“You and Your Country Are Gone!!!”: The Apocalyptic Imagination of Antebellum Black Revolt

Endorsed by OAH Committee on the Status of ALANA Historians and ALANA Histories

Thursday, March 30, 2023, 2:45 PM - 4:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Religion; Slavery


This proposed session takes its exclamatory title from David Walker’s interpretation of the Book of Revelation in his 1829 pamphlet Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. His revolutionary text cites the scriptural account of God’s final judgment, the eternal punishment of sinners, and the destruction of the world to warn white Americans of the nation’s imminent downfall, having declared repeatedly that enslaved people will be the righteous deliverers of violent divine vengeance. Taking Nat Turner as a touchstone figure for our engagement with the conference theme, we revisit a period marked by multiple imbricated crises that seemed at the time to be manifesting in the physical world as signs of the end times: comets and meteor showers, plagues and famines, summer snows and red rains, earthquakes and eclipses. Americans across the ideological spectrum drew on a long tradition of millenarian thought to frame the economic, political, and ecological disasters that attended the acceleration of racial capitalism in this period. We focus on African Americans interpretive and speculative practices that plotted Black freedom struggles on an apocalyptic scale, drawing on violent postmillennial imagery of judgement, burning, damnation, and destruction in their writings and projects, ranging from Frederick Douglass's antislavery organizing to the Millerite doomsday cult. As mainstream white Americans embraced a premillennial utopian faith in national progress and prophetic sects sprang up in New York’s “burned-over district,” Black radical apocalypticism raised questions about the very nature of crisis – was the destruction of the nation a fearful consequence to be avoided or an outcome to be earnestly desired and actively sought? They anticipated contemporary strains of Black and Native thought that position the lives of people of color in America as already post-apocalyptic, having survived unlivable catastrophes, or trans-apocalyptic, weathering ongoing existential threats. This eschatological vision of revolution engages a sliding scale of violence from the interpersonal to the collective and the global, embracing models of justice and retribution that would rupture national teleology and history itself.

Papers Presented

A Kingdom Not of this World: Black Millerites and Apocalyptic Abolitionism

From 1840 to 1844, up to half a million Americans expected an explosive conflagration to incinerate everything on the planet. “The earth will be over-whelmed in literal fire,” their leader, William Miller, wrote, and “the present governments of earth … will pass away.” This apocalyptic vision was taken up by a founding member of the pacifist anarchist Non-Resistants, who used antislavery tactics to make Millerism the most popular millenarian movement in American history. A subscriber to the Liberator, Miller was no doubt familiar with the radical apocalypticism of David Walker and Nat Turner, and they should be regarded as his unacknowledged influences. Yet his movement signified to many a troubling turn away from activism and detachment from earthly crisis. William Lloyd Garrison lamented the Millerites’ misdirection of antislavery energy: “Multitudes, who were formerly engaged in the various moral enterprises of the age, have lost all interest in works of practical righteousness and think and talk of nothing else but the burning up of the world.” However, Miller’s hope for a destructive end of the world built on slavery appealed to many at a time with no political solution in sight, including prominent Black activists like Sojourner Truth and William Still, as well as many rank-and-file Black believers and later leaders in the Seventh Day Adventist Church that grew out of the movement. This paper turns to the Black Millerites to investigate the ties between antebellum millenarian movements and radical antislavery, and between apocalyptic yearning and revolutionary action more broadly.

Presented By
Holly Jackson, University of Massachusetts, Boston

“You Must Surely Bare It”: The Democratic Weight of Millenarian Imagination in Nat Turner’s 1831 Confessions and Frederick Douglass’ 1852 The Heroic Slave

The notion that Black revolt represents an apocalyptic danger to the United States is a very old one. Thomas Jefferson “trembled for [his] country,” in his 1783 Notes on the State of Virginia, when he imagined enslaved people seizing their freedom. Fifty years later, Alexis De Tocqueville declared that Black revolt represented “the most dreadful of all the evils that threaten the future of the United States.” Moreover, given the insidious but widespread association of “America” with democracy, Black revolt has been constructed as a threat to the nation-state, but as the endpoint of democratic possibility. In this paper, I examine how two 19th-century Black American revolutionaries disrupted this normative association of Black revolt with democratic apocalypse through their respective narrations of Black revolt. I analyze Douglass’ 1852 novella The Heroic Slave and Nat Turner’s problematically produced 1831 “Confessions.” I argue that both Turner and Douglass use these revolt narratives to frame US society as already-apocalyptic—an interminable crisis—and to expose the democratic pretensions of the United States as an unholy and idolatrous farce. Yet they do not simply “flip the script”—these two texts narrate Black revolt as potentially millenarian, but only to the extent to which the protagonists of the revolt can alter their social and spiritual conditions via material struggle. As such, they decenter the US national project altogether, exposing the association between Black revolt and “national apocalypse” to be an obfuscating impediment to the achievement of true democratic struggle and consciousness.

Presented By
Nicholas Farrell Bloom, University of Rochester, Department of History

Violent Visions of the End Times of Slavery in Abolitionist-Era Literature

In The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831), Thomas Gray’s controversial account of the revolt led by Nat Turner, the author asks the revolutionary whether he is aware of any other plots happening concurrently with the insurrection at Southampton, Virginia. Turner replies cryptically, “I see sir, you doubt my word; but can you not think the same ideas, and strange appearances about this time in heavens might prompt others, as well as myself, to this undertaking [?]” Though Turner has heretofore styled himself as the Messiah for the coming slave revolution, with this turn he suggests that any number of others might launch similar revolts, possibly prompted by divine portents. Turner fissures Gray’s construction of him as an aberrant “fanatic,” and in doing so, he weds apocalyptic vision to Black revolutionary possibility. This paper will discuss how in naming the fear of insurrection, abolitionist-era literature that used the scene of armed revolt for sensationalist or cautionary ends could not avoid conjuring the hopes of the enslaved. Turner’s use of signs and wonders in Confessions, David Walker’s citation of the book of Revelation in his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829), and John Howison’s The Florida Pirate (1821) all trouble the line between fear of and eager anticipation for slavery’s end times. In exploring the scene of revolt in fiction as one of uncontainable violence in relationship to historical accounts, I argue that this uncontainability illuminates the political import of armed violence in facilitating the end of slavery.

Presented By
Lenora Warren, Cornell University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Louis S. Warren, University of California - Davis
Louis S. Warren is W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of Western U.S. History at the University of California, Davis, where he teaches the history of the American West, California history, environmental history, and U.S. history. His most recent book, God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America (Basic, 2017) received the Bancroft Prize in American History. He is also the author of The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America (Yale, 1997) and Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), and editor of a textbook, American Environmental History (Blackwell, 2003). From 2009 to 2013, he was founding co-editor and first editor-in-chief of a peer-reviewed, magazine-format, cross-disciplinary quarterly called Boom: A Journal of California, which was honored with a Best New Magazine award in 2011. In addition to the Bancroft Prize, he has received numerous awards for his research and writing, including the Albert Beveridge Award of the American Historical Association, the Caughey Western History Association Prize, the Great Plains Distinguished Book Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2017, he received the Spirit of the American West Award from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming.

Presenter: Nicholas Farrell Bloom, University of Rochester, Department of History
Nicholas Farrell Bloom is a Mellon Predoctoral Fellow at Emory University’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference. He is also a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He will earn his PhD in May 2022. He is a scholar and teacher of US cultural history and political thought from the mid-18th century to the present, with specific interests in African American intellectual history, critical theories of democracy and race, American slavery and its afterlives, radical political thought, and popular culture. His current work analyzes the crucial role that Black militancy played in shaping dominant and dissident strains of American political thought in the first century of the United States. Defining political thought broadly, Nicholas analyzes a wide variety of primary texts, including canonical works of political thought, political pamphlets, newspapers, professional journals, letters, works of literature, and recorded speech. Via these analyses, Nicholas illustrates how people living in the United States often drew on Black revolt as a way of delineating the boundaries and vistas of their political imaginations and how, in turn, the fraught centrality of Black revolt in US discourse shaped the actual manifestation of Black freedom movements over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Presenter: Holly Jackson, University of Massachusetts, Boston
Holly Jackson is an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She is the author of two books, most recently American Radicals: How 19th-Century Protest Shaped the Nation (2019), which was named a Best Book of the Year by Smithsonian and The Advocate, a Nonfiction Honoree by the Massachusetts Book Awards, and a Finalist for the Julia Ward Howe Award for Nonfiction by the Boston Author’s Club. Her essays on nineteenth-century American culture have appeared in scholarly and popular venues including PMLA, Massachusetts Historical Review, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. She is a past winner of the Norman Foerster Prize for the best essay of the year in American Literature. Her research has also been cited by C-SPAN, and the History News Network, USA Today, London Review of Books, NPR, American Scholar, CNBC, HuffPost, Chronicle of Higher Education, Black Issues Book Review, and elsewhere. With Kerri Greenidge, she is the co-editor of a special issue of The New England Quarterly provisionally titled “Blackness in New England,” to be published in June 2022.

Presenter: Lenora Warren, Cornell University
Lenora Warren is a scholar of Early American and Early African American Literature with a focus on literatures of abolition, insurrection, and the politics of resistance. Currently an assistant professor in the department of literatures in English at Cornell University, Warren received her PhD at New York University. Her book Fire on the Water: Sailors, Slaves, And Insurrection in Early American Literature, 1798-1886 was published with Bucknell University Press in 2019. Fire on the Water tells a new story about the troubled history of abolition and slave violence by examining representations of shipboard mutiny and insurrection in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Anglo-American and American literature. Fire on the Water centers on five black sailors, whose experiences of slavery and insurrection either inspired or found resonance within fiction: Olaudah Equiano, Denmark Vesey, Joseph Cinqué, Madison Washington, and Washington Goode. These stories of sailors, both real and fictional, reveal how the history of mutiny and insurrection is both shaped by, and resistant to, the prevailing abolitionist rhetoric surrounding the efficacy of armed rebellion as a response to slavery. Her work has also appeared in Atlantic Studies, XVIII, New Perspectives on the Eighteenth Century, Literary Imagination, and Readex Report. Warren is working on a book on the legacy of Phillis Wheatley in works of Black women writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the relationship between artmaking, joy, and resistance.