The Fires of Jubilee is the journey that Stephen B. Oates leads the readers back to the period of the United States after the Revolution war. With the growth of the cotton industry and the cotton gin invention, slavery became the main labor source and extended in Southern states. By describing the life of Nat Turner, a Prophet of the most terrifying slave rebellion, Stephen B. Oates reconstructs the situation and gives the readers a more honest look about slavery in American history.
At the beginning of the book, Oates described the image of little Turner and white children playing together without any separation or prohibition from adults. Although Americans treated their slaves brutally, they still let slave children enjoy freedom until the age of twelve. Throughout the author’s words, readers could see the basic life of a slave. They grew up, toiled in the farm, had children and raised their children to repeat the same cycle. Slaves spent almost their whole lives to work on a farm. Working under the condition of being whipped and hastened from their master or the overseer, they compared themselves to mules. To advocate for this action, Southerners pretended to themselves and believed that their slaves were happy.
Ironically, white masters were afraid of the uprising of those happy slaves and prevented it by prohibiting slaves from learning to read and write. Moreover, Southerners gave their slaves space on Sunday, when the Negroes could have their own praise meeting, visit friends and relatives without close supervision. With this permissiveness, slave owners hoped that their property would be grateful and became more loyal because of this privilege. Through these details, Stephen B. Oates portrayed the contradiction in concern of the Southerners. They knew they were living with the hazard, like a bomb that could explode at any time, but they would rather choose to live in tension for economic benefit than liberate their slaves. Explaining for this point, the author also mentioned that Virginia had just passed through a period of economic crisis and the citizen were trying to climb up the social scale by using the advantage . In addition to that, it was impossible to free all the Negroes when three-fifths of the inhabitants in Southampton were black (Oates, 5-50).
Growing up under slave status, Oates described Turner as a mysterious and superior slave. He was praised for his talents such as being able to read and knowing what had happened before he was born. Being affected by these compliments and also being betrayed by it, Turner had to work on the farm when he turned twelve no matter how special he was. This first milestone made him look for the meaning of his life. Spending time to pray and increase knowledge, Nat Turner became remote and separated from other slaves. It was a singular action when he escaped from his master but then came back. The changing of his thought was clearly revealed when his master died.
After facing the threat of sale, Turner knew he could never have a real life as long as he was a slave. Wondering if it was a result of fasting and obsession with the words from the Bible, Turner began to see anomalous phenomena while he was working on the field. Then he started preaching about the visions of white and black spirits encountered in the sky, blood dropped on the corn, the sun got darker and the voice of the Almighty talked with him as the signs that Judgement Day was approaching. Turner even helped to heal Etheldred Brantley, the white man who had done some unforgiven sin. For these reasons, he gained the trust of other slaves and legally spread his ideas through preaching. Even though he became a leader of the uprising Negroes liked he always wanted, white men did not accept or care about him. Being punished for saying that white and black people were the same, Turner knew that he could trust nobody but himself. Through the author’s words, Nat constantly learnt and fought to strengthen his strong faith that he was born to be a leader. While he was hiding after the rebellion failed, he questioned himself and looked for the purpose from the beginning. After all, his belief came true and he became a hero to the slave as well as the terror of the Southerner (Oates, 10-120).
The revolt of Nat Turner, which was planned for two years, was a major mark in American history. The author portrayed the people’s shock, both whites and uninformed slaves, when Turner’s army suddenly came. They slaughtered Southern inhabitants in a cruel way as to avenge the bitterness that they had endured. Because of its savagery, the other slaves did not join the army as Nat had envisioned and some even turned back to protect their white masters. One thing must be noticed that most of the victims were women and children, who did not have any resistance ability. Opposition to what Turner had hoped, the rebellion did not give slave society any more freedom. Instead, slaves were harshly punished and executed in response to the violence. As the result of the rebellion, the climax tension between abolitionist and pro-slavery led to controversial debate and remained the horror in Southerners society (Oates, 127-145).
All in all, Stephen B. Oates succeeds in showing the readers slavery life with the most objective view. The opposition between the North and South economies placed slavery into a deliberation, which was increased by Turner’s rebellion. Nat Turner was an understandably angry slave, who had read and had known about human rights, but at the same time was affected by people’s compliments. Turner’s rebellion is considered brutal because it acts on women and children. However, first thing to remember is that slavery itself is intolerable from any aspect and Turner’s action is totally justifiable. Through the author’s perspective, Nat Turner is the voice of all the Negro, a man who believes he has enough intelligence to live like a normal human and enjoy the basic need is freedom. Slavery in America was a crime that its consequences still remain in today society, but the wrongs must be done to know it is wrong.
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