Soon after, Nat Turner’s rebellion breaks out and quickly fails. Men from the city and country assemble to respond to what they perceive as the threat of mass rebellion. Most of the slaves are ignorant of what’s going on but because she can read, Linda knows that terror and punishment is about to descend on them. She knows that the houses will be ransacked by “country bullies and the poor whites,” who hate to see black people living comfortably or neatly, as Grandmother dies. In anticipation, she cleans the house and watches soldiers assemble in the roads outside.
Nat Turner’s rebellion was a slave insurrection organized by Nat Turner in 1831. The rebels killed about fifty people before being captured and executed, but the event gave rise to fears of mass slave rebellion and hundreds of slaves were killed by white mobs in the aftermath. Although Linda prepares to encounter violence quite calmly, for her this symbolizes another violation of the home that is so important to her, yet so vulnerable.
Occasions like this are exciting for lower-class whites, who don’t have slaves of their own and enjoy exerting their racial privileges, without reflecting that the powerful slave owners also keep them trapped in “poverty, ignorance, and moral degradation.” In the furor, terrible crimes are committed against innocent people: women and children are whipped without pretext, houses are robbed or destroyed, and women are especially vulnerable to rape.
In this passage, Linda reflects that the system of slavery primarily benefits a handful of rich slaveholders; yet most white Southerners support it because it confers a sense of privilege upon them. As is the case with relationships between mistresses and female slaves, lower-class whites disregard their own interests out of deep-seated racism.
The next day, a band of white men “rudely” march into the house, turning over all the furniture and pawing through Grandmother’s possessions. They even open and eat the preserves she makes to sell. Opening her trunk of valued bed linen and tablecloths, one of the men suggests she’s stolen them and says, “white folks oughter have ‘em all.” Linda also comes under suspicion when the men find some letters addressed to her, but by this time she has spotted a white acquaintance outside and asked him to stand inside the house, thus gaining some protection.
The mob’s rudeness and vulgarity contrasts with the dignity and poise that Grandmother and Linda display. This passage protests against a society that confers benefits on people that disregard conventions of respectability, while deeming people who fulfill those conventions unworthy even of owning nice tablecloths.
Although the “captain” of the band threatens to burn the house and whip the inhabitants, they don’t suffer any material damages. However, as the night draws near the men get drunker and more violent. Linda is afraid to look out the window, but she sees men dragging people down the road at gunpoint, including an old minister and his wife. It’s amazing that such “rabble” presume to be “administrators of justice.” In the next days, patrols search black homes in the countryside and even worse atrocities are committed, to people who haven’t even heard of Nat Turner.
Although slaveholders claim that they impose order and morality on inherently primitive slaves, moments like this show that it’s they who are truly uncivilized. Slavery is not only completely unjust to black victims but causes and rewards the violation of all social norms. Jacobs probably focuses so much on this aspect of her argument because it’s calculated to appeal to white Northern readers.
When Turner is captured, the terror abates somewhat. Imprisoned slaves are returned to their masters, but visiting between plantations is forbidden and slaves are not allowed to meet for church services. Instead, they stand in the galleries of white churches. After the white congregation has taken communion, they come down to get theirs, and the priest tells them that “God is your Father, and all ye are brethren.”
It’s galling to hear the pastor refer to slaves as “brethren” after the mob violence to which they’ve been subjected, which would not be allowed if society considered them equal or even truly human.