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

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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. 

Monday, July 06, 2020

Three John Brown Statues

To my knowledge, there are three statues of John Brown in the United States (not counting smaller statuary, like busts and smaller pieces): First, and perhaps the most well known, is the statue of John Brown and a young black boy, situated at the John Brown Farm (a NY State Historical site) near Lake Placid, NY. It was sculpted by Joseph Pollia and unveiled in 1935. Pollia shows Brown walking with a young black youth, which some--both mildly and critically--have taken as a paternalistic image. However, it should be pointed out that this image could very well be taken to resemble Brown's actual relationship with black neighbors, including Lyman Epps, Jr., whose father was very close to Brown.  Lyman Jr. loved John Brown so much that he wrote in later life that he would not leave the cold Essex County, even after all his family had died, because he wanted to tend to Brown's grave at the farm. I prefer to see this statue in this light.
Pollia's 1935 Statue, located at the
John Brown Farm Historic Site, 
Lake Placid, N.Y. (photo by Kevin Stewart, flickr)

The same year, 1935, a life-sized bronze statue of Brown was dedicated in John Brown Memorial Park in Osawatomie, Kan.  It obviously reflects the Kansas memory of Brown as a militant free state fighter and hero. The Osawatomie statue was erected by the Woman's Relief Corps of Kansas and sculpted by George Fite Waters in Paris.  Both the Lake Placid and Osawatomie statues honored Brown's 135th birthday.  At the dedication, according to the Osawatomie Graphic News, the African American Bishop W. T. Vernon said: "Sleeping or walking, John Brown could not, and did not, try to shut out the vision of slavery."

Marble Statue of Brown at Osawatomie,
sculpted by George Fite Waters
(photo from KC Restoration, 2018)

However, the oldest is perhaps the most interesting, shown below, left, portrays Brown standing as a kind of statesman. This statue was unveiled in 1911, making it the oldest major statue of John Brown in the United States. It stands in the Quindaro section of Kansas City, Kan.  It is, for all intents and purposes, an African American production, although it was actually executed in the town of Carrara, Italy, known for both its white marble and its statuary.  The sculptor's last name, according to the Topeka Plaindealer (Jun. 16, 1911), is Chignelle, although I have not been able to find him elsewhere online.  

The idea of this statue was the brainchild of Bishop Abram Grant, of the African American Episcopal Church, the oldest black denomination.  Grant spearheaded this project but unfortunately did not live to see its presentation, having died only five months before its dedication.  This was no small production: its cost, $2000 in 1911, which is equivalent to about $55,000 with modern inflation.  It was entirely funded by African Americans, which not only shows the degree of admiration and support that black people at that time felt toward Brown, but should also be seen as "pushback" to all the racist statuary that was being erected in that period to commemorate proslavery figures.  While it is a salute to John Brown, it is perhaps even more an expression of black resistance.  

The Quindaro 1911 Statue of Brown,
Kansas City, Kan.
(photo by Donna, Roadside America.com)

It is no small thing, however, throughout a time of great crisis brought about by white racist betrayal in the North and brute terrorism and systematic racist assault in the South, many African Americans remembered John Brown as a beacon of hope.  It has been observed that when many African Americans fled the South because of white racist terrorism, they went west to Kansas because of its association with John Brown. Today, one would not expect black people to hold the same passion for Brown as their forebears did in the midst of the white supremacist assault upon them.  With the passing of time and the continuation of the struggle, the black community has gone on to commemorate and advance monuments both locally and nationally that recall African American leadership. 

Sadly, the Quindaro statue has repeatedly been subjected to racist vandalism, first in 2018, according to the Kansas City Star, when it was scrawled with swastikas and other racist graffiti, then in late 2019. According to KSHB in Kansas City (Nov. 20, 2019), the statue once more was intentionally damaged--fingers from the image having been cut off, and a scroll in the figure's hand having been stolen. 

Unfortunately, attacks on John Brown sites are not new.  In the mid-20th century, Brown aficionado Boyd Stutler observed that the local KKK had left burning crosses in front of the John Brown House in Akron, Ohio, in January and November, 1966 (Stutler to Gee, Nov. 27, 1966, in Hudson Library and Historical Society).

As a kind of coda, it is interesting to learn that at one point, Kansas advocates had attempted to install a statue of Brown in Washington, D.C.  In a letter to the Presbyterian clergyman and Brown admirer, John S. Duncan, Stutler wrote that about thirty years before (around 1900), authorization was gained to place a statue of Brown in the Capitol Building's Hall of Fame, known as the National Statuary Hall Collection.  In this collection, the states of the union are given space to place statues representing their histories. In the 21st century, a good many older statues have been removed and replaced with other statues (e.g., Nebraska's statue of William Jennings Bryan was removed and replaced by a statue of Chief Standing Bear).  According to Stutler, Kansas representatives wanted to place a statue of Brown in the collection, but "for some reason, perhaps largely political, the statue was not made and the places have since been filled by two others of lesser fame" (Stutler to Duncan, Feb. 15, 1928, in Stutler Papers, RP04 0120). 

There is yet no national statue honoring the memory of John Brown as being among the great liberating figures of the United States.  That day may yet come.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

NYU PRESS FALL 2020 CATALOGUE: The Untold Story of Shields Green: The Life and Death of a Harper's Ferry Raider

When John Brown decided to raid the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry as the starting point of his intended liberation effort in the South, some closest to him thought it was unnecessary and dangerous. Frederick Douglass, a pioneering abolitionist, refused Brown’s invitation to join him in Virginia, believing that the raid on the armory was a suicide mission. Yet in front of Douglass, “Emperor” Shields Green, a fugitive from South Carolina, accepted John Brown’s invitation. When the raid failed, Emperor was captured with the rest of Brown’s surviving men and hanged on December 16, 1859.

“Emperor” Shields Green was a critical member of John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raiders but has long been overlooked. Louis DeCaro, Jr., a veteran scholar of John Brown, presents the first effort to tell Emperor’s story based upon extensive research, restoring him to his rightful place in this fateful raid at the origin of the American Civil War. Starting from his birth in Charleston, South Carolina, Green’s life as an abolitionist freedom-fighter, whose passion for the liberation of his people outweighed self-preservation, is extensively detailed in this compact history. In The Untold Story of Shields Green, Emperor pushes back against racism and injustice and stands in his rightful place as an antislavery figure alongside Frederick Douglass and John Brown.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

From the Field: An Iowa Return; Notes and Pictures by H. Scott Wolfe!

Traveled to Springdale, Iowa yesterday [Jun. 5]...for the first time in ages. As usual, halted at the Quaker Cemetery, where a number of JB connections are buried.

The Old Man spent a good deal of time with Moses Varney, who was acquainted enough with Brown’s plans that he was later suspected of being the author of the “Floyd Letter,” warning the Secretary of War of a contemplated raid upon a government installation.

The name of Elza Maxson appears in some of the Old Man’s correspondence. He was one of several men recruited in the Springdale area for Brown’s Provisional Army. And like several others, he did not participate at Harpers Ferry.

Some additional stones of interest:

Ann Raley, a Quaker resident of Springdale, was the mother of Edwin and Barclay Coppoc, who were recruited into Brown’s Provisional Army during the winter of 1857-58. Of course Edwin was captured at Harpers Ferry and later executed. Barclay managed to escape, and made his way back to Springdale. Brown allies, such as C.W. Moffett, guarded him there...and eventually took him to nearby Mechanicsville, Iowa, where he was put on a train for Canada. Barclay eventually died in a Civil War train wreck in Kansas.

Nearby is the grave of Levi Coppoc, another sibling.

Uncle Tom Jenkins, aka Richard Lewis, was one of a number of ex-slaves who resided in the Springdale area. The village was a depot on the UGRR...and it is rumored that a number of blacks are buried in the nearby North Liberty Cemetery.

It was here that Brown’s men boarded and trained during the winter of 1857-58. The site is just northeast of the village of Springdale and still quite remote. In fact, it could be the least visited historic site in the nation...unless you hang out with this infidel.

Here you see your hero, propped against the Maxson house marker placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution back in 1924 A.D. 

Now, I think, to place a John Brown marker on the Iowa prairie took some awfully liberal Daughters! The plaque includes some lines from John Greenleaf Whittier.

In the final image...the actual Maxson farmhouse sat between the two electrical poles visible in the very center of the picture. Oh, for an archaeological dig! The original foundation should still exist beneath an Iowa machine shed!

Thus does a questionable historian spend his time during a pandemic.
For further reading, see Scott's previous articles on this blog about the Springdale connection to John Brown's story:

Monday, May 18, 2020

Did John Brown Really Make a “Mistake”? Some Thoughts in Response to “A Curse Upon the Nation”

Kay Wright Lewis is a professor of history at Howard University, and is the author of a fascinating and well written volume entitled, “A Curse Upon the Nation”: Race, Freedom, and Extermination in America and the Atlantic World (University of Georgia Press, 2017).  Wright Lewis has an impressive resume, including a fellowship at the Gilder Lehrman Center of Yale University, a dissertation finalist’s position for the Southern Historical Association, and other fellowship awards that certainly highlight her as a distinguished scholar. 

A Curse Upon the Nation is concerned with race-based violence and its horrific consequences for black people.  In the introduction, Wright Lewis contends “racialized violence toward African Americans became inscribed in race relations in America, continuing throughout the civil rights era,” and became “entangled with how certain narratives are privileged over others in the production and creation of what is considered fact or truth.”  This “erasure,” Wright Lewis continues, “is made manifest by the countless testimonies of African Americans about the violence they experienced and the trauma that such violent events caused in their lives, events that have not been acknowledged” (p. 2).  Wright Lewis further argues that the real concern of racial extermination “forces us to reevaluate the conditions in which slaves and free blacks exerted power.”  In fact, throughout history, black people shared a “common wind”—conveying information through oral communications—that made all Africans in the Americas “well aware of what they were up against” (p. 4).  Today, however, “most people today, white or black, do not know that the history of racialized exterminatory warfare is an essential part of the American story” (p. 7).

One must agree with Wright Lewis that the development of the United States as a powerful nation was not merely the result of courageous pioneers and “political brilliance,” but also “acts of incredible violence toward those enslaved”—“exterminatory warfare and violent conquest” with roots in Europe and Africa (p. 10).  Southern whites, then, carried forth this long tradition of racist violence by enslaving blacks, always with the belief that enslavement could only end with the extermination of black people. As a result, her book surveys a number of themes reflecting the terrible history of racial violence and “how the potential for a race war between blacks and whites shaped the human cost of slavery— and freedom—in ways that have been previously unexamined” (p. 10). Overall, this is an estimable work.  Wright Lewis presents a tragic theme and does so with erudition and insight.  

Notwithstanding my admiration for her work, however, I must stringently object to the conclusions she draws in chapter seven, entitled, “John Brown’s Mistake: The Power of Memory and the Dangers of Violence.”  It seems to me (1) that Wright Lewis has constructed her entire argument on a flawed premise concerning John Brown’s plan and intentions; and (2) that she erroneously uses certain sources to prove her point, and in so doing only ends up reinforcing a mistaken conclusion herself.  As concerns the subject, it seems that Wright Lewis holds Brown historically at arm’s length. While acknowledging the longstanding tradition of black appreciation for him, actually she thinks Brown a half-loaf ally, a well-intended outsider with intrinsic racist proclivities in his thinking about black people. 

I. The Deep Flaw

The deep flaw that runs through the whole of chapter seven on Brown is the persistent representation of John Brown as having an insurrectionary intent.  In fairness, Wright Lewis cannot be solely blamed because this is a longstanding error that prevails in the literature and in the academy.  In A Curse Upon the Nation, then, the entire argument concerning (really, against) Brown is based upon a false premise.  As Jesus said, building one’s house on sand is risky business.

Wright Lewis generally uses the term “insurrection” in this chapter many times but speaks of Brown’s actual plan as an “insurrection” at least fifteen times, and only one of these times is she quoting someone else’s words.  However, amidst her discussion, Wright Lewis passingly writes: “Although Brown testified that he was not attempting to instigate an insurrection, southern whites believed that he was, which would have led to a war between the races” (p. 166).

This is problematic because Wright Lewis is blurring the difference between two historical questions and apparently has done so because it is convenient to her thesis. It is one thing to repeatedly say that Brown planned and intended to carry out an insurrection; it is quite another to say that “southern whites believed that he was.”  The answer to the latter is self-evident. It is the Southerners who invented the charge that John Brown was an insurrectionist.  Brown denied the charge although Virginia indicted and executed him on this basis, then the Southern press advanced it, and finally the US Senate embedded it in the so-called Mason Report of 1860. Far too many historians have then followed suit without questioning whether the evidence supports it.

Wright Lewis herself acknowledges how Brown explicitly denied that he intended an insurrection.  What is disappointing, however, is that although she knows Brown denied the insurrection charge, as a historian she makes no effort to evaluate his claim by examining his words or the evidence.  Again, this appears to be the case because she needs John Brown to be an insurrectionist not only to make this chapter work, but in order to justify impugning his judgment and calling him a well-intentioned paternalistic “romantic racist.” This is most unfortunate.

I should reiterate that although Wright Lewis has failed in part because of drawing upon questionable narratives, there is sufficient evidence in the record to question the “insurrection” fallacy.  Even Wright Lewis herself relays the testimony of Harriet Tubman, who said it “was not John Brown’s idea to murder the white people but to stir the slaves so as to attract the attention [of the] country and to strike for freedom” (p. 171). Franklin Sanborn—a source to which Wright Lewis has access—likewise denied that Brown intended an insurrection “in any sense of the word, but an invasion or foray” (Life and Letters, p. 123). There are other witnesses who make the same claim, although sadly many historians are either bound to the Southern claim or are too dull to make this important distinction. As I have argued in both Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia and in my forthcoming book about Shields Green, the following should be understood as a corrective to two errors in conventional notions of the raid: (1) Brown did not intend an insurrection; and (2) Brown did not seize Harper’s Ferry to arm the slaves with guns as Wright Lewis suggests (p. 142). 

Having built her thesis primarily on this first error—the defining flaw of the chapter—Wright Lewis sets up the interrogative that she badly wants to answer. “The question, then,” she asks, “is why Brown, a colleague and friend to many black abolitionists, would attempt to initiate a slave insurrection in the South?” (p146). The answer, esteemed professor, is that Brown did not “attempt to initiate a slave insurrection in the South.”  He attempted to launch a movement that would destabilize slavery’s operations, not “terrorize” slaveholding families or spark a race war that would backfire upon black people in racial “extermination.”

II. Further Errors

There are a good many secondary problems with Wright Lewis’ chapter on “John Brown’s Mistake.”  Some of them are sketched as follows:

A. Misreading Brown on Black People

It is a matter of history that Northern blacks showed little interest in Brown’s plan.  Wright Lewis does a good job of highlighting a number of black leaders who lacked confidence in Brown’s plan, declined from joining him, and even disagreed with him.  She also notes the late Benjamin Quarles’ explanation, that the prominent black discourse on resistance in Brown’s day was rhetoric.  To otherwise put it bluntly, most of the militant black talk in Brown’s time was hot air and he didn’t realize it.  Wright Lewis says instead that Brown actually “was well informed by the end of the 1850s,” and that he knew that “the black community North and South would have been unwilling to instigate a violent uprising of the slaves.”  Therefore, she argues, Brown’s “insistence on going ahead anyway with his insurrection plans points toward his style of leadership, as well as his and other white radical abolitionists’ racial assumptions” (p147).
In other words, Wright Lewis thinks that John Brown was quite aware of how hesitant black people were when it came to taking up arms, and went ahead anyway in promoting his “insurrection.” The reason he did so, it turns out, is because he was a “romantic racist” who shared “common social assumptions” about blacks and enslavement—notions like violence could prove black manhood and that whites had to lead black people to fight.  Not only did Brown hold these warped views of black people, but he was quite willing to send them to their deaths and provoke mass racial “extermination” in order to accomplish his “insurrection” (p. 149).
To be sure, Brown cannot be separated from the time and context in which he lived, and to some degree his life reflects the patriarchy, patriotism, and ethnocentrism of his time and context.  As Wright Lewis points out, Brown praised Harriet Tubman privately with masculine references.  As I have pointed out in my forthcoming work on Shields Green, at times he took it upon himself to write, as it were, speaking in the voice of black people to argue on their behalf.  He did have concerns about leading people from slavery, arming them with pikes, and forming them into a functioning outlier community, which is why he wrote both a constitution and tried to recruit black leaders to guide them. 
Like any historical figure, John Brown must be judged by history and evaluated, but most of the judgment that he has faced over a century has been unfair, often biased.  Typically, this bias has emanated from the “the top down”—either from romancers of the South or from high holy Lincoln and Civil War scholarship.  Very rarely, however, has the bias against Brown come from the black community, although there are a few cases (e.g., Vincent Harding).  Unfortunately, it appears Wright Lewis is such a voice since she is essentially blaming Brown for being a paternalistic racist who didn’t care what happened to black people as long as they did what he wanted them to do.
For instance, Wright Lewis writes: “Brown and other white radical abolitionists discounted the atrocities that the black community would face if they were to initiate an insurrection in the South.” (p149)  But in order to buttress this accusation, she misreads John Brown twice!  First, she misapplies his famous statement that “it would be better that a whole generation should pass off the face of the earth—men, women, and children,—by violent death” as a reference to black people. To the contrary, Brown was speaking of the entire nation and reading the complete quotation would make this clear.  That Wright Lewis twists this to mean Brown was willing to sacrifice all of the lives of black people is a misrepresentation that suggests she is groping, and perhaps is driven by some form of prejudice.
Likewise, Wright Lewis refers to Brown’s Sambo Mistakes (not “Sambo’s Mistakes as it is commonly misrepresented in texts).  This is a document, written in the 1840s, ostensibly for a black newspaper, The Ram’s Horn, although we do not know if it was actually published. In Sambo, Brown’s literary black persona admonishes blacks not to think they would secure favor with whites by tame submission but advises rather “nobly resisting” the “brutal aggressions from principle” (p. 149).  But here Brown is not speaking of insurrectionary violence.  He is writing to free blacks who are bullied and abused on the streets of Northern cities, suggesting to them that there is nothing principled nor admirable in tolerating racist abuse as free people.  This was an opinion that Brown doubtless shared with militant black abolitionists who, like him, disagreed with the Garrisonian “moral suasion” school.  To make more of this statement is once more a misrepresentation on the part of Professor Wright Lewis. The question is, why does she want to create a breach which generations of black writers going back to Brown’s time have never discussed?
B. Further Misuse of Sources
1. Edward V. Clark

Just as Wright Lewis has abused two of Brown’s own statements in order to substantiate her claims, she also misrepresents the first source presented under a section called, “John Brown’s Plan from the Black Perspective.” Starting with the premise that “blacks overwhelmingly rejected John Brown’s plan to arm those enslaved in the South,” her first evidence is in quoting Edward V. Clark, a black entrepreneur who objected to the use of force in a meeting at the Zion Church in New York City.  But an examination of the citation shows that Clark made this objection in 1850 (p. 154; see ch. 7, note 57).  The quotation has value, of course, but it is misleading because the quotation was not made in reference to John Brown, and Wright Lewis should have pointed this out instead of apparently hiding the chronological issue in her endnotes.

2. Frederick Douglass

Wright Lewis misuses Frederick Douglass’ reminiscences as well, citing his famous objections to Brown’s decision to seize the Harper’s Ferry armory in this third autobiography.  “When Frederick Douglass found out that Brown intended to capture Harpers Ferry,” Wright Lewis states, “he also rejected the plan because it would be dangerous to the black community. Douglass told Brown that ‘to me, such a measure would be fatal to all engaged in doing so. It would be an attack upon the federal government and would array the whole country against us’” (pp. 155-56). 

There are two problems with how Wright Lewis uses Douglass.  First, it should be remembered that by his own admission, Douglass fully supported Brown’s original plan to invade the South.  In fact, it is Douglass who provides us the best sense of what Brown’s plan was (up until about 1856), before he decided to seize Harper’s Ferry.  Even in the original plan, Brown had intended to arm enslaved people, retreat to the mountains, and create a movement through the South that liberated people and destabilized slavery with the possibility of using force. “The true object to be sought is first of all to destroy the money value of slave property,” Brown told Douglass, “and that can only be done by rendering such property insecure.” As to this first plan, Douglass summed up: Hence, I assented to this, John Brown’s scheme or plan for running off slaves” (Life & Times of Frederick Douglass, Ch. VIII, p. 220, Ch. X, p. 319).

Wright Lewis says that whatever Brown’s intentions, it was what southern whites believed “which would have led to a war between the races” (p. 166). [Let us set aside for the moment that this wasn’t the case—not even in the Turner insurrection, since slaveholders were not willing to engage in mass extermination as long as they retained the property value of enslaved people. ] But if Douglass shared Wright Lewis’ belief that any movement upon the South would have provoked racial extermination, why did the abolitionist orator approve of Brown’s campaign in the first place? 

To be sure, Douglass liked Brown’s original plan because it would begin quietly, “gradually and unaccountably drawing off the slaves to the mountains.” Conversely, he was put off when Brown “completely renounced his old plan in favor of “striking a blow that would instantly arouse the country,” which was to seize Harper’s Ferry (Douglass, Ch. X, p. 324). 

This much is true, although Douglass must have understood that even in Brown’s first version of the invasion, Southerners would have quickly learned of the movement and would have begun to attack.  This hardly affirms Wright Lewis’ argument, since Southern violence and retaliation was inevitable, even with a plan that Douglass himself approved.

Secondly, as Wright Lewis interprets Douglass, she presents the orator’s objection to Brown’s revised plan as posing an immediate threat to black people. “To me, such a measure would be fatal to all engaged in doing so,” Douglass wrote. “It would be an attack upon the federal government and would array the whole country against us” (Wright Lewis, pp. 155-56; Douglass, Ch. X, p. 323).  But what did Douglass mean by “against us”?  Contrary to Wright Lewis, he was not referring to black people generally, or to enslaved people. Rather, Douglass was speaking of the antislavery cause.  His point to Brown was that by attacking a federal institution, he might put the entire antislavery cause at odds with popular opinion in the North.  Like other misused references in this chapter, Wright Lewis has unfortunately twisted Douglass to suit her argument against the black community’s traditional reading of John Brown.

3. George DeBaptiste

Wright Lewis’ use of George DeBaptiste is particularly peculiar as well as problematic.  DeBaptiste, an underground railroad leader, was present in a Detroit meeting with Douglass, Brown, and a number of black leaders from Detroit and nearby Chatham, Ontario, in March 1859. The meeting took place right after Brown arrived in Detroit and triumphantly delivered twelve enslaved people to Canadian freedom. DeBaptiste is described in the meeting as being critical of Brown’s plan because, in his estimation, it did not go far enough. Instead, DeBaptiste proposed the use of terrorism, suggesting that a number of white churches in the South be blown up during Sunday service on a given day.  Brown opposed the idea immediately since he had no intention of practicing terrorism. Yet, somewhat incredibly (according to Wright Lewis) DeBaptiste also objected to Brown’s plan because it would have brought tremendous violence down upon the heads of blacks throughout the South (p. 158).
A description of this meeting between Brown, Douglass, and local leaders in Detroit is found in a number of sources, although Douglass himself omits mention of this meeting from his autobiography.  However, the claim that DeBaptiste, of all people, worried that Brown’s actions might bring violence down on black people is either strange or suspect.  Accounts vary of how many churches DeBaptiste wanted to blow up, but it is hard to imagine that DeBaptiste actually thought that Brown’s plan, and not his own suggested terror plot, would bring a more violent reaction from Southern whites. This may suggest that Wright Lewis has depended upon an unreliable source, or that an error has been made on her part, or possibly that DeBaptiste’s judgment was questionable.  After all, if invading Virginia could drive white Southerners to violently attack black people, what sort of mad bloodletting would have followed the blowing up of even a handful of white Southern churches on a Sunday morning?
C.  Was the Aftermath of Harper’s Ferry a “New Reign of Terror”
To justify her sideways condemnation of John Brown, Wright Lewis naturally has to find the outcome that proves her thesis, namely that black people suffered more extensively because of Brown’s effort after the fact.  The problem for her thesis is that her argument must be spread far and thin to make a fitting conclusion for her claim. 
Of course, there is no question that black people suffered reprisals after the Harper’s Ferry raid.  Black people suffered locally when any wind of uprising or threat of uprising blew upon the South, and no one would question Wright Lewis as to this tragic reality of history. However, it may be that by prioritizing “the potential of a race war and black extermination,” Wright Lewis has failed to consider other aspects that informed slavery.  For instance, her argument fails to consider that even a violent, racist slaveholding society bereft of conscience and genuine morality had other motivations that preempted “black extermination” as long as black people were held as property.  As Patrick Breen has shown in his treatment of the Nat Turner incident, Southern leaders may have tolerated a measure of racist violence and black extermination when Southern whites threw violent fits of rage against black people.  However, the norms of the slave economy required that these murderous impulses had to be limited.  The idea of “black extermination” was actually out of the question during slavery—quite in contrast to what happened to black people after slavery, and after they were betrayed by the Republican party and Reconstruction was completely undermined. 
Wright Lewis is certainly correct that black people fell prey to white racist violence after the Harper’s Ferry raid.  I am the first scholar to argue that one of Brown’s black raiders, Lewis Leary, was taken prisoner a wounded man, but was murdered—his throat cut—after he was taken prisoner, by an irate white citizen.  Not a few blacks who were associated with the raid or suspected of associating with the raid, were killed in the immediate aftermath.  No doubt, too, as Wright Lewis shows, racist anxiety and rage flared throughout the South, and undoubtedly more black people were harmed. 
Yet the fact is that Wright Lewis has to stretch all the way down to Texas to find a fairly remote incident where blacks were killed, ostensibly in reaction to John Brown’s raid.  What she cannot do is find sufficient evidence in Jefferson County and neighboring areas to justify her “black extermination” thesis.  To be sure, again, people were tragically killed and abused in the immediate aftermath of the raid.  But having studied the last days of John Brown closely, I can state that Wright Lewis is quite wrong: there was no “new reign of terror” after the Harper’s Ferry raid.  Virginians—led by their leaders—did not turn violently upon blacks en masse, but rather called for reinforcements and prepared for another invasion, either from white abolitionist invaders (which they openly discussed) or a servile insurrection (which they didn’t discuss). 
Instead of turning upon the black population, white Virginians suppressed information, blocked Northern newspapers from getting too close; intentionally portrayed John Brown as a failed insurrectionist and their slaves as loyal and faithful servants who rejected him; blamed white abolitionists in the North; and looked for a conspiratorial connection between Brown and the Republican party. 
Then—which Wright Lewis misses completely, there was no “black extermination” as much as there was an unreported black exodus.  As Jean Libby showed us twenty years ago, the 1860 census records show that many blacks from Jefferson County and neighboring counties actually disappeared—they fled northward after the raid, depriving local slaveholders of their chattel and to some degree vindicating John Brown.
Finally, it is interesting that Wright Lewis, who thinks Brown was careless with the lives of black people, is unaware of his apparent concern for local blacks immediately following the raid.  As a prisoner in Charlestown, he wrote a note to the prosecuting attorney, Andrew Hunter, on November 22, 1859, in which he passingly included the phrase, “the slaves we took about the Ferry.”  The legal point Brown was making in the letter matters less in this case than does this phrase, by which he was essentially misleading the authorities into thinking that the slaves who followed him in the area of Harper’s Ferry had been “taken,” when actually they had chosen to follow Brown.  The letter thus hints at Brown’s concern for local blacks in seeking to alleviate them of any blame, and doing so by the slaveholder notion that blacks preferred to stay in slavery rather than follow a white abolitionist from the North.
More could be said about the problematic nature of Wright Lewis’ chapter on John Brown in A Curse Upon the Nation.  Taken as a whole, this chapter is fraught with problems, and its main argument is misleading and flawed at its core. 
On one hand, Wright Lewis says that Brown knew that his invasion of Virginia would cost black lives, and that he was willing to see all black people die in justification of his white male notions of violence and liberation.  In other words, John Brown understood how black people would suffer and he didn’t care. On the other hand, in her conclusion, she writes: “John Brown’s detachment from the lived experience of blacks made it impossible for him to foresee that his capture of Harpers Ferry would inevitably end even more violently than he imagined” (p. 173). So, Professor Wright Lewis, which one was it?  Was John Brown aware and willing to sacrifice an entire generation of black people to prove a point? Or was he so “detached” from the “lived experience of blacks” that he was clueless as to what might happen to them? 
Has Kay Wright Lewis given us insight into the John Brown of history, or has she fashioned a revisionist version of the abolitionist that services her own project? To be sure, the importance of her quest to explore racist violence and the perpetual threat and suffering that a fundamentally racist society has always imposed upon black people is undoubtable. But her work also raises questions about her own ideological underpinnings with respect to force and her apparent desire to push white abolitionists categorically, and John Brown particularly, in some sense to the margins of the narrative.  Does Professor Wright Lewis finally see with greater clarity than the many black forebears who could speak appreciatively of John Brown without calling him some sort of racist?
In concluding her chapter on Brown, Wright Lewis makes a last-minute concession, stating that his presumed “mistake” was a matter of the head, not the heart (p. 173).  This, she concedes, is why the black community included him in the story of liberation—even though, apparently, they believed he had nearly lit the fuse that would have blown them to kingdom come. But is this, in the end, an adequate assessment?  I do not think so. After Frederick Douglass met John Brown, he wrote in 1848 that it was as if Brown's "own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.”  Over thirty years later, Douglass again recalled John Brown, writing in 1883 that he “saw Slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed.”  It seems unlikely, then, that the man that Frederick Douglass and other black abolitionists knew and the man that Kay Wright Lewis has presented in "A Curse Upon the Nation" are the same person.--LD