History, Research, and Current Themes

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

Search This Blog & Links


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Er, Thank You, We Think. . .

Kenneth Mack on John Brown: Tipping His Hat, or Talkin' Smack?

I'm only a humble historian teaching at a small, fully accredited seminary, teaching a typically heavy load of courses because that's what small religious institutions tend to require of their faculties.  At our school, the administration packs us two professors to an office in order to save space, and puts us in fishbowl type circumstances so that anyone with any question can see us while we're working and knock on the door.  Sometimes I wonder what it's like to be an important professor--you know, the kind with an endowed chair and a professorial title (named after some rich, dead donor), teaching one or two courses a semester, along with a research assistant, and an office where you can actually close yourself in sufficiently to read and write.  (I do my serious work at home.)

Important Scholars

This wondering on my part becomes especially acute when I read the declarations, pronunciations, and opinions about John Brown that are issued forth from one or another important scholar, somewhere out there in the "high up on the hog" Academy.   Over the years I've noticed that high-class academics inhabit a higher echelon of discourse than the mass of humble academics, especially those of us in small institutions with hard-earned accreditation.   In their higher academic echelon, their books, articles, and opinions matter--the media seek them out and take their word for fact; and they take each other's words as fact.  Their discourse and research is exclusive--they quote each other, compete with each other, collaborate with each other, and tend to ignore everything and everyone else.  Now, this wouldn't be so bad if they actually were the most learned in their subject matter.

But as far as John Brown goes, at least, I can quite confidently say that they're not.

I don't want to seem harsh, but as an example, I reviewed a book by an Ivy League graduate a couple of years ago, the scholar now having moved onto a notable academic position, his resume replete with publications and columns in prestigious and notable journals and magazines.  The book he wrote on Brown was very poor, and although I handled it as gently as possible, his book was quite bad--riddled with errors, presumption, bias, and more bias.  To no surprise, the book was nominated for a prestigious historical award because this is the way his world works.  As a biographer, I never saw a work so fraught with mistakes and bias, although one or two Ivy League publications on Brown have come close.  Of course, my criticism probably was just ignored, because there is no actual dialogue with Mt. Olympus from down here.

Professor Mack

Prof. Kenneth W. Mack
I was reminded of this reality this very evening, when I  read a blurb, ostensibly made on behalf of the Old Man by Kenneth W. Mack, whose academic title is "the inaugural Lawrence D. Biele Professor of Law at Harvard University, and the co-faculty leader of the Harvard Law School Program on Law and History."  By all accounts, Mack's Harvard website is impressive."  Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer (Harvard University Press), was selected as a Top 50 Non-fiction Book of the Year by the Washington Post, was a National Book Festival Selection, was awarded honorable mention for the J. Willard Hurst Award by the Law and Society Association, and was a finalist for the Julia Ward Howe Book Award.  His is also the co-editor of The New Black: What Has Changed – And What Has Not – With Race in America (New Press, 2013)."  Pretty impressive.  Besides this, Mack is a columnist for many notable publications, and a talking head for PBS.
His research and writing have focused on the legal and constitutional history of American race relations. His 2012 book,

I will also add that Professor Mack is black, which makes his recent blurb on John Brown perhaps a bit more interesting.
"What the @#!!, Mack.  With 'help'
like that, who needs enemies?"

In the November 2014 online edition of The Atlantic, Mack is quoted among a number of other important scholars under the column, "The Big Question."  In this edition, the big question is, "Who is the most underrated politician in history?"  Mack's blurb reads:
An antislavery zealot and murderer who failed at everything he did in life, John Brown was executed for the ill-planned 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. Everyone underestimated him, including the Virginia political leaders who made the mistake of putting him on trial, the platform he used to help bring on the Civil War.

The Company He Keeps

Taken at its best face, Mack's remarks seem to fall in the tradition of a number of other African American intellectuals, including Ralph Ellison, Kenneth Clark, and Benjamin Quarles, whose fealty to the white liberal establishment, blended with the black heritage of regard for Brown, produced a peculiar kind of loyalty to the old man.

Kenneth B. Clark
In Robert Penn Warren's 1965 book, Who Speaks for the Negro?, the white Southern writer interviewed the notable psychologist, Kenneth B. Clark, who seemed of two minds on the subject of John Brown.  While Clark held to Brown on one level, he too easily surrendered the old man to the liberal-racist Warren (who wrote an unworthy biography of Brown in the 1920s).  Clark compared Brown to Christ and Socrates, but also conceded that he was "mad," "neurotic," a "murderer," and a "fanatic" (see Who Speaks for the Negro?, pp. 318-21).  

Although writing two excellent books in appreciation of the African American, Benjamin Quarles declared Brown "warped in many ways" (Allies for Freedom, p. 197).  Ralph Ellison, also interviewed by Robert Penn Warren, similarly concluded that Brown was "demonic" rather than a "lunatic," but also "utterly impractical" and a "little off his beam." (Warren's interview with Ellison, 25 Feb. 1964, Ser. II, tape #1, p. 12, no. 030H42, RPWCR, 32, R.P. Warren Civil Rights Oral History Collection, Margaret I. King Library, University of Kentucky.  Trans. courtesy of Best Efforts, Inc.)

So, Professor Mack is standing on the stooping shoulders of other brilliant but conflicted black scholars in both saluting and denigrating John Brown in a single statement.

On One Hand. . .

On the positive side, of course, that Mack would advance Brown's memory among "underrated politicians" seems a point of loyalty.  Obviously, Brown was not a politician, and he would be offended being included in such a group.  The Old Man had no use for politicians after John Quincy Adams, and certainly there is nothing of a "politician" in Brown's straight-shooting, single-minded determination to destroy slavery.   So Mack's willingness to salute Brown seems awkwardly stated in the context of the question.

It may be that Mack's awareness of how white society has undervalued and underrated John Brown found voice in this opportunity, and for that he is to be commended.  A black scholar tells white society, in effect, not to overlook or underestimate the importance of John Brown by viewing him as a freak who stumbled on and off the stage of history just in time for Abraham Lincoln to appear.

On the Other Hand

Still, Mack has done Brown no favors, and reflects not only a flawed and unstudied knowledge of the Old Man, but reflects his own tendency to frame his discourse to placate the white liberal establishment in which he seems to thrive.  Like Clark, Quarles, and Ellison, Mack talks this smack, thinking that he is speaking the truth about Brown, when in fact, he is only muddying the waters of history.   And as unfair as this may seem, this kind of blend of admiration and effed-up historical understanding is perhaps worse for John Brown than an outright assault upon him by some stupid Neo-Confederate or right-wing Philistine who has sufficient racist instinct to recognize Brown as an inimical force in opposition to their white supremacist outlook.

Mack may be a Harvard scholar and an important scholar by all accounts.  After all, The Atlantic asked his opinion.  But frankly, John Brown could do without this kind of help.  That John Brown was a "murderer" is simply not true, and at worst stands to be reevaluated.  The evidence suggests his lethal activity in Kansas were defensive, preemptive, and taken in a situation lacking in protection by law enforcement.  For Mack to simply call Brown a "murderer" just shows ignorance, and reinforces the prejudice of many people who have no regard for the Old Man.

Furthermore, for Mack to call Brown a failure at everything he did shows that the professor has not read sufficiently, and may have relied too much on famous writers and elite scholars, since this is typically the way of life in the upper-echelons of Academia.  For the record, Brown faced hard knocks in life, but he enjoyed a number of episodes of success and certainly a period of recognized expertise in the area of fine sheep and wool, so that he had no perception of himself as a failure as many of the recognized "experts" contend.  I have written about this in John Brown--The Cost of Freedom.

Spare Him (and Me), Please

Finally, Mack's contention that "everyone underestimated him" is only true in a limited sense.  In fact, Southerners did not underestimate Brown.  They screened his mail as a prisoner, denied him a jailhouse photograph, and explicitly lied to cover up his success in attracting enslaved people, maligning him as a rank insurrectionist and recognizing his utter sincerity and the force of his intentions.  They, more than Republicans in the North, understood his importance, which is why they wanted to kill him as quickly as possible.   When they could not, they absolutely prevented every Northern journalists from entering Charlestown.  Were it not for a certain undercover Tribune journalist from New York, they would have accomplished their goal.   Verily, it seems that Mack himself has actually underrated Brown.  (Of course, all of this is featured in my forthcoming book, Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia.)

Notwithstanding Mack's good intentions, I would remind him what is proverbially said of "the road to hell."  My own sense is that Professor Mack and others who are not prepared or competent to speak for John Brown, ought to do him a favor and quit paying him such backhanded salutations.  He doesn't need Mack or anyone else to pat him on the back while calling him a murderer, a failure, and a fanatic whom no one took seriously.  

Furthermore, this kind of smack only forces me to stay up late, writing rejoinders to important scholars who won't read them, when I should be preparing for one of my five classes this semester.

No comments: