Analysis of “The Fires of Jubilee” by S. B. Oates

Stephen B. Oates wrote his famous biography “The Fires of Jubilee” amid the race 1960s riots. These events reminded the author of the issue of racial oppression, which had been engraved in American society for centuries (Oates). “The Confessions of Nat Turner to Nat Turner,” written by William Styron, also encouraged Oates. This work received immense criticism on behalf of the African American community due to the controversial presentation of the titular historical figure and a flattering image of slave owners. Oates decided to propose an alternative view on one of the pivotal events in the context of the anti-slavery movement. He opted for dramatic narration to strengthen the effect of the writing on its readers. However, some historians did not appreciate this literary device, as it added a sense of fiction to a true story.

The slave owners in South Virginia did not admit to oppressing their slaves, who were given several rights, such as going to church. Accordingly, Nat Turner was allowed to study the Bible and received special treatment due to his exceptional behavior. However, this lenient attitude gradually raised Turner’s expectations and fueled his need for freedom (Oates). Nat Turner felt the taste of benefits, which were unavailable for the vast majority of slaves and, naturally, desired more. Therefore, it was the revolution of rising expectations that helped Turner to develop his spirit of freedom.

Abundant experience with religion promoted the development of Turner’s spiritual side. He felt frustrated by the hardships of slavery, and the spirits encouraged him to gain freedom when he saw a solar eclipse and understood it as a sign (Oates). While the white masters of Virginia were afraid of a rebellion, they failed to acknowledge the wrongful aspects of slavery. Accordingly, Turner and the small group of his followers resorted to violence. His intentions may have been positively directed, but the execution was not necessarily adequate, as the group killed the masters along with their women and children. In a way, Nat Turner is, indeed, a human rights pioneer, as he fought for the right cause and contributed significantly to the African American freedom movement. His motives were documented by Thomas Gray, a lawyer who represented enslaved people during the trial and published the account of Turner’s life.

The rebellion organized by Turner and his associates shocked the white population, who later labeled it a “march of destruction.” In response to the revolt, the town’s organized militia surrounded the rebels. While several people were caught and executed, Turner managed to escape arrest for weeks (Oates). The white population blamed African Americans for the violence, which included professor Thomas R. Dew, who used the uprising to justify his active pro-slavery stance and gained followers. Consequently, Virginia’s legislation concerning slaves became significantly stricter, which strengthened the institute of slavery. Fears regarding possible uprisings had already existed in society, but the described events left a lasting impact on people’s minds.

This cruel revolt caused by the unfair treatment of the entire African American population attracted the public’s attention to the issue of slavery and racism. The Gag Rule, which existed at the time, limited the discussion of the matter on the governmental level, but the idea still spread among progressive thinkers, especially in the North (Oates). Nat Turner’s rebellion showed people the degree to which people of color were oppressed by slave owners. As a result, the polarization of American society increased, as the differences between the North and the South increased dramatically. Slavery proponents used the cruel image of the uprising to explain their position, whereas liberal people saw the possible emancipation as the only viable solution to this problem. Overall, Nat Turner’s revolt accelerated the slave freedom movement, catalyzing in the context of the future Civil War. He managed to inspire people of color across the United States and show them the importance of defending their inherent human rights.


Oates, S. B. (2009). The fires of jubilee: Nat Turner’s fierce rebellion. Harper Collins.