Using Graphic Novels in Education: Nat Turner

Welcome to Using Graphic Novels in Education, an ongoing feature from CBLDF that is designed to allay confusion around the content of graphic novels and to help parents and teachers raise readers. In this column, we examine graphic novels, including those that have been targeted by censors, and provide teaching and discussion suggestions for the use of such books in classrooms.

“How does a weaker minority dominate a physically superior majority? In my research I learned that this is accomplished by destroying the slave’s mind. More effective than whips and guns was the simple act of outlawing the teaching of slaves to read and to write” –- Kyle Baker, Nat Turner

Cover1 Cover2In this post, we take a closer look at Nat Turner by Kyle Baker. While originally self-published in four issues, it was soon picked up and published as a single edition by Harry N. Abrams (2008). Nat Turner received the Glyph award for Best Artist, Best Cover, and for Best Story of the Year, 2006; the Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work, 2006; and the Harvey Award for Best Graphic Album — Previously Published, 2009. This work also received an Eisner Award nomination for Best Limited Series, 2006; and Harvey Award nominations for Best Writer, Best Artist and Best Single Issue or Story, 2009. Library Journal gave it a starred review noting, “Baker’s suspenseful and violent work documents the slave trade’s atrocities as no textbook can, with an emotional power approaching that of Maus.”

page1Nat Turner is a violent story and therefore a violent book. The story is told through images with occasional excerpts of text from Turner’s confessions. While the images in the original four issues were black and white, the Abrams edition is done in sepia tones. Due to its violent and graphic nature, this is a book for mature young adults/teens and older.

In an interview with Ed Mathews for Pop Image, Baker notes:

It’s a Holocaust Book. It begins with Turner’s mother being kidnapped from Africa, being shaved and branded, stuffed in a feces and rat filled ship’s hold, being chained and sold into slavery. Young Nat’s father runs away…which is devastating to him. As an adult, Nat’s beloved wife and children are sold and taken from him screaming. Finally, he has an inspiration. Nat organizes an armed slave revolt and a lot of people get killed in big action scenes….


page2Nat Turner is the story of slavery and the horrors that led Turner to lead one of the bloodiest revolts of the time. It is told vividly through wordless images and occasional confession excerpts. We learn and experience slavery and Turner’s life story as he retells it in his confession to Thomas R. Gray. We learn about how Africans were hunted, shackled, branded, and transported in rat-infested ships; how they were humiliated, inspected, and sold; how they lived or existed; and the hopelessness and cruelty they experienced. We also learn about Nat Turner: how he was told he was different, bright and inquisitive, and how he heard others saying he would not make a good slave and was destined for greatness. We learn the circumstances of his life, ending with his execution for leading a bloody slave revolt. While some felt Turner was a hero, others felt he was a monster. Kyle Baker leaves it for us to decide.

The book is organized in four parts, along with a forward and afterward that I strongly recommend you read. There are also some author’s notes found at the end of the book, that provide enriching detail to the art and story. It is a horrible, upsetting story, but one that must be told. Baker tells it well.

Note: Please use discretion with children, making sure they’re mature enough to understand and handle the details.

page4Part 1: “Home” opens with a market scene somewhere in Africa. We see villagers whose facial expressions turn from interested and involved to panic-stricken as slave hunters gallop through their square. While trying to outrun and outwit the hunters, many are captured. They’re shackled, stripped, branded, and stuffed like livestock into a rat-infested ship that is trailed by sharks, waiting for dead carcasses to be thrown to them. We soon realize we are following Turner’s mother.

page3Part 2: “Education” opens with a slave realizing something is amiss (Might it be an escape?) and communicates what is happening to others through the beats of a hidden drum. As Baker tells us in his notes, “Many laws such as the Mississippi Black Codes outlawed drums, which Africans used for communication.” We see the outrageous consequences faced by those who broke the laws and learn that both communication between slaves and education of young slaves was forbidden.

After this scene, we meet a young Nat Turner and learn about him through images and excerpts from his confession. We learn his father escaped and his escape deeply affected Turner; we learn that Turner was a quick and inquisitive learner, and once he learned to read (on his own), he read Bible and scriptures whenever he could. These readings greatly influenced Turner, who believed he was divinely inspired to lead some great role. Finally, we learn that Nat was a natural leader among his fellow slaves and began to “prepare for my purpose.” While Nat escapes toward the end of Part 2, he returns after having had a vision of his greater purpose.


Part 3: “Freedom” is devoted to the rebellion itself. We see and read of the horrors and death inflicted upon Whites and Blacks. We learn that the rebellion was a bloodbath and slaughter as Turner led slaves through slave owners’ homes in Southampton County, Virginia, killing the owners and their families; murdering 55 people in total. This section ends as we see that Nat Turner survived the rebellion and hid for six weeks until was eventually found.

page7Part 4: “Triumph” contains excerpts from the record of Thomas R Gray, who took Turner’s confession, and graphically shows the hanging of Turner as well as the crowd’s horrific reactions.

page8Kyle Baker’s graphic images relate these horrible, volatile events as we intimately view their unfolding, along with selections of Nat Turner’s confession. This work stands out for its effective and powerful use of visual storytelling. In the Abram’s version, Baker’s original black and white images are now sepia toned. Both versions contain sharp angles and shaded textures to introduce us to the human aspects and to the horrors of slavery. While the reader must construct the story through Baker’s images, Baker leaves it to each of us to decide whether Turner was heroic or immoral, or a bit of both. It is a powerful and potentially upsetting book and suggested for mature readers.

In short, Nat Turner is a haunting, violent story of Turner’s insurrection on August 21-22, 1831, which resulted in the murders of 55 people. It is told through powerful images and selected excerpts from Turner’s confession as told to Thomas R. Gray while Turner was in prison awaiting his hanging.

Throughout Nat Turner, Baker relays the horrors of slavery and the power of the printed word, in this case of the Bible. More specifically, we see:

  • How slaves were rounded up and captured in Africa;
  • How slaves were shackled, branded, and transported aboard rat-infested ships;
  • How slaves were stripped of clothing and of dignity;
  • How slaves were treated and their children raised to perform chores and duties with little to no education;
  • How given these conditions, Nat Turner was raised;
  • How Turner led the rebellion and the murders;
  • How the power of education, reading, and the Bible empowered Turner and other slaves to find the direction and courage to rebel.


For Black History Month

  • Research and review newspaper articles depicting the events of Nat Turner’s rebellion. Compare and contrast stories from the North and the South (see below for links).
  • Compare and contrast the effects of violent versus non-violent protests towards civil and human rights.
  • Research and discuss different Black writings and memoirs from the era in an effort to gain deeper understanding of slavery (see below for resources).
  • In Nat Turner, Baker alludes to two incidents of runaway slaves. Research and discuss what running away meant to those who attempted escape, to those who succeeded, to those who failed, and to those who remained behind.

Cultural Diversity, Civic Responsibilities, and Social Issues

  • Analyze how the book’s different characters dealt with slavery. Discuss how slavery was an ingrained aspect of “culture” in early American life.
  • Discuss why Baker writes in the preface, “How does a weaker minority dominate a physically superior majority? In my research I learned that this is accomplished by destroying the slave’s mind. More effective than whips and guns was the simple act of outlawing the teaching of slaves to read and to write.”
  • Discuss different means of protest. Discuss how these options have changed today, if at all. Discuss protest options slaves like Turner had, comparing his options to those men like Congressman John Lewis — who wrote March, which we featured in this column earlier this month — and Martin Luther King, Jr. had a century later in the 1960s. Then, compare to the means of protest that people use today.

page9Language, Literature, and Language Usage

  • The text in the graphic novel is direct quotes taken from Nat Turner’s confession. Discuss Turner’s use of language — his choice of words and sentence structure — to how we write and speak today. For example:
    • On page 90, Turner says, “I was not addicted to stealing in my youth, nor have ever been — yet such was the confidence of the Negroes in the neighborhood, even at this early period of my life, in my superior judgment, that they would often carry me with them when they were going on any roguery, to plan for them.”
    • On page 36, Baker includes a quote (and the use of metaphor) from the memoir of Captain Theodore Canot, Twenty Years of An African Slaver: “The head of every male and female is neatly shaved…they are entirely stripped, so that women as well as men go out of Africa as they came into it – naked.”
  • Have students use Nat Turner’s confession and re-write it as a play in which characters use contemporary language and vernacular.
  • Have students write a narrative that retells the events depicted in the book.
  • Discuss and evaluate the tone Turner uses as he retells the events of the insurrection (pp.112-179).

page10Critical Thinking

  • Discuss/analyze Turner’s use of scripture and how his faith in the Bible and its scripture shaped the man and his actions.
  • Evaluate Turner’s character and beliefs through the excerpts Baker provides. For example, you may have students evaluate what he says on pages 102-103, “ After this revelation in the year of 1825…I sought more than ever to obtain true holiness before the day of judgment should appear…And from the first steps of righteousness until the last, was I made perfect; and the Holy Ghost was with me…and I looked and saw the forms of men in different attitudes — and there were lights in the sky to which the children of darkness gave other names than what they really were — for they were the lights of the Savior’s hands, stretched forth from east to west, even as they were extended on the cross on Calvary for the redemption of sinners….”

Modes of Storytelling and Visual Literacy

In graphic novels, images are used to relay messages with and without accompanying text, adding additional dimension to the story. This book is a particularly outstanding example of storytelling through images as there is very little text.

Compare, contrast, and discuss with students how images can be used to relay complex messages. For example:

  • Have students search for examples of how single images relay detailed aspects of the story. You may, for example, point out:
    • Baker’s use of the moon’s phases to relay the passage of time;
    • The image on page 18 of galloping horses with rifles of their unseen riders extended and ready;
    • On page 39, we see sharks swimming with the slave boats. Note how the shape of the sharks’ dorsal fins mirror the shape of the clippers’ sails. Discuss the Baker’s use of sharks. Does he include them as a metaphor or to imply that the sharks swam with the boats because to eat the carcasses of dead bodies were thrown to them throughout the voyage?
  • Discuss how Baker uses images within images to help us focus on the primary versus secondary aspects of the story.
  • Evaluate and discuss how Baker draws slaves versus their white masters. Is there a difference? Why?
  • Compare and contrast poster/advertisement found on page 10 at the beginning of the book with the one on page 205 at the end. Discuss why Baker may have included it, and why it is presented in different fonts and modes.
  • Discuss and evaluate why some pages consist of a single image and others have multiple images. How does the page design help relay the story’s crucial events, thoughts and emotions?

page11Suggested Prose Novel and Poetry Pairings

For greater discussion on literary style and/or content here are some prose novels and poetry you may want to read with Nat Turner:

  • The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron: Tells Turner’s story from his perspective as he lingers in jail awaiting execution. It spans Turner’s life up to the bloody days in August as he leads the revolt across southeastern Virginia.
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs: An autobiographical account written and published in 1861 and one of the few extant narratives of slavery written by a woman.
  • Roots by Alex Haley: Traces his family’s origin to an African village.
  • Bullwhip Days the Slaves Remember by James Mellon: A compilation of stories told by former slaves in their own voices as they recount the harsh realities of slavery.
  • Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole: A wordless story of a farm girl who discovers a runaway slave hiding in their barn.
  • To Be a Slave by Julius Lester: A powerful collection of narratives gathered from slaves and former slaves.
  • Amistad: A Long Road to Freedom by Walter Dean Myers: About the slave ship Amistad and how it was grounded after captured Africans on board took control of the ship. Myers’ uses archival documents while exploring the social and legal ramifications of this event.
  • Breaking the Chains: African American Slave Resistance by William Loren Katz: Examines active and passive means used by black men and women as they dealt with the hardships and realities of slavery.
  • The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox: An award winning book about Jessie Collier, who is kidnapped and dumped onboard a slave ship, where he must play his fife to keep the slaves dancing, ensuring their muscles and bodies are fit for sale. Jessie must learn to face the horrors and hazards of life onboard The Moonlight.
  • Sarny: A Life Remembered by Gary Paulsen: About a woman, Sarny, who gains her freedom and searches for the children who were stripped from her and sold before the Civil War.
  • March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell: Relates the true story of Congressman John Lewis’s youth in rural Alabama and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. The graphic novel can be used to compare both storytelling styles and modes of protest.
  • The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos and Nate Powell (First Second Books, 2012) — A semi-autobiographical story of Mark Long’s childhood experiences in Houston, Texas, 1968 centering around the Texas Southern University student boycott after the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCCC) was banned from its campus. The graphic novel can be used to compare both storytelling styles and modes of protest

Common Core State Standards:

Nat Turner is full of advanced vocabulary, archaic language use, and scripture references. It promotes critical thinking as readers must construct the story and understand Turner through images and brief inserts of Turner’s confession. Furthermore, its graphic novel format provides verbal and visual story telling that addresses multi-modal teaching, and meets Common Core State Standards. As this book is recommended for mature young adult readers, we present how it meets the following Common Core Anchor Standards:

  • Knowledge of Language: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials; demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meaning.
  • Key ideas and details: Reading closely to determine what the texts says explicitly and making logical inferences from it; citing specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text; determining central ideas or themes and analyzing their development; summarizing the key supporting details and ideas; analyzing how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of the text.
  • Craft and structure: Interpreting words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings and analyzing how specific word choices shape meaning or tone; analyzing the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs and larger portions of the text relate to each other and the whole; Assessing how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Integration of knowledge and ideas: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually…as well as in words; delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence; analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take
  • Range of reading and level of text complexity: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently
  • Comprehension and collaboration: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively and orally; evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
  • Presentation of knowledge and ideas: Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.


This book and related discussions also cover the following themes identified by The National Council for the Social Studies:

  • Culture and Cultural Diversity: “…students need to comprehend multiple perspectives … to consider the strengths and advantages that this diversity offers to the society in general and to their own growth…to analyze the ways that a people’s cultural ideas and actions influence its members…”
  • Time, Continuity, and Change: “…facilitate the understanding and appreciation of differences in historical perspectives and the recognition that interpretations are influenced by individual experiences, societal values, and cultural traditions… examine the relationship of the past to the present and extrapolating into the future… provide learners with opportunities to investigate, interpret, and analyze multiple historical and contemporary viewpoints within and across cultures related to important events, recurring dilemmas, and persistent issues, while employing empathy, skepticism, and critical judgment…”
  • Individual Development and Identity: “…describe how family, religion, gender, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, and other group and cultural influences contribute to the development of a sense of self…have learners compare and evaluate the impact of stereotyping, conformity, acts of altruism, discrimination, and other behaviors on individuals and groups…”
  • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions: “…help learners understand the concepts of role, status, and social class and use them in describing the connections and interactions of individuals, groups, and institutions in society…analyze groups and evaluate the influence of institutions, people, events, and cultures in both historical and contemporary settings…identify and analyze examples of tensions between expressions of individuality and efforts of groups and institutions to promote social conformity…”
  • Power, Authority, and Governance: “…understanding the historical development of structures of power, authority, and governance and their evolving functions in contemporary American society… enable learners to examine the rights and responsibilities of the individual in relation to their families, their social groups, their community, and their nation… examine issues involving the rights, roles, and status of individuals in relation to the general welfare…explain conditions, actions, and motivations that contribute to conflict and cooperation within and among nations…challenge learners to apply concepts such as power, role, status, justice, democratic values, and influence…”
  • Civic Ideals and Practices: “…assist learners in understanding the origins and continuing influence of key ideals of the democratic republican form of government, such as individual human dignity, liberty, justice, equality, and the rule of law…analyze and evaluate the influence of various forms of citizen action on public policy…evaluate the effectiveness of public opinion in influencing and shaping public policy development and decision-making…”


Meryl Jaffe, PhD teaches visual literacy and critical reading at Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth OnLine Division and is the author of Raising a Reader! and Using Content-Area Graphic Texts for Learning. She used to encourage the “classics” to the exclusion comics, but with her kids’ intervention, Meryl has become an avid graphic novel fan. She now incorporates them in her work, believing that the educational process must reflect the imagination and intellectual flexibility it hopes to nurture. In this monthly feature, Meryl and CBLDF hope to empower educators and encourage an ongoing dialogue promoting kids’ right to read while utilizing the rich educational opportunities graphic novels have to offer. Please continue the dialogue with your own comments, teaching, reading, or discussion ideas at and please visit Dr. Jaffe at http://www.departingthe

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All images (c) Kyle Baker.