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Shining a Light on Nat Turner’s Rebellion

History is full of stories that are not easy to tell or easy to hear. But they must be told in order to understand more fully the human experience. The story of Nat Turner and his rebels is just one of these stories.

This story appears in the January/February 2017 issue of National Geographic History magazine.
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This Bible is believed to have been held by Nat Turner when he was captured.


History is full of stories that are not easy to tell or easy to hear. But they must be told in order to understand more fully the human experience. When U.S. president Barack Obama spoke at the opening of the African American History Museum in 2016, he addressed this very issue: “The best history helps us recognize the mistakes that we’ve made and the dark corners of the human spirit that we need to guard against. And, yes, a clear-eyed view of history can make us uncomfortable, and shake us out of familiar narratives. But it is precisely because of that discomfort that we learn and grow and harness our collective power to make this nation more perfect ... It is in this embrace of truth, as best as we can know it, in the celebration of the entire American experience, where real patriotism lies.”

The story of Nat Turner and his rebels is just one of these stories from the dark corners. The 2016 film The Birth of a Nation brought the rebellion to the big screen, shedding light, sparking conversation, and yielding exploration that led to new historical discoveries. As we further probe the thorny legacy of this event, we see how all Americans can learn and grow from a better understanding of Nat Turner, his rebels, and their place in the American story.