The 5/9 –’59 Event: The First Annual John Brown Birthday Celebration in NYC
The 5/9-’59 event, which we hope will prove to be the first of an annual the celebration of John Brown’s Birthday, was held on the evening of May 9th at the Brecht Forum on West Street in Manhattan. The program was conceived and produced by Norman Marshall, an activist and actor who portrays Brown in the dramatic one-man play, John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom.
The program included music, poetry, and political-historical discussion, and an excellent performance by Mr. Marshall following the program. Music from the era of chattel slavery were performed: gospel vocalist Michele Sweeting sang John Brown’s favorite hymn, “Blow Ye the Trumpet”; Jeannine Otis, the Music Director of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, performed a work song. Poet Gwen Gunn presented a variety of poetry written about Brown, and Alice Kesey Mecoy—the great-great-great granddaughter of Brown—presented a fascinating discussion about the unfortunate reticence of many Brown descendants regarding their relation to the abolitionist. Mecoy herself did not know she was a direct descendant of Brown until she was a teenager, and was informed by a historian. A descendant through Brown’s daughter Anne Brown Adams, Mecoy’s family were not the only Brown descendants who hesitated to speak of the Old Man. One relative that she contacted for genealogical information was willing to help her provided Mecoy would promise never to contact her or raise the issue of John Brown again. Such was the impact of the negative psychological and political propaganda that prevailed in the later 19th and early 20th centuries that Brown descendants hide their ancestry in shame, although they have such good reason for pride and gratitude. The program was emceed by Bernard White, the Program Director Emeritus of WBAI radio, and featured a discussion by Ralph Poynter, an anti-racist activist and head of the Lynne Stewart Defense Committee. Also present for statements was our friend Larry Lawrence of the John Brown Society (NYC).
Michele Sweeting sings
Brown biographer David Reynolds was on hand to discuss his latest book (see below) and reiterate his case for the posthumous pardon of Brown by the United States government. In response, it was my role to argue against the pardon. Of course, Dr. Reynolds and I are much closer in opinion than we are different when it comes to the positive role of Brown in U.S. history, and I salute his 2005 biographer has a singular force in breaking through the hard wall of academic snobbery and bias that has reigned from the middle of the 20th century. Dr. Reynolds raised the issue of a pardon at the time of the Harpers Ferry raid sesquicentennial in 2009 and I expressed my view at the time. So there was nothing new in our exchange at the Bretcht, and certainly it was no real debate. What follows is (most of ) the text of my statement, and then an excerpt from an email from Dr. Reynolds that fairly well states his view in response to my remarks.
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First, the reason and purpose for which Brown died was the struggle for black freedom and justice for the disenfranchised, oppressed slave. Those who would seek a pardon for John Brown are putting the cart before the horse, as the saying goes. John Brown would not want to be pardoned if the African people of the United States were still owed both an apology and/or some form of reparations from both the federal government as well as individual states that sustained slavery, and then the descendants of slave holders whose family estates were enriched by stolen black labor.
It would be a mere and feeble gesture of sentimentalism to pardon John Brown when the United States government has never even issued an apology to the black people of this nation, whose ancestors were treated like animals and property by law of the land. As long as black people are fundamentally insulted by this nation, as long as the majority population pretends that slavery was an unfortunate parenthesis of ill-mannered behavior in an otherwise praiseworthy democracy, I doubt John Brown would want that government or its people to "pardon" him. Like Daniel the ancient Hebrew prophet and seer, Brown would say to the government, "Keep your pardon or give it to someone else."
This nation owes black people, if nothing else, a flagrant, official, and definitive apology. Until the U.S. government acknowledges its terrible guilt and crime against humanity in terms of the so-called "peculiar institution" as well as the suppression and extermination of Native Americans and other territorial abuses largely based on the lust of slave holder expansionism, then I say John Brown can wait, and I don't think he'd object.
Secondly, there is something inherently problematic about looking to the federal or state government of Virginia to pardon John Brown when both are historically complicit in crimes against humanity. Who are Uncle Sam and the Old Dominion to be dispensing pardons to freedom fighters like John Brown anyway? Given the fact that slavery was part of the U.S. constitution and that this government and its supreme court passed repressive, fascist laws pertaining to fugitive slaves and the Dred Scott Decision, asking federal and state governments to pardon Brown actually seems ludicrous. Indeed, the U.S. government and the State of Virginia should be petitioning to be pardoned by popular vote of African Americans. It would only be symbolic, but it would be more meaningful than if John Brown were pardoned.
Lastly, to pardon John Brown would rob him of the moral-historical context of his self-sacrifice. To put it by way of illustration, I would no more want John Brown to be pardoned by Uncle Sam or the State of Virginia than I would have wanted Constantine to pardon St. Paul, who was beheaded by an imperial predecessor, that pig Nero. The force and integrity of St. Paul's martyrdom was his quintessential innocence over against the guilt and perversion of the emperor who ordered his execution. The same applies to John Brown and 19th century U.S. politics. To pardon him today would be like cutting him away from the moral-historical fabric in which his life and death had meaning. There is a sense in which John Brown is only John Brown as a man found guilty and condemned by what he called "this slave nation."
John Brown was not bothered by the fact of dying at the hands of a guilty government. He did not care for the judgment of the nation or Virginia, only the judgment of God. As a believer in the atoning work of Jesus Christ and the evangelical and Reformed faith, John Brown had all the pardon he wanted at the Great Judgment Seat of Eternity. John Brown's legacy is bigger than the U.S. government's legacy, which is only political and self-serving to the rich and powerful of this land, something that Brown himself declared in his final statement to the court. Brown's legacy is likewise bigger than that of the Old Dominion, which is filled with the bones of slaves and the fools who would rather have had their sons die to keep slavery than set their slaves free. John Brown is an internationally loved and regarded revolutionary freedom figure. John Brown is loved today and has been loved down through the years, and he will be embraced by oppressed people and freedom fighters as long as this fallen world continues to produce oppressors and oppression.
On Nov. 29, 1859, Brown wrote to Mary Stearns, the wife of one of his greatest supporters:
I have asked to be spared from having any mock; or hypocritical prayers made over me, when I am publicly murdered: & that my only religious attendants be poor little, dirty, ragged, bare headed & barefooted, Slave Boys; & Girls; Led by some old greyheaded, Slave Mother. Farewell. Farewell.
John Brown does not need a pardon. He is more than pardoned by the people who love freedom and hate oppression. What activist Yuri Kochiyama once wrote about Malcolm X can likewise be said of John Brown: he is both epic and epoch in person. His single life and sacrifice defies stone monuments and memorials; if he had a postage stamp or a great stone temple in Washington, D.C., it would likely mean he was little more than a political compromiser and creature of the wealthy (by the way, Malcolm X's postage stamp was not only poorly done, but it illustrates the very point I'm making here: Malcolm would hardly have cared if the U.S. Post Office put him on a stamp anyway, and in putting him on a stamp, he was "mainstreamed" and deprived of his revolutionary political identity. The fact that Brown's greatest memorial is a humble farmhouse nearly on the northern border of the U.S.A. (Lake Placid, N.Y.), overlooked and disregarded by most, marks him as an authentically epic figure in human history. The fact that he lived and died fighting slavery in the context of a nation that was flagrantly racist and unjust makes him the standard-bearer of slavery's antithesis in his era.
Leave him to live and die in that era. Let him hang, despised and condemned, on that Virginia gallows. Pardon him and you will strip him of his victory. Take away his "guilt" by means of a governmental pardon and you will make him no better, no more valid, no more appreciated. The bigots, racists, and snobs who hate him will not suddenly embrace him. We who love him will not love him any more for a pardon from Uncle Sam or the Old Dominion. Do not pardon John Brown, nor seek to have him pardoned. Let him be, ever and always, a martyr--a witness for the oppressed! His Soul Goes Marching On! Happy Birthday, Old Man!* * *
For those who are already converted to John Brown’s cause, including most in the audience last night, Brown is far more meaningful if he remains unpardoned—that is, if he remains forever the brave foe of a wicked, slaveholding government. But, alas, there are very few Americans who view John Brown positively. In the history books, he is still relegated to a dismissive paragraph or two. Lou, I appreciate your saying that my book broke down walls, but I’m afraid that few professional historians take my view of Brown. We live in a democracy where majority rules, and the overwhelming majority of history books still depict John Brown as, at best, a well-intentioned fanatic and, at worst, a murderous madman. As a result, millions of schoolchildren are still learning to marginalize John Brown even as they continue to learn to idolize Lincoln. As I point out in my pro-pardon article in the Times, I think the nation should be aware of the true heroes of the past. I realize that pardoning John Brown is the very last item on Obama’s agenda—or rather, it’s not even on his radar screen--but I think it’s important to raise the pardon issue just to get pro-Brown sentiment in the air. If we don’t, Brown will forever remain sitting in his bad-boy corner, admired by a tiny handful like us but dismissed by everyone else.I leave the readers to decide for themselves. Certainly there is merit on both sides of this “debate.”
Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America (Norton) is newly released and has received excellent reviews:
“A wonderful history of what may justly be considered America’s national epic.”--Joan Hedrick, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life
“A provocative overview of the life and afterlife of one of American literature’s most important texts…Reynolds successfully repositions the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe as a major political work, crucial not just to the abolitionist movement, but as kindling for the Civil War and an important inspiration to the cultural discussions of race relations through most of the 20th century.”--Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Deeply researched and compulsively readable, Mightier than the Sword is both the definitive account of the strange but true career of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a sweeping two-hundred year history of race in America.”--Debby Applegate, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
“In Reynolds’s gifted hands, Mightier than the Sword is nothing less than an intellectual feast.”
--Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval
“Reynolds is a virtuoso writer…A fitting tribute to the 200th anniversary of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s birth.”--Mike Harvkey, Publishers Weekly
For readers in the NYC metro area, Dr. Reynolds will be speaking about his latest book and other related themes at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble, 2289 Broadway at 82nd Street on Wednesday, June 15th at 7 p.m. Come and support Dr. Reynolds and bring a friend.