History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Monday, October 19, 2020

Reflection on "The Good Lord Bird," Episode 103: On Meeting Frederick Douglass

"Mister Fred," Episode 3 of "The Good Lord Bird" was perhaps the most silly and irreverent installment so far. As satire, I suppose it hits the mark, particularly with Frederick Douglass being spoofed by Daveed Diggs' portrayal of him as a petulant, self-important, and whining "king of the Negroes." I found it amusing only at a few slight points, but otherwise found the story offensive and typically disturbing to my historical sensibilities.

In synopsis, Brown and "Onion" (Joshua Caleb Johnson) travel to Rochester, NY, to see Douglass and stay at his home. Brown wants to get Douglass to garner economic support from influential people in the North, particularly a group of abolitionist elites known in history as "The Secret Six" (wealthy Gerrit Smith and George L. Stearns, the reverends Thomas Higginson and Theodore Parker, and the educators, Franklin Sanborn and Samuel Howe). Douglass is as irritated by Brown's presence as he is receptive toward him. His wife Anna (played by Tamberla Perry) is pro-Brown and his European lover, Ottilie (played by Lex King), who is staying under the same roof--and sharing Douglass with his wife--is anti-Brown and calls him "insane" at the dinner table. The tension leads Douglass into a whining fit, especially as he gets into a drinking binge with "Onion." Brown and "Onion" finally leave Douglass's home without knowing if he'll help him.

There's lots to say here because James McBride, followed closely by Ethan Hawke's screenplay, knows enough about Douglass to spoof him effectively. Frederick Douglass actually had two important European female associates, an English woman named Julia Griffiths, who was very instrumental in helping him with his publications and abolitionist work. He also met a German (and atheist) journalist named Ottilie Assing, who lived in Hoboken, New Jersey. Ottilie did not live with the Douglass family, but became close to them, as did Griffiths at some point. I don't recall, but I don't think there was hanky-panky between Douglass and Julia; it appears there was some hanky-panky between Douglass and Ottilie, but not under the same roof, and probably not in the harem-like scenario that Hawke's storyline suggests.

Ottilie was an important sounding board and access person for Douglass to meet literary and political people. The real Ottilie was stridently pro-Brown and came out of the European left tradition. Whatever sparked between them, ultimately Douglass was more interested in the access and exposure that Ottilie got for him than he was interested in Ottilie as some kind of soul mate. In contrast, she was all into Douglass and pined for him, and in later years not only tried to influence Douglass (like convincing him of atheism) but probably also wanted to replace his wife. But Douglass never took the bait and Ottilie never got what she wanted; sadly, she committed suicide later. So there's probably a thread of truth in the satire.

We tend to forget that Douglass was a "rock star" in 1859 and antislavery women loved him. If he failed his wife, that's a minus on his record, but he was no player, and he deserves some character ethics in this regard. I think "The Good Lord Bird's" portrayal is unfair and do not think making Douglass into a whining "king" in a two-bed household is fair. Is this really using comedy to convey historical truth, as McBride and Hawke claim to be doing?

For me, an equally offensive aspect is the dialogue between Douglass and Brown at the dinner table, when Brown tells Douglass he believes the enslaved people will fight if given the chance. At this, Douglass snaps at Brown and essentially tells him off, reminding him that he, Douglass, of all people, knew what the enslaved might think and do. Then Ottilie adds that Brown is the craziest man who ever sat at the table. Such affronts and insults never happened, especially under Douglass's roof.

The reality is that after Douglass met Brown in 1847, he recounted speaking with Brown and a group of black men in a letter that was published in his own newspaper. In that letter, Douglass wrote: ". . . though a white gentleman, [Brown] is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery." This is a far cry from the representation conveyed in "The Good Lord Bird," and I'm not entirely sure it qualifies as satire. It seems almost malicious to see such skepticism as McBride-Hawke do when it comes to presenting black attitudes toward Brown.

Anyone who has examined the surviving correspondence between the two men knows they had a warm, mutual affirming, and respectful relationship well into the late 1850s. Salmon Brown, a son, recalled his father and mother babysitting the Douglass children. Douglass added a warm postscript to Brown's letter to his wife in 1858, when Brown was staying with him in Rochester, New York. True, they had tensions in 1859 when Douglass could not approve of Brown's "add-on" to the older plan--to attack the federal armory in Virginia. Douglass and Brown had words and Brown lost Douglass' final support and lost confidence in Douglass. But they remained friends, and Douglass never changed his tune about Brown for the rest of his life, whatever he may have felt in private thought. It is Douglass who provides the greatest platform for Brown's legacy in the long run.

Among other things, the Brown-Douglass relationship is a primer on black-white relations, especially in leadership. We are all flesh-and-blood, with egos and needs, and pride. At our best, so-called whites may prove good allies to blacks; at worst, we may overstep and forget ourselves, even presume we know better. On the other hand, we should not forget that black leaders, like other leaders of color have personal lives and egos too, and sometimes these can become visible. Obviously, the male-female dynamic reveals another aspect of this human challenge. Brown probably leaned in too heavily on his black allies at times; he was by nature imperious. But this should not be mistaken as racial condescension as the late Vincent Harding did in his book, There is a River, or Kay Wright Lewis does in A Curse Upon the Nation. Brown was imperious toward whites as well as blacks. By his own admission, it was a native part of his temperament and has nothing to do with "race."

For his part, Douglass was a celebrity and he was younger than Brown in 1859, and had a lot more to lose personally, particularly at a time when his career and activism was expanding. Douglass did rely on two "white" women, and his less educated wife did have to share his attention and sometimes even space with these female colleagues, whether she liked it or not. Douglass was a man of immense character notwithstanding his human nature, but in some sense his ego was formidable and he had his own man issues. Still, he was a man of integrity and vast powers of intellect and communication, and he used his immense gifts for the just cause. As Douglass put it in retrospect, Brown "could die for the slave" while he could "live for the slave." That was a genuine admission to a great deal more than Brown's willingness to become an antislavery martyr.
The Douglass-Brown story of 1859 is not an easy story to tell. I don't think it was easy even for Douglass to recount, which is why he didn't go into detail about their clash in his third autobiography written in the 1880s. As I have observed elsewhere, all correspondence between Douglass and the Browns seems to have ended after Harper's Ferry, and this probably says as much about the Brown family's disappointment and resentment as it does about Douglass' pride. We are human beings and we differ and fail and fall, fall-out and disappoint, and sometimes these human factors shape history in definitive ways.

I'm sorry that Ethan Hawke wants to portray Brown as a wide-eyed, well-meaning antislavery zealot with a problem of emotional effusion. I can take Hawke's Brown doing silly thins like combing his mustache at the table with his fork. But I'm offended at turning this precious story on its head for the sake of television, making Douglass look like a whining, privileged brat on a sitcom, and suggesting that he held Brown in mixed esteem. Besides, Brown didn't need Douglass to get access to deep pockets. Brown had that on his own; rather he wanted to get black fighters through Douglass' influence, and it was that support that ultimately Douglass withheld.

I can bracket my sensibilities and watch "The Good Lord Bird" for fun, but watching this series is the kind of fun that amounts to eating junk food. It's not nourishing, edifying, or satisfying if one has an appetite to learn and reflect upon history.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

A John Brown Descendant Writes to The New Yorker About SHOWTIME's "The Good Lord Bird"

This pretty much says it all. Those who wish to argue from the "higher art" position in defense of the lunatic portrayal of John Brown by Ethan Hawke in the current SHOWTIME series, "The Good Lord Bird," would do well to consider this letter from Marty Brown, a direct descendent of the Abolitionist, which appears in the October 19th edition of The New Yorker.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Untold Story of Shields Green: An Appreciated Review from Library Journal


The story of John Brown's (1800–59) ill-fated raid on the Federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) is well known. However, the lives of his Black raiders are far less known than that of Brown and his white coconspirators. DeCaro (church history, Alliance Theological Seminary; Freedom's Dawn) seeks to rescue the story of one Black raider, "Emperor" Shields Green from history's shadows. Any attempt to reconstruct his life can only be done provisionally. He was born near Charleston, SC, although his birth date and whether he was born free or enslaved is unknown. Much more is known about Green's life during his time with Brown, the raid, and his subsequent trial and execution. DeCaro does an excellent job interrogating the sources, and attempting to find the real Green among the racist stereotypes and language found in both Southern and Northern newspapers. What emerges is a portrait of a man willing to die if it meant an end to slavery. 
VERDICT: DeCaro has assembled fragments of Green's life from the historical record in a judicious and thoughtful biography. Readers interested in antebellum, African American, and Civil War history will enjoy this brief biography.—Chad E. Statler, Westlake Porter P.L., Westlake, Oh., in Library Journal reviews, October 2020.

Friday, October 02, 2020

In Memoriam: Larry Lawrence Remembered (1950-2020)

I first met Larry Lawrence on May 1, 1999, when I made my first trip to the John Brown Farm, now a state historic site near Lake Placid, New York.  I became reacquainted with him after I left the pastorate in Jersey City and relocated into Manhattan with my wife Michele in 2003.  At some point afterward, I don't remember when exactly, I saw Larry again, and over the next fifteen years, I had the pleasure of meeting with him for breakfast or lunch to talk about John Brown, the struggle for justice, and anything related to current events and politics.  Frequently, we also met with our dear friend, the actor Norman Marshall, the portrayer of John Brown in the play, "John Brown, Trumpet of Freedom."  

I spent a good many accumulated hours with Larry, I must admit that I did not know that his actual name was Reuben Dennis Lawrence III. I knew him only as "Larry," and I suppose that's all that matters, because that was the man I knew as one of the most strident defenders of and advocates for John Brown's legacy. In 1989, Larry founded the The John Brown Society, which was an organization reflecting a left political commitment. Early on, Larry awarded gold and silver medals to African American activists and others who contributed to the legacy of the struggle for justice in cultural terms.  Larry was one of the most historically knowledgeable and politically astute scholars that I have known, and he could easily have been a university professor given his vast knowledge of history and the politics of the left. 

I miss Larry Lawrence, as will his family, associates, and the community of John Brown admirers who got to know him.  He will not be replaced.  We will just move on and acknowledge the large space that he left behind, reflecting the many years of his indefatigable devotion to the struggle for justice and the legacy of a man that Larry liked to call "Mr. John Brown."  Larry liked the words of the nineteenth century abolitionist orator, Wendell Phillips, who eulogized John Brown in 1859. I quote them here as a double entendre, in honor of John Brown the abolitionist, and my friend Larry Lawrence:

"He sleeps in the blessings of the 

crushed and the poor, and men believe 

more firmly in virtue now that 

such a man has lived."

Top photo: Larry and Brendan Mills, superintendent
of the John Brown Farm in Lake Placid, NY (2008)

Middle photo: Larry speaking during a John Brown
workshop at the Left Forum, NYC (2015)

Bottom photo: Larry and Martha Swan (founder and
director of JOHN BROWN LIVES! spend a few
moments viewing the Joseph Pollia statue at
the John Brown Farm (2008)


Monday, August 31, 2020

Some Thoughts on the Release of the "Emperor" Movie

Dayo Okeniyi as "Emperor" Shields Green

Unfortunately, the month of August has been quite distracting, and even in making this entry, nearly a month since the last one, I must write in haste.  

When I heard of the production of "Emperor" in 2018, I was prompted to do some research and write an article about Shields Green, one of Brown's Harper's Ferry raiders.  After a couple of days, however, I had about one hundred pages, particularly because I begun to notice things that I had never noticed before--issues like Green's status at birth, his alleged real name being Esau Brown, the time of his escape, and even his age.  When Clara Platter, my thoughtful editor at NYU Press, heard about my Shields Green work, she encouraged me to expand it into a book. And so The Untold Story of Shields Green was born, and will be officially released in October (although it is possible to purchase advanced copies now--click here).

As far as the "Emperor" movie is concerned (click here for trailer), I did not expect it to be historically consistent, although the writers took such liberties with the story that it surprised me. Particularly, the movie has a very different ending that what actually happened to Green.  Since there is so little information about Emperor, of course, the movie takes advantage of this fact by presenting a story line that is almost purely fictional and only connects with the truth with Green's meeting with John Brown and Frederick Douglass at Chambersburg prior to the Harper's Ferry raid. The misrepresentation of the Harper's Ferry raid is almost purely fictional and quite misleading, and the writers missed the opportunity to appreciate how Emperor represented a martyr for the antislavery cause, instead opting to have him escape in a blaze of glory like an action hero.   So be it.

What was personally interesting for me about the movie is that the fictional account concludes with Green's grown son, in the late nineteenth century, submitting a manuscript to a publisher about his father's life.  In fact, Shields Green is the least known and perhaps most misrepresented of Brown's raiders.  We do not even have a daguerreotype photograph of him, and historians themselves have conveyed questionable notions about him because no scholar has seriously taken on his story until now.  In fact, to the contrary of the movie, it is not Emperor's son who writes about him for posterity.  Rather, over a hundred-and-sixty years after his death, it was I who wrote, or tried to write, his story. I am honored to have done so, although I have made it clear in the book that I do not believe my work is either ultimate or definitive. There may be yet more to learn about this mysterious figure in the story of John Brown.

If I have one real objection to "Emperor" it is that the screenplay writers place words in the mouth of Frederick Douglass (played by Harry Lennix) that I do not believe the Orator would have ever spoken, not in 1859, nor later in his life either.  In the scene at Chambersburg, where Emperor must choose whether he will follow John Brown or not, Douglass essentially accuses John Brown of exploiting white privilege in recruiting black men.  This is, in fact, a very contemporary interpretation, and seems to reflect the need to impute a kind of racism to Brown after the fact than is called for by the black witnesses of those who knew him.  It was Brown's assumption that black people were underrated for their courage and determination to fight for their freedom, and so he sought to recruit them for his cause.  Were he subjecting them to something that he was not willing to undertake for himself and his own sons, then perhaps the charge would have some weight.  But Brown put his own life on the line, as did his sons Oliver, Watson, and Owen, and three of the four died as a result. Douglass himself never made such a charge in anything he wrote or said on the record, and it was a kind of cheap shot for the screenplay writers to include the words.  

At any rate, I would not discourage you from watching "Emperor." Despite its largely fictional storyline, both Shields Green and John Brown are at least presented as men of dignity and intent.  In contrast to the upcoming "Good Lord Bird" screen adaptation by Ethan Hawke on SHOWTIME, John Brown (portrayed by veteran actor, James Cromwell) in "Emperor" doesn't look crazy. Likewise, Dayo Okeniyi's Shields Green is a serious freedom fighter, and I believe this is precisely true of the real Emperor. Indeed, all the actors are excellent and it is good entertainment as such.  Still, it's not a history lesson as much as it is a legend--something lying just between Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" and Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation."

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Retro: Has Chowder Changed His Mind on Brown? Reflections on his "Father of American Terrorism"

Twenty years ago, in early 2000, PBS aired a documentary by Rob Kenner entitled, "John Brown's Holy War." It has been as many years since I viewed it, although even then, relatively on the front end of my work on Brown, I found "Holy War" highly problematic. I consider it the worst documentary ever made on John Brown and certainly I would never recommend it for use in the classroom.  

About the same time that the documentary was aired in 2000, its writer, whose professional name is Ken Chowder (I understand this is not his real name, but I will not publish his real name for the sake of propriety) published a piece in American Heritage entitled, "The Father of American Terrorism." This is a deeply flawed and unstudied treatment of Brown that purports some sort of objective stance between extremes, although in reality it is subjective, misrepresentative, and untrustworthy. 

Rob Kenner's 2000 documentary,
"Holy War," is perhaps the worst
documentary on John Brown,
was written by Ken Chowder

With all respect to Mr. Chowder, his article is twenty years old, and since its publication he has enjoyed a very fruitful and interesting career as a writer and filmmaker, and has explored a good many themes and received numerous awards. On the PBS page for his documentary, "Frederick Law Olmstead: Designing America," Chowder is described as having scripted over twenty-five documentary films, and as being the author of three novels, with articles published in Smithsonian, Audubon, Travel & Leisure, The New York Times Sophisticated Traveler, Modern Maturity, The New York Times, Geo, The [London] Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Geographical Magazine, and even Reader’s Digest. His website likewise lists numerous awards and artistic residences. He is a talented and accomplished man, and I salute him with all sincerity.

Ken Chowder (PBS image)

On a side note, too, I realize that some writers may have a cynical and checkered view of Brown and still appreciate him. For instance, I heartily disagree with the opinions of Brown that I have previously heard directly from the mouths of the late historian Tony Horwitz and novelist Russell Banks, but there is no doubt that their work at some level reflects an appreciation of the "Old Man."  Given that it has been twenty years since Chowder published his detrimental piece in American Heritage, I should give him the benefit of the doubt, as I would want to be given to me over some of the opinions I have expressed in younger days.  For instance, reading Chowder's 2000 article, it is interesting to see this on his Twitter account, written seventeen years later: "Currently reminiscing about my idol John Brown. . . ."

Not knowing Chowder, I'm not sure what to make of this, except that perhaps he changed his mind over the past twenty years after doing further reading and study. 

Nevertheless, his "Father of American Terrorism" article (like Rob Kenner's documentary that Chowder also wrote) is still accessible and sadly continues to reinforce the worst, least informed anti-Brown bigotries that yet prevail, especially among many whites in the United States. The problems with Chowder's article are extensive, but frankly I do not have the patience or the time to dissect this piece in great detail as I might have done in 2000. Suffice it to say that Chowder exploits themes like Brown's business failings, the Pottawatomie incident of 1856, and the Harper's Ferry raid of 1859 to suggest insanity and terrorism. While he quotes reasonable historians within the article, he prefers the opinions of fiction authors like Bruce Olds and Russell Banks. At best, Chowder is reductive and simplistic to a fault, such as his tendency to cast Brown's entire business life as failure and to suggest that somehow his life as a failure and a "nobody" drove him to extremes in Kansas and Virginia.  Overall, his thesis is that Brown's legacy gets spun to the right and to the left, but that Chowder himself is presenting some kind of balanced or objective treatment.  To the contrary, his view of Brown lacks biographical foundation, relies more on historical cliches, and leads to the worst tendencies and unstudied conclusions.  

Indeed, Chowder's "Father of American Terrorism" itself reflects a peculiar perspective, a kind of summing up of the great hackneyed narrative of John Brown that prevailed in the twentieth century, further inflamed by the tragic events prior to "9/11," when domestic terrorism had begun to rear its ugly head in the 1990s. By referring to Brown as a proto-terrorist, Chowder revealed his lack of historical understanding: after all white society had "fathered" terrorism long before in their attacks upon native people and enslaved Africans. By identifying Brown as some kind of terrorist progenitor, Chowder is catering to the presumptions of white privilege. And by privileging the worst and least studied opinions about John Brown, and by feigning his own objectivity, he revealed his own biases and lack of study.

I hope that an older and wiser Ken Chowder has moved beyond the nonsense that he furnished in his 2000 article. Still, it is unfortunate that his "Father of American Terrorism" continues to haunt and mislead society as an online resource.  It is a work that will finally be remembered, not as a useful article , but as a sample of the unstudied bias and bigotry that largely informed the popular narrative of John Brown in the twentieth century.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

SHOWTIME's "Good Lord Bird": Is "All of This" True?

For some time now we have known about the television series, "The Good Lord Bird," based upon the James McBride novel of the same name, and it was anticipated that it might be released some time ago.  However, we now learn that the series has been once again rescheduled to air in October on SHOWTIME.  In May, SHOWTIME posted the official trailer for “The Good Lord Bird” on YouTube and it appears to be everything we feared it would be.  

Once more, it seems, Hollywood will serve up another mad John Brown, the only difference being that in this cultural installment, Brown is a lovable, crazy, and over-the-top good guy, a man that is doing the right thing despite being a quixotic hero and a religious fanatic.  In the unfortunate film, "Santa Fe Trail" (1940), Brown was portrayed as a crazy man, but the heroes in that film were future proslavery rebels like Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart.  In "The Good Lord Bird," Brown is on the right side of history, even if he is a caricature of a likable lunatic who cannot tell the difference between a girl and a boy.

Given what we’ve seen in the past, it appears that John Brown's cultural image is not going to escape this unscathed. True, he has never been loved by the whole nation; but that's not really the point.  What concerns me is that the core perspective on Brown, which apparently is conveyed quite seamlessly from McBride's novel to Hawke’s film, is a kind of nose thumbed to the historical narrative.  Instead of history, then, McBride and Hawke want to give us a comic, laughable, approach to the story.

When McBride's novel came out in 2013, he gave a particularly insightful interview for NPR's Boston affiliate, WBUR. In his interview, McBride described his novel as "caricature and satire" with exaggerated characters. "It’s supposed to be a funny book," he said.

Fine.  But then he made it quite clear that he was almost standing in defiance of history: 

I hate books that tell me what I should know and tell me how to feel. . . .  I wanted to kind of thrust John Brown into the modern day legendary status like Jesse James without writing a book that was very depressing, and that this is what you should know,  here, ‘take your medicine,’ I just don’t like those kinds of books, so I wanted to write something that was really interesting and funny.

To be fair, McBride gets some points because at least he respects Brown's sincere religiosity, and even admitted that his novel doesn't capture the abolitionist's "seriousness of purpose in terms of his deeply felt belief that slavery was morally wrong."  

The problem, however, is that despite his intention of writing a "funny" book, in the end he still wants to teach us history, and this is what bothers me about both McBride's book and the movie cloned from it by Ethan Hawke.  McBride concluded that despite the fact that he wrote a satire that grossly exaggerates Brown, in the end he expressed hope that The Good Lord Bird would be "an effective way of opening up some of these issues for readers to make decisions for themselves about whether John Brown did the right thing or did not do the right thing." Ethan Hawke insinuated the same thing in a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon in which he said: "I have been trying to put this show together.  It's huge, it has seven parts, it's hysterically weird and funny and I have a feeling, I hope it means something to people.”  But what would it mean besides conveying a perspective of John Brown that will shape people’s historical understanding?

So, on one hand, McBride and Hawke seemingly want to cut John Brown loose from the serious cords of the historical record, and on the other hand they want to empower the reader/viewer "to make decisions for themselves" about John Brown’s historical meaning.  Following McBride, who hates being told by scholars what to believe about Brown, Hawke apparently has reduced him to a caricature, the "44 caliber abolitionist," declaring him "nuttier than squirrel turd."  

In the SHOWTIME trailer, Frederick Douglass waves off
John Brown, calling him a "lunatic" under his breath

This kind of thinking is what Neil Postman warned us about years ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death.  It is the mentality of a television-  and entertainment-based culture where too many people don't want to be bothered with history unless it is reduced to blood-splattered drama or comedic spoofs on figures like John Brown and Frederick Douglass—men who really should be the serious study of this society, particularly at a time when we have a president in the White House who is somewhat reminiscent of the president who occupied the oval office at the time of John Brown's raid. McBride and Hawke are artists, and artists can always appeal to their freedom of expression. But whether they want to admit it or not, they are providing a warped sense of history and calling it thoughtful and instructive—and they will get away with it in a society where lots of people want entertainment to be their teacher. 

For the record, I know for a fact that two of John Brown's direct descendants are not at all pleased with the coming broadcast of SHOWTIME's "Good Lord Bird."  I can also attest that the larger John Brown community of scholars, musicians, actors, activists, and grassroots researchers and caretakers of local history in many communities associated with John Brown, are also quite displeased with what is anticipated in SHOWTIME’s “Good Lord Bird.”  Beyond these, a good many more of Brown's admirers are not going to be happy about having this important episode in the history of the struggle for justice reduced to a shoot-em up sitcom, courtesy of James McBride and Ethan Hawke.  

I hope we can get past “The Good Lord Bird” quickly after it airs this fall, and that other films yet to be produced will provide a more positive and historically fair presentation of Old Brown in the twenty-first century.  Indeed, we may yet see a thoughtful, smart, and entertaining film about John Brown come to the screen--that is, the Good Lord willing.