"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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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Update on John Hendrix's forthcoming JOHN BROWN: THE OATH OF FREEDOM

I met John and Andrea Hendrix in the early 2000's while they were living in the New York City area. To my great blessing as a pastor, the Hendrixes joined my congregation in Jersey City, N.J. When I heard that they had lived in Lawrence, Kansas, I raised the subject of John Brown, only to discover that John had some interest in the abolitionist and had done illustration work on Brown-related matter. Perhaps I can take some small credit for "watering" John's growing interest in Brown during those years of happy association, but his own independent and inquiring approach to the subject was immediately evident--reading expansively on Brown and developing his own ideas as a student of history. Apart from the fact that John and Andrea were the kind of parishioners that every pastor would hope to have in his congregation, I was excited to see John pursue this interest through the amazing medium of his illustration work (he also produced some amazing sketches during my sermons, as I recall, something I prefer to take as a great compliment). There are a number of illustrated young people's books on Brown in publication, but I am certain that the forthcoming John Brown: The Oath of Freedom is going to be the best, both in narrative and certainly in illustration.

John has recently provided an update on the forthcoming work in progress on his blog, "Drawing on Deadline," and the reader is encouraged to visit both his blog and website (his website is included in the right column under recommended sites). On October 15, he wrote:
Part of my absence from regular blog entries over the last three months has been due to my current labor of love, the children's book, John Brown: The Oath of Freedom. In celebration of the 149th anniversary of Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry (tomorrow actually), here's a preview of two interior spreads. Now, back to work--today I'm drawing Frederick Douglass!
I have taken the liberty of copying the two images he has posted for his readers. By the way, no illustrator has done such extensive, excellent portrayals of the clean-shaven Brown, such as the excellent one above, showing Brown in the work of "smuggling" an enslaved person to freedom. Brown his siblings, his father and uncles were deeply involved with the underground railroad and aiding escaping victims of slavery throughout their lives. (One such reminiscence of Brown in action is that used a wagon loaded with furniture to disguise his liberation efforts.)

The second illustration posted is downright brilliant: a "living"map of the troubled Kansas territory of the 1850s, including an elevated Missouri, the pro-slavery state that played the primary role in creating havoc and bloodshed in the Kansas territory); images of invading terrorists and "Bleeding Kansas"; and a larger pen-in-hand sketching the border between the Kansas and Nebraska territories. We assume that this hand represents the federal government's determination to create two territories, presuming that one would serve the cause of slavery and the other the cause of free state citizens. Notwithstanding this assumption, the territories were open to "popular sovereignty," meaning that the standing of each territory was not pre-determined regarding slavery. Settlers were to decide according to the ballot. In fact, free state settlers from across the north far outnumbered the pro-slavery settlers in Kansas; but the militancy and lust of the pro-slavery leadership, their politicians, and racist "ruffians" poured fire upon Kansas that nearly consumed the territory. Free state settlers tended to respond passively and naively to terrorism, many of them believing that the federal government would stand behind the ballot system. In fact, the federal government was heavily infused with pro-slavery influence and did little or nothing to protect free state settlers. It was only when men like Brown and Montgomery fought fire with fire that the federal government rose to some level of leadership. Even then, pro-slavery forces did not easily relent despite the far greater number of free state settlers. It should be added that John Brown himself did not go to Kansas to settle. His adult children settled there, hoping to find lives of prosperity and success in the new territory. But Brown himself preferred working on his own liberation efforts in the east, and wanted to stay in his beloved Adirondack region of New York. It was only because of the outrageous terrorism and increasingly threatened his own family's well-being that he loaded up a wagon with guns in the and made his way to the territory, arriving there in the fall of 1855. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. The problem is that too few people are willing to look at the John Brown episode in Kansas in connection with that history. They simply want to call him a terrorist, as if things in Kansas were stable and fair when Brown drew the sword.

It may be that John Hendrix, as an illustrator and story-teller, will do far more to advance the integrity of Brown's story than many biographers and scholars have done. If we could have a filmmaker who is similarly as devoted to the facts and skilled in their work, we could overthrow the wicked legacy of Santa Fe Trail once and for all. Like Brown, who was himself a perpetual optimist, we look forward to more positive portrayals of his life and work. We all wish John Hendrix great success in the completion and publication of John Brown: The Oath of Freedom.

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