Tag Archives: Nat Turner

I feel like the kid who is absent the day people pick lab partners and is stuck with the weird kid

Basically, I am saying that most of the good options are already taken by other people.  Which is great.  I enjoyed reading all of your posts and feel that there are some really good ideas out there.  My post is basically a fragmented mess of semi-formed ideas, but that is often what my units look like before I actually start teaching them.  I’ve never been a plan every second of every minute of every class kind of teacher.  I have some general points I want to hit, but am usually open to any interesting side routes that present themselves along the roughly sketched path in my brain.

One thing that I would obviously want to discuss with Nat Turner, would be the gruesomeness of it.  But I want to go beyond just what makes it gruesome? or is this necessary? or is there any place for this sort of content in a serious literature class?  I would want to focus on how the graphic novel as a form achieves this revulsion in us compared to other media.  Does Nat Turner have a more visceral effect on a person, then a description of torture/murder in a novel?  How about a nonfiction account?  And finally, what about a medium where the viewer is more passive, like film or television?  How effective is each of these mediums in making us uncomfortable and what specific techniques does each employ in the process?  This would be tough in a high school classroom, as issues would obviously arise if you were to start long detailed passages of brutal acts  of violence or showing clips from violent movies.

As I mentioned last week, I think Nat Turner would be a great companion text for the novel Beloved. Many of the same themes are explored and Beloved is as much of a stomach punch text as Nat Turner in my opinion.  Nat Turner would also obviously work well with The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron.  William Styron’s novel is interesting because it elicited a response from prominent black writers such as Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin** (called William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond appropriately enough).  The main issue was that the black writers took issue with the way that Styron (white, Southern) portrayed Turner.  Questions arise about whether a white writer has any “right” to tell a historical black man’s story, and broader issues about depictions of race, gender, sexuality, etc.  Do certain people or peoples “own” certain stories?  Is there such a thing as out of bounds in literature?  Does anyone have a problem that Kyle Baker is a white man telling this story, and telling it in this way?

Have students pull what some people are claiming Thomas Gray did and write a completely fabricated confession of a real historical (or even someone in the news today) figure.  All they would need would be some basic facts about a marginal person in a history textbook and could fill in the details themselves.   If you want to get crazy, you could have them turn it into a graphic novel.  Writing a poem helps you understand the mechanics of poetry in a way that just reading poetry cannot, it makes sense that the choices involved in creating your own graphic novel would lead to a deeper understanding of the form as well.

**Correction:  Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin actually defended Styron, I misread the information I was looking at.  My apologies.  However, there was quite a brouhaha over Styron’s novel, especially when it won the Pulitzer Prize. There is a section on Styron’s novel and the response to it in the reading on Blackboard.

Teaching a Graphic Novel

In thinking about how I could teach a graphic novel, the first thing I realized is that the content of the text is an important factor in how I would present it to my class. Not all lesson ideas or approaches would be appropriate for all comics. (For example, considering the controversial content of Nat Turner, I wouldn’t introduce it in a lighthearted lesson, nor would I choose it as the first graphic novel I show my students.)

As I said in my blog post last week, I noticed a big difference in my own thinking about the content of Nat Turner vs. the way in which it is presented. I don’t think high school students would naturally separate those two aspects of the text, so it’s important that the teacher does so for them (as necessary) or (preferably) develops lessons that encourage students to do so on their own. To do this, the teacher needs to know his purpose in presenting the text (that sacred concept of backward planning). He has to consider his ultimate goal: Am I teaching graphic novel X because I want to teach a/any graphic novel or because I want to discuss the issue of X? (My initial opinion of Nat Turner is that it would be better used as a starting point in discussing the actual issue of the slave rebellion. I don’t think it would be as productive, with a high school audience, to discuss the physical presentation of the story—at least until after the genre had been introduced and dealt with using less controversial examples. Then, yes, full steam ahead with NT.) So the only real conclusion I’ve reached so far is that you need to know WHY you’re teaching the text in the first place. (I know–good teaching 101, right?).

Maybe I’ve over-thought Prof. Sample’s question by hashing out all this goal stuff, but I couldn’t start brainstorming until I’d set some parameters for my hypothetical lessons. But now, finally some ideas . . . If I were to teach a graphic novel, I think I’d want to find one that it is middle-of-the-road in terms of difficulty (i.e. not Nat Turner, but also not an Archie comic—no offense to Archie). I would want students to be able to differentiate between content and presentation, but also be able to examine both together (as in, why do you think the author chose to convey this message in this manner as opposed to in a more traditional form? It strikes me that Maus would be a great example to use when discussing both form and content together).

Bottom line, I think there’s a lot a teacher could do with any given graphic novel that would inspire students to think critically about certain aspects of the work (images, text, purpose, message, voice, plot, etc.). Here are a few ideas I’ve come up with:

  • Remove all text from the images (thought bubbles, captions, onomatopoeia) and then ask students to fill in their own captions. Students would have to support/defend their captions with textual evidence (in this case, image-based evidence). I’ve done a similar activity as a review of Macbeth, but the version I’ve done doesn’t really require critical thinking, only summarizing skills. The activity could vary depending on whether you’ve shown the students the original text beforehand—I can see it being worthwhile both ways.
  • Cut up a shorter graphic novel (graphic short story?) into pieces and have students reassemble based on their knowledge of story conventions (exposition, climax, falling action, etc.). This lesson would work well with a traditional short story unit because it would show students that the mechanics of stories are similar even when the final products look different. (You could then discuss why authors choose particular methods of conveying a story. How a short story is better/worse/different from a graphic novel, movie, song, etc.)
  • Slow down the reading of a longer graphic novel by giving students only short sections at a time. Study the sections one at a time, asking students to write about what they see, how this excerpt connects to previous sections, and how the story might play out after this point. After seeing all the sections, students could review their notes and evaluate how their understanding of the story changed, improved, or declined as they read more passages. (Now I’m thinking of reading log audits. I’m sure there’s a lot you could do with something like this.)
  • Ask students to translate a graphic novel into a written short story (or vice versa). Discuss the pros and cons of each genre, difficulties the students encountered, possible combinations of the two presentation styles, and so on.
  • Visually experiment with multiples storylines or narrative perspectives. One novel I teach uses a fragmented narration style that really confuses my regular 10th graders. I could ask students to represent different story threads by cutting and pasting panes from a graphic novel in different patterns or combinations. This activity would help visual learners in particular.

These are only “rough draft ideas,” so I’m really more interested to see what everyone else comes up with. I love hearing different perspectives and ideas because I always find something useful to bring back to my students. I hope we can compile a more comprehensive list of ideas and flesh them out as a class.

My First Graphic Novel

Instead of focusing on how disturbed I am by the content of Nat Turner, I’m instead going to reflect on the experience of reading my first graphic novel. To begin, I have to admit how skeptical I was about reading a graphic novel for a graduate English course. Call me traditional, but I didn’t think it was accurate to say I was going to “read” a graphic novel. Now I see that I passed judgment too early, as my reading skills were certainly exercised throughout this book. (Interestingly, I’ve never had a problem saying I’m “reading” a book on CD, which I do all the time, so obviously I was prejudiced against the genre, incorrectly assuming it had no intellectual merit.)

When I first opened the book, I was struck immediately by the amazing illustrations. I was entranced by the detail of facial expressions and body language, as well as the variety of and intricate details within the images. I hadn’t intended to read the book straight through, but I was in such awe that I couldn’t put it down. Granted, that awe was often replaced by revulsion, but any book that has the power to evoke such strong emotional responses obviously merits examination. I exclaimed out loud on a few occasions, and I studied several of the more grisly images longer than I was comfortable with because I just couldn’t look away. I was amazed by Baker’s ability to disgust me with what are essentially cartoon images. I had previously thought that the subject matter would have to be affected by the method of presentation (after all, how seriously can you take a comic?), but I quickly learned that I was looking beyond the method of illustrating and studying the content itself.

On pages 88-90, for example, I am amazed at how clearly Baker conveys young Nat Turner’s dilemma: he has to feign ignorance when the overseer finds him with the Bible—in fact, he looks downright comical in his pretended stupidity—yet immediately afterward, in the bottom panes of page 90, Turner’s hatred for the white man (as well as his own circumstances) is clear. I’m not sure it would be as effective to try to convey these feelings in words (no matter how powerful and compelling the diction), so in this way the image is superior. (Even as I write this, I’m amazed that I’ve been so quickly convinced. I’m a fierce proponent of the power of words, so I feel disloyal in acknowledging the validity of what feels like the antithesis of all I stand for as a reader and writer. That said, I’m already looking for other examples of graphic novels to read, though preferably less disturbing ones.)

As I start to wrestle through the idea of possibly teaching a graphic novel (issues of school and parent approval aside), I can see several pros and cons. The pros are obviously that kids would enjoy the experience (in fact, many of them read graphic novels already), and that the story is immediately clear to anyone who is capable of reading facial expressions and body language (almost everyone). I also think a graphic novel would be a great way to talk about basic plot structure in a text (e.g. locate the exposition of the story, identify the climax, is there resolution?, etc.). The biggest drawback is that of course the students wouldn’t be learning traditional reading skills (taking meaning from words and paragraphs), but there’s plenty of traditional reading built into the curriculum already. I’ll hold the rest of my thoughts about how to teach it until next week.

The last comment I want to make has to do with how disturbed I was by the subject matter, so I’ll try to make it brief because I know I could go on at length about that. As entranced as I was by the book, I was equally concerned by the fact that Baker presents Turner as a hero. I agree with what Jennifer said in her post—I readily admit the inhumanity of slavery, but I don’t see Nat Turner’s actions as a justifiable retaliation, and I also suspect his understanding and application of Biblical teachings. It seems to me that the Nat Turner portrayed in this book would be dismissed as a religious fanatic today. I know this is a simplistic stating of the case, but I couldn’t comment on the book without remarking on the one glaring drawback I perceived. The questionable nature of Baker’s portrayal doesn’t in any way hurt my appreciation of the genre, and that’s why I’ve tried to address the two issues separately. I hope we can do the same in class next week.

Nat Turner—disturbing, but in a good way

When Professor Sample asked those of us who had already read Nat Turner to describe it, I said I thought it was disturbing. I say this not because of the format or genre of the narrative, but because of the story itself. I became absorbed in the book right away and read it in one sitting. However, I was shocked and appalled when reading (and seeing) how Nat Turner carried out his rebellion and justified his actions. Yes, I have learned of slave rebellions, but I honestly had never heard of Nat Turner until picking up this graphic novel. Sad, I guess, but true. Unlike Kyle Baker, I don’t recall seeing even a one paragraph blurb about him in any history textbook. I doubt that I am alone, though, as Baker points out that someone would be lucky to find one book on Nat Turner.

                After reading Baker’s Preface, I guess I was expecting the story of a great, heroic man. After all, Baker says “Many of history’s greatest people, including Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and Malcolm X all cite Nat Turner as an inspiration” (6). Baker praises Turner’s will power and the fact that he overcame the system, found access to books, taught himself to read, and educated himself. Yes, for these reasons he is admirable. But, despite the fact that Kyle Baker references killing, I guess I was expecting more from this man who overcame the odds. I guess I expecting to hear of more of an intellectual revolution as opposed to a bloodbath. Yes, slavery is indeed awful, horrific, extreme, and disturbing. But I was shocked by Turner’s extreme measures. While I can praise the idea and act of rebelling against slavery and creating a revolution, I am not comfortable saying that what Turner did was right. And I seriously question his grasping of the Scriptures and what he believed he was being called to do.

                Okay—whew—I got it out there. I’m sure that, in light of the fact that Nat Turner is hailed as a hero, some people are probably thinking that I’m horrible.

                I realize I’ve been expressing my views on the subject of Baker’s graphic novel and haven’t really analyzed the novel. Graphic novels of this nature open up this sort of discourse, though. It allows the discussion of, even debate over, the events of history. In his Preface, Baker says that “comic books/graphic novels are a visual medium, so it’s most important for an artist to choose a subject with opportunities for compelling graphics” (6). Nat Turner’s story definitely provides opportunity for compelling graphics! Graphic novels offer an effective way to present history. (I sure won’t forget Nat Turner now!) Similar to films about historical events, since the graphic novel is a “visual medium,” readers are note solely reading a story, a history, but they see it play out beyond the images in their minds. This medium is by far more effective than text alone, particularly when it comes to historical narratives! It’s too easy to skim over text or maintain a safe distance from the events. It’s far harder to ignore the visuals.

                I feel that graphic novels have much to offer and, to my surprise, I’ve enjoyed by experiences with the genre thus far. I was first exposed to graphic novels in American Postmodernism last spring and was intrigued by Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers and Lappe and Goldman’s Shooting War. I worked with graphic novels again this past fall semester in 701 as we studied Satrapi’s Persepolis and McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Much like a film, graphic novels have layers of analysis—not only can you explore the text, but there are also the visuals and the relationship between the graphics and the text, I love the complexity of what appears to be a “simple” form! I would love to teach a graphic novel (Persepolis, in particular), and I look forward to our class discussions on the form and how to teach it.