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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Sunday, December 05, 2010



Today (Dec. 5) and Sunday, December 12, 2010, “John Brown’s Truth,” a multi-genre, musically improvised opera is being performed at the Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley, Calif.  This opera features classical and jazz singers and musicians, dancers, and spoken-word artists.  According to the Berkeley Daily Planet (Dec. 1), it “is a radical departure from traditional opera format and, as such, is truly an opera for the 21st Century.”  

Although its libretto is written, its music is entirely improvised in each performance, meaning each performance is “musically unique, newly recreated in the moment.” The storyline of “John Brown’s Truth” portrays incidents taking place in the last year of John Brown’s life, including his imprisonment and hanging in December 1859. However, “the libretto is a mostly fictionalized rendering of conversations John Brown might have had—and in some cases actually did have, according to historical reports—expressing his actual beliefs, intentions, and plans.”  Based upon opera cast list on the opera’s websitethe role of John Brown is also rotated from scene to scene, including male and female singing the role of Brown; four people sing John Brown’s part in one scene.  “This John Brown character is a true visionary,” concludes the Daily Planet, “who sings about freedom with Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, and others from Brown’s past, present, and future.  “John Brown’s Truth” was performed for the sesquicentennial of Brown’s raid in 2009.  It is created and written by William Crossman and directed by Michael Lange.

Rebel inFestation’10 or, the Neo-Confederate Version of Harper’s Ferry “Reenacted” in Texas

According to an article on the news website of KLTV in Tyler, Texas, the Civil War recently “came alive” in a reenactment of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, which took place 151—not 150 years ago—as the article conveys.  This outdoor drama took place in Gilmer, Texas, as “part of a living history lesson by members of the sons of confederate veterans.”  

That’s right.  The Sons of Confederate Veterans have reenacted John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.  According to the reenactment “division commander,” Ray James, the purpose of the program was “to teach the public. . .and teach maybe 900 to 1000 school children.” 

Ray Walters, gray-headed, gray-bearded actor portraying Brown, opined afterward that his subject "was probably the original terrorist in the United States."   After reenacting the defeat of Brown, John Holley, the actor who portrayed Robert E. Lee, declared it “an honor to do things like this, its fun, and its good to be able to portray this time in our history, maybe they can learn something from what we did here today.” 

The Confederacy's "John Brown":
Whose History?
"History is history,” concluded the Brown portrayer.  “And if we don't teach it, if we don't tell it, it will die, it'll disappear," Waters says.  After raising $10,000-plus to fund this “learning experience,” about one thousand students from twenty-seven area schools attended the four-day event.

I wonder if these born-again rebels have any idea that many of their own ancestors were practicing real terrorism on black people, Mexicans, and Native Americans a long time before John Brown came on the scene.  While no one can argue that this reenactment was a “teaching” event, the question is whether these one thousand students were being taught the whole history.  Yes, “history is history.”  But one-sided, biased representations like this are not about teaching history.  What the Sons of the Confederacy did might more appropriately be called a four-day propaganda camp, a program intended to indoctrinate young people with the ideas and assumptions of white supremacist “history” and the fiction of the “Lost Cause” of the glorious and noble Confederacy. 

“Who are You Calling a Terrorist?”

Who are you calling a terrorist?

“Prophet” Nat Turner? Union general William Tecumseh Sherman? Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest? Abolitionist John Brown? Social bandit Jesse James?

Turner, who led the largest anti-slavery revolt in the ante-bellum American South, might qualify. Born in bondage in 19th-century Virginia, the deeply religious Turner became increasingly convinced that only violence would turn the tide against slavery. The band of slaves and free black men he led killed 55 white men, women and children. Before his execution, he was quoted as saying he wanted to spread “terror and alarm” among whites, which sounds like a classic terrorist response.

But then slavery itself was a system of terror. Is that a mitigating factor in the way we perceive Turner? Does it make any difference at all?

Or consider James, for that matter. Often depicted in American legend as a kind of modern-day Robin Hood, James rode with a group of Confederate bushwhackers during the Civil War that murdered and tortured civilian Unionists. That was before he took up bank robbing as a trade.

Terrorists? The pages of American history seem chock-full of them. But, of course, that all depends on your definition.

And there’s the rub.

As recent events seem to indicate, there is no consensus definition. One person’s terrorism is another person’s principled conviction.

People have been trying to come up with a reliable, one-size-fits-all definition of terrorism at least since the 18th century when the Reign of Terror placed a deadly punctuation mark on the French Revolution. Groups from the African National Congress to the Jewish Defense League have been accused.

It’s enough to send one scurrying to a dictionary.

In mine, by the way, the definitions include “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.”

By that definition, even abolitionist Harriet Tubman might qualify. Over the course of her many raids into the ante-bellum South, when Tubman escorted more than 300 slaves to freedom, Tubman was known to use threats and coercion when it suited her purposes. On one such raid, when morale plummeted and one man spoke of returning to the plantation, Tubman is said to have pointed a gun at his head and said, “You go on and die.”

But history also characterizes Tubman as a humanitarian. Humanitarian, hero and terrorist, all in one? Is such a thing possible?

We find ourselves at a crossroads. Condemnations this past week have been raining down on WikiLeaks following the media organization’s release of more than a quarter-million diplomatic cables. The cables, which provide revelations about the U.S. government’s impressions of numerous world leaders, are embarrassing, yes. But the government says their release also threatens national security.

Now the T-word has surfaced.

One of the problems involves perspective. In post 9/11 America, the very word has taken on new meaning. Once upon a time, it carried a very specific connotation — a kind of scatter-shot violence carried out especially against noncombatant targets.

But now, more and more, it seems to mean simply “people who oppose us.”

Here lies both the power and peril of language. Words grow increasingly elastic. They stretch and expand to cover every need. That makes them ever more convenient, but in the process, they also sag and droop. They lose their grip, their meaning.

So who are we calling a terrorist these days? This is about more than just the fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is already being sought by authorities in Sweden to answer accusations of rape and sexual harassment — real terror, from my point of view.

It is also about our understanding of acceptable human behavior. We live, after all, in a world where, even among the “good guys,” violence tends to be a tool of first resort. Such a world demands a delicate balancing act.

Who are the terrorists? And where does terrorism begin?

Clayton Hardiman is a professional journalist as well as a published poet and writer of short fiction. A Michigan native and graduate of Western Michigan University, he was a reporter, columnist and editor at the Muskegon Chronicle for nearly 35 years. He continues to write for the newspaper on a free-lance basis and serves on its editorial board. His writing has earned numerous awards, including citations from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and the National Association of Black Journalists. His work has appeared in the Poynter Institute’s “Best Newspaper Writing,” an anthology of outstanding writing from daily newspapers across the United States. Hardiman is the father of three and grandfather of seven. He and his wife, Emmajean, live in Muskegon, where he is currently working on a novel. Tweet: www.twitter/MuskegonChron

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