question for the audience. Moreover, Oates does not apply any moral judgment; thus, it is up to the reader to create his or her personal attitude toward the story of Nat Turner. The writer concludes the narrative with an epilogue set in Southampton County. Written in the first-person, this part of the book describes the author’s research in the town in details. Hence, Oates adds a fascinating portrayal of the South in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. Thus, racial tensions between black and white people continued to exist.

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In conclusion, The Fires of Jubilee is a thought-provoking book that allows the reader to ponder on the events of the most controversial page of American history. Making a historical record of the life of Nat Turner, Oates focuses on the character’s feelings and beliefs that guided him to start the liberation movement. Moreover, this choking and, at the same time, captivating narrative can hardly leave the audience indifferent. Although the life of Nat Turner was hard and painful, the deed he made was a step forward for all enslaved African-Americans. Depicting miseries and loses the black slaves faced within their lives, the author does not give any moral or social mark. Instead of judging the white or black people, the writer allows the reader to make his or her concision. Thus, Oates’ book can be regarded as a systematic chronology of the rebellion and its brutal suppression.

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