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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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Thursday, October 28, 2010

P'd Off Again
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Calls John Brown an Enemy Terrorist

I am informed that the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, has a program scheduled for November 13 on Domestic Terrorism featuring a gallery talk entitled, "The Enemy Within: John Brown," led by Interpretive Services Manager, Richard Cooper.  While it is my understanding that Mr. Cooper is a well-meaning fellow operating with no malevolent intent, the program title is inflammatory, malignant, and insulting.  Certainly it is unworthy for a program being presented by, of all places, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

I have emailed Mr. Cooper my appeal and protest (published below).  I encourage my readers to contact Mr. Cooper ASAP at rcooper@nurfc.org or call him at 513-333-7594.

John Brown was both a participant in and friend of the underground railroad, and he was admired by the leaders of the underground railroad, especially among African Americans.  For Brown to be excised from history, held up in a negative, hostile light, and portrayed as an enemy is not only an affront to his life and legacy, but it is an insult to the real victims of terrorism in the U.S.A.--the enslaved black men, women, and children who suffered under the original and most blatant form of "domestic terrorism" in the nation: white supremacy.

"The Unkindest Cut of All": My Email to Richard Cooper

Dear Mr. Cooper,

As a biographer of John Brown the abolitionist, I am writing to express my utter dismay and actual disgust at the news of your upcoming gallery talk entitled, "The Enemy Within: John Brown," along the lines of domestic terrorism.

I do not know you and I should be careful not to draw harsh conclusions about you, your political viewpoint, or your sense of history, but it is very hard at least not to question the integrity of such a title and the reasoning underlying it.

First, let me point out that the view of John Brown as an inimical terrorist and prototype of the domestic stripe of terrorist in particular is a view that is not held by any serious John Brown biographer or scholar.  Even someone like Oswald G. Villard, whose biography one hundred years ago was critical of Brown's efforts in Kansas, would not have embraced such a fundamentally hostile and misrepresentative approach.  Along with myself, biographers Evan Carton, Robert McGlone, and even David Reynolds (who utilized terrorist language in his popular biography) do not employ or approve of such hostile language in describing Brown.   Besides biographers, the leading documentary scholars from Jean Libby today to the late Boyd Stutler and Clarence S. Gee and Louis Ruchames (the latter two both clergymen as I am also) either object to or would very much have objected to the categorization of John Brown with domestic terrorism.  I am both a Brown biographer and an ongoing documentary scholar and student of the man, and frankly I find that people who tend to argue along these lines are typically doing so from a self-decided position based on a decontextualized and problematic reading of the record.  I should add that I was part of a scholarly conference at Yale University last October and while there were references to terrorism in the program, the consensus of that conference was hardly inclined to identify John Brown as an internal enemy.

Second, the concept of John Brown as an enemy terrorist of the domestic stripe is historically inaccurate and highly problematic for two reasons that have both political and historical aspects:

A.  To isolate and elevate Brown in such a negative manner ignores the record of events in Kansas in 1855-56, during which time the territory was overrun by pro-slavery thugs bent on using violence to force the territory to adopt slavery "democratically."  The free state side was non-violent, vainly trusting in the federal government (which was dominated by pro-slavery forces), and ill-prepared to deal with this terrorism and it is a matter of record that they were being completely intimidated and violently assaulted prior to the response of men like Brown, Montgomery and others.  The point is that to discuss Brown as a terrorist is historically irresponsible.  “Home grown” terrorism in Kansas was the pro-slavery assault, which was not only anti-free state but also functioning against the alleged democratic process put in place.  How can you discuss Brown as an "enemy within" without dealing with the larger issue of pro-slavery terrorism and the extensive program of violent filibustering, expansionism, and territorial conquest that characterized pro-slavery terrorism in Brown's era?  How can you justify excising John Brown completely out of historical context and portraying him as "the bad guy"?  

B.  To further isolate Brown as an inimical terrorist presence is not only an affront to the free state side in Kansas, but is to stand in virtual negation of the explicit terrorism of slavery as a system.   How can anyone responsibly speak of terrorism in the antebellum era as if John Brown invented it, when 4 millions of black people lived as chattel slaves under a system that regularly used terror in explicit ways and relied upon implicit terrorism to sustain its operation and infrastructure?   To pretend that John Brown was somehow a singular terrorist figure is not only ridiculous in light of the political realities that faced free state and abolitionist people in Kansas and the larger nation at the time, but it is essentially a slap in the face of African Americans who were the real victims of terrorism.  It is to suggest that the political and social status quo of the antebellum era in the U.S.A. was essentially stable and democratically functional until aberrant people like John Brown upset it.   Such a stance is either indicative of historical ignorance or it may be judged as inherently racist and certainly problematic.

C.  To present the John Brown theme of "the enemy within" in conjunction with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is antithetical.  John Brown was not only a veteran participant in URR activities but was known and admired by URR leaders, especially in the African American community.  Even pacifist Quakers who disagreed with Brown's methods at Harper's Ferry could write to him in acknowledgment of his high character and friendship to humanity despite differing with him ideologically.  How can you guys do this to Brown--you of all people?  

With the help of my associates, I keep a close watch on what is written about Brown, especially on the Internet, and I've not seen this blatantly insulting rhetoric even from writers who are highly critical of Brown.  While one is entitled to raise questions about violence, one should at least consider providing a fair and balanced discussion that entails the full controversy of which Brown is a part.  Even critics of John Brown, such as the renowned writer Tony Horwitz (who has an unfortunate tendency to want to make Brown into something resembling a terrorist) will acknowledge that John Brown stands on the "right side of history."   I do not agree with Mr. Horwitz's negative inclinations respecting Brown, but I should point out that even he has shown more caution than to utilize the kind of reckless, sensational terminology you have used your for your program title.  In other words, your program title places you, historically speaking, on the wrong side of history and on the side of a segment of writers and scholars who tend to force Brown into prepackaged categories for meretricious and malignant reasons.

While I believe in free speech and understand that this is your program and that you are entitled to do what you want to do, I hope that free speech in this case would be protected by a sense of historical and ethical responsibility and integrity.  Please do not feed into the less worthy inclinations of popular prejudice by propping up a fairly useless straw man (i.e., John Brown the original domestic terrorist) that has no real value to a study of John Brown the man who lived. After all, your forum is not just any public or academic forum.  It is supposed to represent the feet and hands of the anti-slavery movement.  For the NURFC to portray Brown under such hostile rhetoric is perhaps the unkindest cut of all.  
I urge you with all best wishes to revise your program title and to introduce a balanced presentation.

Yours truly,
Rev. Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., Ph.D.
New York City


John Rudy said...

Dr. DeCaro,

First, let me say I've loved reading your blog. Brown deserves far more public attention than anyone seems willing to give him, and I think your blog helps to bridge the academic/public gap.

As someone who worked at Harpers Ferry NHP for a number of years, I struggled with a modern analogy to help visitors understand Southern reaction to Brown. I often characterized their reaction as believing Brown to be a Terrorist, quickly adding that the word did not exist in the period. I'd typically bookend this characterization of the radical Southern perspective with the equally radical Northern perspective that Brown was a saint.

I don't think I'd be very happy sitting in on Mr. Cooper's presentation, and would be that visitor heckling him afterward. Yet I still feel that Brown and public history is a hard nut to crack. The (chiefly Southern) allegiance to the institution of slavery, and (chiefly Northern) abhorrence of that institution is something the visitor doesn't feel in their gut after 150 years.

Personally, my heart lies with Brown, and I'd have handed him every cent in my pocket if I'd have met him in the period. The park, when I worked there, understandably needed to play a more middle of the road opinion. I'd love your perspective on Brown and Public History. How does one help visitors feel what it was like in the 1850s, so they can viscerally understand Brown's struggle and Virginia's response.

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

John-Thank you for your thoughtful response. Your former position at HF makes for a most interesting theme and discussion. If you wish to contribute a reflection along these lines relating to JB, I'd be happy to feature it. You can reach me through Alliance Theological Seminary.

No single figure in U.S. history draws into himself the conflicting presuppositions, passions, and interpretations of "America" as does John Brown. You undoubtedly understand Public History much better than I do, but I tend to believe that the core of so many U.S. whites' revulsion to Brown is partly miseducation and partly a kind of protective sense of their conception of the U.S. It is difficult for a large segment of whites to own up to how comprehensive and complete the racist oppression brought about by chattel slavery actually was in this nation, and the utter contradiction and hypocrisy of "freedom loving" white ancestors and heroes who either supported slavery or relegated it to a secondary problem category. As Brown recognized, the entire nation was effectively a slave nation, where even in the North it was illegal to oppose slavery's legal rights. Human beings were treated as mere property, their labor stolen, their bodies exploited, their humanity "niggerized" and even their "free" counterparts in the North lived in the shadows of fear, discrimination, and injustice. Would terms like totalitarianism, fascism, and tyranny even suffice to describe what slavery was in our own nation?

Yet most whites assume that slavery was a kind of grandiose inconvenience. Indeed, I would argue that while there are few depraved minds today who would defend slavery, the white society still perceives slavery as a secondary issue--not a monstrous abuse of humanity, but as a problem of sorts, and one that is now long gone and difficult to grasp, having been "edited" of its horrors, injustices, and its long-standing ill influence upon our society. I hate to say that it comes down to racism, but if it is not racism, it is at least a monstrous form of societal selfishness and narcissism. I fully believe that the popular view of slavery (and John Brown too) would be quite different if this travesty had afflicted white forebears, and John Brown had raised a sword to help them. That writers and teachers, from bloggers to intellectuals in academia, can speak of him as a "terrorist," and even as an "enemy," only affirms this point in my thinking. Frederick Douglass once referred to racism in the U.S. as a "peculiar form of aristocracy," and I would contend that such an "aristocracy" has as its birthright the privilege of the majority to ignore the injustices of their nation, diminish the suffering of the lower castes, and condemn and dismiss any of their own class who "betray" their aristocratic sensibilities and privileges--and no "white" man did so as did John Brown. In light of this reality, I don't know that there is a way of "redeeming" John Brown in Public History, as long as the "orthodoxy" of that discipline is premised upon these aristocratic presuppositions. Although there is a real shift in Brown's favor in this 21st century, it is no surprise that the rhetoric of Brown as an inimical domestic terrorist continues to flow forth in public institutions--including one that celebrates the underground railroad! It takes a great deal of skillful self-delusion and cultural audacity to pull it off. But after all, this is what describes much of "America" the dream and its well padded poets and authors--over against the beleaguered, often frustrated chroniclers of the nightmarish history of the United States. As Brown would probably put it, "So we go."

Best wishes--LD