"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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Monday, February 18, 2013

Reflection and Response--
"He Who Endures to the End": The Play

Last evening I attended a play at the National Black Theater on 125th Street in Harlem, entitled, "He Who Endures to the End."  The play, written by Bill Harris, was part of The National Black Touring Circuit's 2013 Black History Month Play Festival, and starred Ralph McCain as Frederick Douglass, and my friend, Norman Marshall, as John Brown (Norman portrays JB in his own play, "Trumpet of Freedom," co-written by George Wolf Reily).  I was invited to participate in a post-play panel, along with Larry Lawrence of the John Brown Society (NYC), Herb Boyd, journalist and author of works relating to Brown and Malcolm X, and a Ms. Bailey, an activist and family researcher (whose first name I regretfully failed to obtain), who also happens to be the last descendant of Frederick Douglass in the Bailey family line.  The play was directed by Ajene Washington, and also featured Marcus Naylor as the black leader, Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, and Leopold Lowe as Shields Green, the Douglass associate who ultimately joined Brown at Harper's Ferry.
Ralph McCain portrays
Frederick Douglass

I'm no theater critic, but I can say that I enjoyed the play and thought the actors carried their roles effectively.  Lowe did a fine job as Green, and had the most strenuous role, which involved moving a lot of props while he spoke.  It was more than interesting to see the veteran Marshall as John Brown--that is, as John Brown in a different play.  The John Brown in "He Who Endures to the End" is fair, but the playwright has him spouting Bible verses like a frustrated preacher, and so tends to present a caricature within a caricature.  The other issue is that this Brown has a kind of messianic atonement complex that is not true of the man who lived.  The John Brown who lived nowhere spoke of his death as being for the sins of the nation, etc.  While this may have been applied to him after the fact (it certainly was applied to Lincoln after his assassination), Brown's only stated feeling about his own death was that it would help the anti-slavery cause.  Brown was self-consciously a martyr--that is, a witness.  But he never conveyed himself as anybody's messiah bearing the sins of the world.  

Norman Marshall portrays
John Brown
Biographically, "He Who Endures to the End" has two main flaws relating to the Brown-Douglass relationship.  First, it suggests that Douglass sort of led Brown on with respect to militancy--that Brown was looking to the encouragement of Douglass in pursuit of his militancy, indeed that he was something of Douglass' creation.   The theme of "what is necessary can be invented" did not apply to either man, but the younger Douglass certainly was in no position to make Brown after his ideas.  If anything, Douglass followed Brown--something which the play pointed out in showing that Douglass became more militant in his rhetoric by the 1850s, something that even Douglass in real life attributed to the John Brown factor.

Second, the play fails to show the depth of their friendship and the intimate and mutually admiring relationship that existed between Douglass and Brown.  They were not just political allies, but men whose families interacted, who were guests in each other's homes, and who had a personally comfortable rapport for more than a decade by the time of the Harper's Ferry raid in 1859.  While plays cannot nor should be thorough as histories, something more along these lines might have been added to deepen the drama of their final tensions.

In the end, Douglass walks away from Brown--the latter appearing more like a lovingly pitiable and ill-fated Don Quixotic, who tried and inevitably failed.  So while the play tends to portray Douglass as self-serving and ultimately evasive of Brown's expectations, it seems to justify his abandonment of Brown and allows him the "last word" by complimenting his dead friends who went to Harper's Ferry.  Yet at the same time, the play inherently promotes the notion that Brown was irresponsible and, to some degree, deluded, while Douglass was the realist.

In contrast, the more accurate portrayals of the play are the secondary figures of the Rev. Garnet and Shields Green, the self-liberated man who chose to join "the Old Man" in hopes of dealing a blow to slavery.  Garnet, who is often unsung in discussions of antebellum abolitionism, was a Presbyterian pastor in New York City.  In 1843, as the play shows from the onset, Garnet delivered a call to black militancy at a national black convention that finally was quashed through the influence of the moderate Frederick Douglass.  Garnet and Brown were on the same page from the beginning, and in a sense it is a shame that Brown could not have looked to Garnet to direct black men to his side in 1859.  But Douglass was the foremost black spokesman, the man who dominated black press and oratory, and the one whom Brown had most strategic reason to pursue.  In the long run, however, Douglass refused to throw his weight behind Brown's effort, a posture that substantially wounded Brown's recruitment efforts.   Likewise, Shields Green was warmly played as a faithful and zealous figure, who decided that taking action in following Brown was better than helping Douglass move ever higher in profile as a black leader who helped the anti-slavery cause by winning converts.

The truth about the Douglass-Brown story is widely unknown, and even the leading Douglass scholars have failed in large part to unpack this episode.  As it came out in the after-play panel, there is a general tendency to accept Douglass' autobiography uncritically, even though it has been shown (that is, I have shown this to some extent in John Brown--The Cost of Freedom) that Douglass knew about the Harper's Ferry raid much longer than he portrayed, and that he consistently refused to assist Brown.  The icing on the cake of Douglass' dissent was his rejecting the urging of a notable interest among blacks in Philadelphia to support Brown.  In retrospect, Douglass conflated a few meetings with Brown during 1859 into one meeting at Chambersburg.  While he was honest enough to portray himself "willing to live for the slave," Douglass probably could not comfortably portray the reality of their waning partnership, nor the extent to which he knew that he had disappointed both Brown and his family and followers.  

The Panel

The panel was a good complement to the play, or so feedback suggests.  The Douglass descendant shared of her experiences, including the incredulous manner in which her school teachers disdained her claim to being related to Frederick Douglass (she is a great-cousin, in effect, but I do not know how many generations removed).  Herb Boyd guided the conversation and notably raised the subject of Osborne Anderson's first-hand account of the raid, A Voice from Harper's Ferry, which he wrote in 1861 with the assistance of Canadian expatriate abolitionist, Mary Ann Shadd Cary.  Larry Lawrence raised key points concerning the need to expose the truth about Abraham Lincoln, pointing the audience to Lerone Bennett's Jr.'s political expose, Forced into Glory, which presents the reality of Lincoln's racism, and how it played out in his failure to lead the cause for justice--and ultimately how he was obligated by forces beyond himself to promote the end of slavery.  Brown is not the forerunner of Lincoln, he is the authentic liberating figure over against Lincoln's obligatory and racialist approach to black liberation.  

Annoying Amiri Baraka

An interesting discussion developed when the eminent poet and author, Amiri Baraka, expressed his "annoyance" at the centrality of the John Brown discussion, which he characterized as itself an expression of the influence of white racism.  I took issue with Baraka's comments, as did Larry Lawrence, who pointed out that--quite to the contrary--Brown is the lever that white society has manipulated so unfairly for over a century in order to keep the reality of slavery and white supremacy from being clearly discussed.  Baraka argued that a number of movies had been made about Brown, while not a single movie has been made about Douglass.  In fact, only three movies have centered upon Brown--Santa Fe Trail in 1940--a piece of latter day Lost Cause propaganda, Seven Angry Men (about a decade later), in which Raymond Massey reprised his role as Brown.  While the latter was more sympathetic, it failed to make an impact equal to Santa Fe Trail.  In the early 1980s, Johnny Cash portrayed Brown in the mini-series, North and South.  While he did so with more sympathy, this was not a film primarily focused upon the John Brown story.   While Douglass has not been portrayed in any major films, he has been portrayed in modest film efforts, and probably has been portrayed more positively in the media overall (he is portrayed in an awkwardly silent vignette, for instance, in Glory).    

As Baraka was insistent on this point, I countered that actually not a single film has been done that serves the story of John Brown fairly.  Not one.  Furthermore, I patently disagreed with his intention to circumvent the Brown story as if it were both immaterial to the struggle for justice, or even unworthy of being the central point of discussion in such a forum.   No human being born in privileged skin can excel what John Brown did for the struggle for black freedom.  To be sure, he did it imperfectly, but he yielded his life after subordinating even the needs of his own family, and did not, in my opinion, deserve to become the brunt of Mr. Baraka's expressed "annoyance."  
John Brown meant to do good, and died doing it.  Douglass meant to do good and did much good--but he also did very well for himself in the final reel. 
Frederick Douglass experienced indignities, violence, and loss that Brown could never approach in comparative human experience.  Yet Douglass also lived a longer life, and did so increasingly by moving along an upward trajectory that Brown never knew: the adoration of thousands if not millions, laudation and fame far exceeding the controversy and disdain he previously faced in the antebellum era; positions of influence and even a measure of prosperity; a long life, lionized and celebrated to the point that he was able to write three autobiographies; and, in the end, the ability to write the history of John Brown in a manner salutary but also self-serving.  John Brown meant to do good, and died doing it.  Douglass meant to do good and did much good--but he also did very well for himself in the final reel.  Douglass was a unique star--born in the darkness of slavery and degradation, he arose above his people as a guiding light, but rose much higher still, higher than most men of his generation, regardless of skin and "race."  His stardom, celebrity, and fame allowed him a palette of pleasure that he shared with only few men of his time.  This is not to begrudge him his stardom, for Douglass was the man needed for that hour and epoch.  Yet Douglass was a star if ever there was one.  The man seems to have been born to his greatness, and perhaps it was this sense of himself that became like a wedge between him and John Brown.   

Man for Man

Man for man--as men only live their lives within their own skins, skeletons, and skulls--Douglass escaped hell and mounted heaven, while Brown never went so high except to dangle by his neck a few feet from the earth.  Brown had spent his white privilege walking hills, valleys, and plains, often losing much and usually gaining little for himself or his children.  Most of his free time (double entendre intended) was spent worrying over slavery, or how to fix crooked conditions, or simply how to serve his God and feed his family.  He was hardly the supreme example of a privileged "white" man.   Douglass left Brown behind and ascended the stairway of contemporary renown and flattering historical memory.  Brown was left to ascend the steps of the gallows, where even today the rope of "mainstream" white opinion seeks to pull him downward, ever downward.  In the long run, then, it does seem a little misshapen--if not perverse--to express one's disgust that Brown, not Douglass, become the focus of a discussion about the Harper's Ferry raid.  After all, it was Brown who risked all and lost all there, while Douglass, by his admission, made no investment in it after so many years of projecting his support.

In his complaint, Amiri Baraka might better have considered statuary, memorials, and other cultural tributes that have been paid to Frederick Douglass.  Certainly, there is more recognition of Douglass in the common view of both the black and the so-called "white" communities today than there is for John Brown.  Every statue of Brown in existence is old and usually situated in a geographically and socially marginal place (one has now become inaccessible, essentially confined on the grounds of a zoo).  This is not the case with Douglass's tributes, including the elegant Frederick Douglass Circle statuary and memorial that stands at the end of my street in Manhattan.  For all of his annoyance, I wonder if Mr. Baraka can point me to the nearest John Brown statue.  Probably not.  (I can find two Frederick Douglass statues within fifty blocks of my apartment.)  Finally, from a purely political standpoint, I would conclude that when and if it comes to the place that John Brown's central role in U.S. history cannot be discussed without annoying certain friends with such gripes, then perhaps there is nothing more to be said in those circles.  



2 comments:

John Brown said...

I intend this comment not to reference any past story,though it might .I print it only to discuss some simple logic.I think most free people of the world would say that "Spartacus" was indeed a very brave being, that had a right to kill to free himself . Even the Romans made him and his group anti-Heroes . I know that most of the South could never dare do that,but that just shows how much ancient Rome is "braver" still than even the old south.So if Spartacus was a Hero then indeed so was John Brown. Slavery is slavery.To lessen either's participation is to say none were hero's . TRY telling that to any that TRULY understand what being FREE is.Fact ,I think John Brown was braver he . He was already free and knew he was very likely going to die fighting for other people to be free. Spartacus had to fight or he and his group would never be free. Not much of a choice .Yup, John Brown was indeed "braver".

John Brown said...

I intend this comment not to reference any past story,though it might .I print it only to discuss some simple logic.I think most free people of the world would say that Spartacus was indeed a very brave being, that had a right to kill to free himself . Even the Romans made him and his group anti-Heroes . I know that most of the South could never dare do that,but that just shows how much ancient Rome is braver still than even the old south.So if Spartacus was a Hero then indeed so was John Brown. Slavery is slavery.To lessen either's participation is to say none were hero's . TRY telling that to any that TRULY understand what being FREE is.Fact ,I think John Brown was braver he . He was already free and knew he was very likely going to die fighting for other people to be free. Spartacus had to fight or he and his group would never be free. Not much of a choice .Yup, John Brown was indeed braver.