The key theme of Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner is how a slavery, a system of oppression, affects everyone involved in it. Turner, an intelligent and, by slave standards, an educated man, is nevertheless condescended to and viewed as less than human by whites. Many slaves, though not necessarily Turner, internalize many of the key elements of slavery, especially racial inferiority. Turner is not by nature a violent man. The institution of slavery makes him that way, just as it corrupts everything else it touches. The impact the book had on popular culture is best understood by its context. It was published in the late 1960s, a period when some African-Americans were beginning to doubt whether they could achieve equality in a white-dominated society. It was broadly criticized by many black intellectuals, particularly for its portrayal of Turner as sexually disturbed. Others questioned whether a white writer like Styron should write a novel about a black man like Turner. But even these passages are presented in the context of the corrupting influence of slavery, where white men raped black women (including, in the novel, Turner's mother) with impunity.
William Styron's book caused a huge amount of controversy in the black community. Styron's Confessions, while claiming to be a meditation on history, actually rearranged many of the known facts about Nat Turner's revolt and his life. Styron's account placed battles out of chronological and geographic order. Throughout the entire book (which is over 400 pages long) Styron neglects to make any mention of Nat Turner's wife or children despite the fact that there is evidence that Nat Turner had a wife and children. Instead Styron writes homosexual experiences into Nat Turner's story when there is no evidence whatsoever that Nat Turner was involved in any such practices. Styron imagines scenes where Nat Turner berates his people and his race, calling them stupid. Styron also imagines Nat Turner as being strongly motivated by a lust for Margaret Whitehead, the one white person Nat Turner admits to actually killing himself. William Styron's "Confessions" was strongly repudiated by the contemporary black intelligensia with the publication of "10 Black Authors Respond to William Styron's Confessions".