History, Research, and Current Themes

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

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

It was white narcissists who labelled this man a terrorist: Slavery abolitionist John Brown has become a victim of long-brewing prejudice, says Louis DeCaro . The Guardian. London (UK): Jun 22, 2006. pg. 33

I agree with John Patterson, who argues that there are many "illuminating but forgotten, or suppressed, historical dramas" that should be brought to the screen for the edification of moviegoers (If only. . . we had some better history lessons on our screens, June 17). I likewise agree with him that there "are a million relevant, exciting stories which resonate loudly down to our own times. If only people would start filming them," and that the story of militant abolitionist John Brown is one of them.

But Patterson says that Brown was a "visionary, possibly a madman, who used violent insurrection to achieve his aim of freeing the slaves", and that he was hanged in Virginia in 1859 "with a staggering amount of blood on his hands", being an "American terrorist". However, if Patterson is interested in historical drama, not historical fiction, then he needs to get beyond the popular, hackneyed and careless narrative of John Brown. We do not need another psycho portrayal of the man who is perhaps the most slandered and misrepresented figure in the history of the US.

I know little about film, but I am a biographer and student of Brown's life and letters, and have just completed my second biographical study. Patterson, like so many writers, is only repeating the popular American narrative, which reflects a long- brewing blend of prejudice and misinformation. This view of Brown came about in the years when the US betrayed the black community by surrendering them back into the hands of former slave masters - the same post-reconstruction era when northern historians began to claim the civil war was unnecessary, and southern historians harked back to the romantic Old South.

Indeed Brown's popular profile is a barometer of US race relations, and the only writers there who continue to harp on about his alleged insanity and "terrorism" are white males who have embraced the testimony of slave- holders over slaves. In US cultural history, Brown has been defined more by cinematic and TV screenplays and novels than by real historical research.

It is this legacy of prejudice and misinformation that Patterson reiterates -including the tired, unfounded old charges of Brown's insanity, an exaggerated view of his approach to violence, a misrepresentation of his use of "insurrection" (Brown was not an insurrectionist) and grossly misinformed portrayals of his role in killing what were actually five Kansas terrorists in 1856. There was no malice in Patterson's writing, but this is exactly the problem. Those who hate Brown and what he represents have been feeding their ideas into the media for so long that their views have become a kind of historical gospel, which is then popularised by journalists who think they are reporting the facts, when they are actually spreading the rhetoric of white narcissism in the US.

If we do have a John Brown movie forthcoming in the 21st century, those of us in the trenches of research hope the man who lived is finally portrayed, not the mad terrorist that Patterson invokes.

The Rev Louis DeCaro Jr is the author of Fire from the Midst of You: A Religious Life of John Brown, as well as two biographical studies of Malcolm X. His most recent book, John Brown - the Cost of Freedom, is to be published by International Publishers [2007]

(Copyright, Guardian Newspapers Limited, Jun 22, 2006)