Faculty Spotlight: Anthony Kaye

When Anthony Kaye, associate professor of history, began looking into the Nat Turner slave rebellion, he says, "I started out thinking this would be a quick, small book. But the more I learned, the longer it got. I wanted to really understand this from Turner's point of view. It's taken me a long time, and I've really had to dig deep."

In 1831, Turner led about 60 slaves and free blacks in an uprising that killed between 55 and 65 white men, women and children on farms just west of the Chesapeake Bay and near the North Carolina border. In the backlash, white militias and mobs killed between 100 and 200 blacks, most of whom had taken no part in the rebellion. Turner briefly escaped, but was eventually captured, tried, and hanged.

Kaye has been drilling deep into original materials, including newspaper accounts, deeds, militia rolls, and court records of every type. He wants to piece together the most complete and accurate record of an event that sent seismic shocks of alarm though the South that reverberated for years.

"Turner did what he did because he believed it was what God wanted him to do," Kaye says. "It took him nine years to finally accept the commands he said he received from 'the spirit who spoke to the prophets in former times.' At first he was misunderstood by other slaves, who thought he was telling them to obey their white masters. But he is saying, 'I have to obey the Master—God.'

A concept Kaye developed in an earlier work about slave society was that of "neighborhoods," geographical and psychic terrain that slaves and slave owners had to share, involving all sorts of dealings. "Owners are figures to contend with in every part of life," he says.

"We need to stop thinking about slave revolts in terms of revolution," Kaye says. "A lot of slave 'rebels' thought of it as going to war against their owners." 

His book—the working title is "Alarm in the Neighborhood"—will be published by Hill and Wang.

Last Updated March 14, 2013