"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

History, Black and Blurred: John Brown and Malcolm X according to James Smalls

In 2000, James Smalls, a leading black scholar in the Harlem community, appeared on “The Gilchrist Experience,” a local cable talk show hosted by producer Winston Gilchrist on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. Gilchrist regularly re-broadcasts past shows such as the episode featuring Smalls, which was taped not long after the outrageous and treacherous shooting of Amadou Diallo, an innocent African bystander, by New York City police officers in the Bronx. According to Gilchrist, the theme of the evening was “crime in the urban community,” although the opportunity was not lost on Smalls to expound upon the history of the United States with respect to the expansive program of slavery and violent subjugation that co-exists with the hypocritical textbook claims of American democracy and freedom.

I would never presume to question Smalls' right (or any black man’s right, for that matter) to express his disgust, resentment, and indignation over the history of racism in this society, or the ongoing crises and casualties resulting from the basic inequity and injustice that still permeates U.S. society. In fact, there is little that Professor Smalls could say that would disturb me insofar as he speaks the truth about this nation and its prevailing sin, which still plagues us both as a problem of individuals as well as systems. In other words, Smalls may let fly whatever criticisms and accusations he wishes about white society, the founders of this nation, and the ongoing hypocrisies practiced by so many claiming to be devotees of justice in the land. I have no ax to grind with him because he is a “race critic.”

Nevertheless, despite his lengthy career of education, activism, and interaction with some of the greatest minds of the black community in the 20th century, I was more than disappointed at certain remarks Smalls made in this 2000 interview with respect to both John Brown and Malcolm X. As the reader will observe from my exact transcription of a segment of the interview, Professor Smalls, like Jehu of old, allowed his zeal to lead him along a path of wild and destructive conclusions. Even granting that he was speaking in anger over the wicked police killing of Diallo, the fact remains that Smalls’ reckless words do a disservice to the historical record and insult the souls of two great men.

I don’t know any white Americans that believe in freedom. If they do they should be martyrs, having been killed fighting for freedom in America. And don’t mention John Brown, because John Brown was fighting for white folks in Kansas; he simply saw freeing black folks as a way of keeping the slave masters and the big rich white people from taking control of Kansas where poor whites was trying to make a living.

Now that was one of Malcolm’s heroes. . . .

Malcolm made mistakes otherwise he wouldn’t be dead [Gilchrist chuckles]. I love Malcolm, but I’m not going to make him god. Malcolm was a hell of a brother, but he made serious, critical errors, both in judgment and he was operating in [audio distortion] for a history about John Brown. . . .1

These kinds of polemical generalizations suggest that despite his academic expertise, there is something of the “Shock Jock” in James Smalls--that he would rather throw out whopping half-truths and arrogant judgments rather than deal, as an educator, in the record of history.

“John Brown was Fighting for White Folks”

Take for instance his readiness to jettison John Brown from the record of the black community’s allies. This is deliberate on Smalls’ part. He mentions Brown first, and then dismisses him on the basis that he allegedly fought in Kansas to save the territory for “poor whites.” Indeed, Smalls says, Brown “simply saw freeing black folks as a way of keeping the slave masters and the big rich white people from taking control of Kansas.”

That Smalls could make such a claim strikes me as the height of malice and ignorance, and it is hard to judge which of the two reigns greater in the mind of the professor. To suggest that Brown only played off of the black struggle in order to keep Kansas for poor whites is unwarranted by the evidence, unheard of in any biography (including especially his black biographers like DuBois and Quarles), and downright stupid for a man of Smalls’ age and stature as a scholar.

I am not laboring under the assumption that because Smalls is black that therefore he must adore and elevate John Brown. From what I read of the man, Smalls has his idols, and they are black. How he fares on judgment day in that regard is between him and the Creator. However, I am persuaded that unless Smalls wishes to be labeled a prejudiced hack, he should go back to school on John Brown.

1. Smalls should realize that his claim about Brown in Kansas is all wrong. Brown was long concerned for the black struggle and the evidence suggests he hoped to launch his efforts toward black liberation without going to Kansas, but was forced by family concerns to go westward in 1855. John Brown’s primary reason for going and staying in Kansas was to aid and protect his sons and their families, and then to use all his power to stop the territory from becoming a slave state.

2. As Smalls would know if he took the time to study Brown’s life, both he and his family were outspoken and radical in their commitment to black equality–something that was not common even among anti-slavery and free state people in the antebellum era. The evidence shows that it was their outspoken commitment to black equality that made the Browns a target of Southern terrorists while in Kansas, and when Brown fought (and killed) such people, he did so, not only for self-defense, but as the logical necessity of his pro-black position. Most of the free-state Kansans even thought the Browns fanatical in this regard.

3. Who does Smalls–-Africentrist and Yoruba priest that he is-–presume himself to be in dissenting from the ancestors who knew and collaborated with John Brown and found him a true friend and ally? Even the blacks most disappointed by Brown, such as those who saw him fail at Harper’s Ferry, never spoke with anything less than appreciation and salutation for his willingness to live and die for the enslaved. Never did a black man or woman who knew him ever have the arrogant audacity to question Brown’s single-minded devotion to black freedom. But James Smalls not only dismisses Brown like some angry college sophomore, but pontificates of his alleged insincerity, exploitative, and opportunistic use of the black struggle. Perhaps Smalls has mistaken his presumption for fact, or as he come to believe that whatever he says IS history?

“Malcolm Made Mistakes, Otherwise He Wouldn’t Be Dead”

If that were not bad enough, Smalls made matters worse when responding to host Gilchrist’s remark that even Malcolm X looked up to John Brown, something that is itself questionable. (Malcolm never praised Brown in obvious terms, but he did uphold him as an example of the kind of white ally that he wished to see for the black community.) Of course, Gilchrist is no scholar, so he may be forgiven for suggesting that Brown was Malcolm’s “hero.” However, he may not be forgiven for chuckling at Smalls’ arrogant rejoinder: “Malcolm made mistakes otherwise he wouldn’t be dead.”

To suggest that Malcolm was reached by the murderous “Black Muslims” who killed him on February 21, 1965 because of his own “mistake” is a cruel and misleading statement, and the fact that Gilchrist chuckled at this remark makes him seem far less worthy to host a black-centered talk show in New York City. Malcolm lost his life because a determined conspiracy of assassins under the orders of Elijah Muhammad and his officials were unrelenting in their efforts to kill him. Malcolm lost his life because police and government agents turned a blind eye to this conspiracy and even took comfort in watching it unfold to its tragic outcome. Malcolm lost his life because the black men who “followed” him, almost to a man, were too irresponsible, weak, and careless to protect their hero. Malcolm most certainly died alone-–like most prophets-–because his male followers either abandoned him or were so childishly dependent upon him for emotional gratification that they were actually incapable of structuring the kind of security that he really needed. As if this were not enough, many "black-minded" people continue to heap insult upon Malcolm’s spirit because they cling to Louis Farrakhan and others who, in Malcolm’s day, were his mortal enemies, and still resent and undermine his reputation while Malcolm is mouldering in the grave.

Malcolm and John Brown

Finally, Smalls seems to think that he knows more about John Brown than Malcolm did. The tape at this point in the interview is unclear, but it is evident that Smalls concluded by suggesting that Malcolm erred in the reading or evaluating of historical sources in his time. If this is the case, what proof does Smalls have? Malcolm likely read substantially on Brown’s life, at least the biographies of Villard and DuBois. He was also skilled in reading between the lines of white scholars who condemned Brown as violent and crazy. Malcolm was an excellent student of history and he would never have made assertions about Brown without reading well into his life. Obviously the same cannot be said for James Smalls, who in one fell swoop in 2000, showed himself to be a wounded, angry, and petty man informed by ignorant assumptions inflated to the point of self-delusion by hubris. As to Malcolm, one would not ask Smalls to make him a god; but one would ask him to handle the slain hero with respect and discretion, and not sprinkle such condescending mockery on his grave. As for John Brown, it matters little to me if Smalls praises or salutes him. I really could care less if Brown fits into his pantheon of friends and allies (although he evidently has some “good” whites in his pantheon, which he also mentioned, as having marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). Black people are long past the point when they need to uplift white allies; there are too many black heroes and martyrs to recognize. Still it would be nice if Smalls--son of the South and scion of enslaved but noble Africans in America-–would at least not betray John Brown with brutus daggers of ignorant dismissal. Brown deserves better than that. Certainly John Brown was a better man than James Smalls will ever be.

1 James Smalls, interviewed by Winston Gilchrist on The Gilchrist Experience, 2000 (New York: Manhattan Neighborhood Network, Channel 34), re-broadcast on February 7, 2007.

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