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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Monday, November 24, 2014

Jean Libby Announces Her Landmark JB Photo Chronology is Now Revised

Dear friends and John Brown scholars, 
I am grateful to announce the next phase of the John Brown Photo Chronology, planned website publication and narrative development.  Everyone's support and participation through the years is essential to current status, and earnestly sought to continue as we move forward.   
[Jean has made the full Synopsis and History accessible on this link.  (You can also find it directly by going to http://www.alliesforfreedom.org/)  Below, find her conclusions.]
Best wishes to all,
Conclusions:  Jean Libby’s revised John Brown Photo Chronology has grown from twelve original portraits to sixteen that are confirmed.  Versions of the photo portraits in painted photographs and murals add to the classifications, making the total Chronology more than forty panels which are annotated.  The timeline of John Brown’s movements from 1856 – 1859 is subject to new interpretation.  Significant discoveries about the photographer of the extant daguerreotype (Boston Atheneum) made in Hudson in 1856 and a new photograph of Mary Brown taken in Boston in November 1859 known previously from the photographer’s statement (John B. Heywood) were found at the Hudson Library and Historical Society in September 2014.  Research and documentation that Libby began in 1976 continues.
The development of print photo replication from single-image daguerreotypes was eagerly sought by Brown and his supporters.  Association of the photographers of John Brown with the Underground Railroad is a key intersection.  The full Chronology is in development with Rick Moss, Chief Curator of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (California) to be published online with permissions from the archives owners and a video narrative.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A good place to start--
Human Trafficking Summit Convenes in Charles Town, Where John Brown Was Tried, Hanged

The courthouse (left) as it looks
today, in Charles Town
According to Jeff Jenkins of the MetroNews, an online West Virginia publication, today marks the beginning of a four-day conference on the subject of human trafficking--human slavery.   Today's Charles Town, West Virginia was Charlestown, Virginia, in 1859, when John Brown was tried, convicted, incarcerated, and finally hanged there on December 2.   West Virginia was not yet created as a state in the federal union, which took place during the Civil War.

Holding a meeting on human trafficking at Charles Town is certainly a good place to start, not only because of the historical resonance with Brown's life and death, but also to underscore the fact that even though black chattel slavery ended with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, illegal forms of slavery continue to operate in the United States and worldwide.

Chattel slavery was a monstrous system of oppression and terrorism, and millions of people were victimized and exploited for generations by it.  As an institutionalized and legally protected form of oppression, slavery was intrinsic to the founding and development of the United States. It may have ultimately become a Southern "institution," but chattel slavery's criminality belonged to the nation as a whole, for people in the North enriched themselves on Southern slavery quite assuredly--New Yorkers as well as South Carolinians.  John Brown understood this fact, which is why he was not essentially anti-Southern, but self-consciously anti-slavery and nationalistic in his conviction that slavery had to be destroyed.

Contrary to what many people seem to assume, then, black chattel slavery was no secondary issue for the nation, just as it was no mere social inconvenience to its victims.  Stolen black labor in the United States created the base of capital for the establishment of this nation's primacy in the world, even after the legal abolition of slavery.   Furthermore, even apart from the economic exploitation that gave chattel slavery such power in the United States, the depravity of "race" conception and white racism, as well as the sexual exploitation of black women and destruction of black families was also a function of chattel slavery.  It's diabolical offspring, Jim Crow segregation, followed quickly, snuffing out the hopeful light of Reconstruction after the 1870s--thus assuring that racism and economic disparity would continue into the future. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine once put it, chattel slavery was "America's original sin."

Were Brown alive today, he would certainly be fighting human trafficking and its depraved impact on humanity throughout the world.  Yet contemporary slavery and human trafficking are different despite their common bonds (pun intended) in oppression and exploitation.  Today's slavery is not beholding to federal protection and political interests in Washington D.C. the way chattel slavery was in the 19th century.  As Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter put it:
Thousands of foreign and native-born women and children are being enslaved in the United States by foreign and native-born human traffickers.  Forced prostitution is, according to the federal government, the largest market for slave labor in America.  This time there is no moral panic; most Americans are simply clueless. [Bales and Soodalter, The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2009), p. 11]
So contemporary slavery survives on ignorance of the facts--including ignorance on the part of many people in this nation, for instance, that many of our products are directly or indirectly related to slave labor worldwide.  On the interactive website, Slaveryfootprint.org, you can actually determine how many "slaves you have working for you."   Likewise, a great deal of internet usage today represents the viewing and downloading of pornography, but how many porn users realize that a great deal of pornography involves the exploitation of enslaved women, young people, and children?

But contemporary slavery has a voracious appetite for exploitation:  As if forced prostitution and serial rape were not bad enough, Bales and Soodalter point out that other forms of slavery are "thriving right under our noses."  Every day, one fourth of all contemporary slaves in the United States are "enslaved domestics" working in homes, or agricultural slaves who are held under threat of violence by crime syndicates  (including as federally recognized "guest workers") in old slave states like the Carolinas and Georgia.

Unlike black chattel slavery, which was initialized by terror and capture, contemporary slaves often enter the house of bondage unwittingly, looking for a way out of personal and economic difficulties. While contemporary slavery is not based on "race," it victimizes poor people around the world, mainly women and children, and its victims in the United States are predominantly from Asia and Mexico, although Bales and Soodalter point out that "shifts in global economies and politics" could easily change the make up of modern slaves.  Still, the Human Rights Center at Bereley, University of California, found there were slaves from thirty-five countries held against their will in the United States.   It is not hard to imagine the deplorable extent of trafficking and human bondage worldwide, the untold victims of all hues and cultures that have fallen prey to the hideous evil of slavery.

According to Jenkins, the summit meeting at Charles Town is entitled, “Widening the Net: Together Let’s Stop Traffick.”  As the second annual international summit, it will be hosted by the American Military University.  Conference organizers expect two hundred experts from all over the world who deal with human trafficking across several continents, as well as survivors.   The program manager for the conference is interestingly named Jim Brown, and he told MetroNews that the conference goal is to promote the furthering of the battle against human trafficking.  Positively, Brown believes more people in the United States are becoming aware of this worldwide dilemma.  Discussion will focus on the development of an International Resource and Coordination Center  to combat modern slavery.

Like the Niagara Movement's civil rights summit at Harper's Ferry in August 1906, this anti-human trafficking summit is convened at the nearby town of Charles Town, in association with John Brown's failed effort to initiate a liberation movement in Jefferson County, Virginia, in October 1859.

His arms pinioned, Brown was
conveyed by wagon to a field just
south of Charlestown, where he was
executed in a military ceremony from
which the public was excluded
Contrary to so many erroneous narratives, Brown intended to launch a kind of armed rescue at Harper's Ferry, attracting hundreds of locally enslaved people.  Unfortunately, his easy attack on the unguarded federal armory was undermined by poor tactical judgment, extended delay and overdue stress on civilian concerns.  Contrary to popular assumption, Brown naturally attracted the interest and enthusiastic support of local victims of slavery, and would have departed from Charles Town (then Charlestown) with a large number of black men had he left in a reasonable amount of time.  Brown was finally forced to hole himself up in the armory engine house with a group of hostages and a few of his men, including two sons.  The United States marines, functionally simultaneously in service of the government and local slave holders, killed most of Brown's men and liberated the hostages, restoring their "property" to them.

John Brown and his surviving men were transported to Charles Town, the county seat, following the raid and incarcerated in the town jailhouse, which is no longer standing.  As James Redpath put it, Brown spent the last "forty days in chains," tried and convicted by a court predominantly made up of slave holders.  He was ceremonially strangled to death on a gallows on December 2, and his men followed him in death later in the month, and in March 1860.

According to Jenkins, conference attendees are aware of the significance of their meeting site and "will be invited to explore the history of Charles Town and Harpers Ferry and John Brown’s raid which was aimed at freeing African Americans from slavery."

Source: Jeff Jenkins, "Human trafficking summit begins Monday in Charles Town." MetroNews [Charleston, West Va.], 17 Nov. 1859.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Different, to say the least--
Dean Moss' johnbrown, interdisciplinary art on the stage at The Kitchen in NYC

Dean Moss
Last week (28 Oct.), an article by Tara Sheena in the online newsletter, Hyperallergic (a forum for radical perspectives on art and culture),  noted the performance of Dean Moss' interdisciplinary performance, johnbrown.  The program was featured at Manhattan's notable non-profit arts forum, The Kitchen, from October 16 through 25th--commemorating the 155th anniversary of the raid on Harper's Ferry.      According to The Kitchen's website:According to website of The Kitchen, a nonprofit space in Manhattan devoted to the arts, last month Dean Moss: johnbrown was
"Presented in seven semi-autonomous segments titled after individual articles of John Brown’s Provisional Constitution of 1858, johnbrown melds an immersive audio/visual design and rigorous physicality, with a disruptive impressionistic performance structure. It excavates contentious birthrights born of “our peculiar institution,” while simultaneously exploring the gendered and generational processes at play in their perception. johnbrown premieres in New York on the 155th anniversary of the radical activist’s raid on Harper’s Ferry."
The Kitchen also describes johnbrown as the product of three years of research "to create johnbrown, a dark, wry meditation on the legacy of the white 19th-century abolitionist."  The creator, multidisciplinary artist, Dean Moss, is a  2014 Guggenheim Choreography Fellow and Doris Duke Impact Award in Theatre recipient.  "Steeped in a childhood of grassroots organizing and pitched campaigns, multidisciplinary artist Dean Moss draws from an intimate and varied history with activism," notes the website.  As Sheena reports further, johnbrown was presented in seven semi-autonomous segments, each titled after various articles of John Brown’s Provisional Constitution of 1858: “Vacancies,” “Treaties of Peace,” “All Must Labor,” “Irregularities,” “Crimes,” “Voluntaries,” and “Oath.”  Dean Moss is the son of Harold Moss,  the first black mayor of Tacoma, Washington (1994-96) and a civil rights activist who has also served as an official for the Washington State Department of Transportation. Moss senior reportedly provided the material for his son's production. The Kitchen website describes the production further:
"johnbrown melds an immersive audio/visual design and rigorous physicality, with a disruptive impressionistic performance structure. It excavates contentious birthrights born of “our peculiar institution,” while simultaneously exploring the gendered and generational processes at play in their perception."
The program promo below is posted on Vimeo, which includes scenes from the performance, featuring an audio of the producer interviewing his father.

JOHNBROWN (promo) from Dean Moss on Vimeo
I gotta say, I'd don't connect to this kind of art very easily.  I don't like free jazz or abstract painting either, so chalk it up to my simplicity.  The Kitchen site says:
"It is a testament to Moss’s handle on the worlds he creates — complex, multilayered, fantastical, and intimate — that he is able to have the memory of renegade abolitionist John Brown loom over the entire piece. However, we are all aware it is Moss’s John Brown we are seeing. His is a lowercase, no spaces, one-word “John Brown”; johnbrown is a euphemism, a reference, and an ever-evolving metaphor. Brown is so much more than historical matter or biographical trope in Moss’s world; he is an ideological framework, able to produce a compelling, albeit densely layered, performance work."
The performance also included the video-play below, featuring Pete Simpson as John Brown, Okwui Okpokwasili as Frederick Douglass, Aaron Hodges as Watson (John Brown's son), and Tymberly Canale as Helen Pitts (Frederick Douglass' second wife).  The script, written by Thomas Bradshaw, is at once interesting, irreverent, outrageously and grossly inaccurate, certainly risque, undoubtedly quite funny at points, and not without some thoughtful salutations to the unspoken aspects of the story.

Certainly it was common for widowers to remarry younger women in the agrarian 19th century, so the joke about Brown having a thing for young females freshly arrived in womanhood has no grounding in fact.  Bradshaw is judging Brown by contemporary standards; he also disregards that fact that Mary entered marriage at (actually) seventeen years willingly, and they seem to have had a good marriage despite the many difficulties they faced in life together.

In contrast, Bradshaw does poke at a truth in Douglass' relationship with Helen Pitts, his second wife, though certainly not the first white woman that the superlative orator took to bed.  Douglass loved his first wife, Anna Murray, but she was the wife of his youth.  He outgrew Anna quickly, and his sojourn in abolition brought him many places and put him in the company of many admiring women in the United States and Great Britain.  That he married Helen Pitts later in life resulted in a great deal of hostility and flack for Douglass, including from his adult children.

While the fictive "ghost" of John Brown haunts Douglass out of jealousy, there is a resonant truth that Bradshaw recovers from the proper insinuation of history.   His Douglass rebukes Brown, telling him that he had made his choice against his advice about attacking Harper's Ferry.  This is exactly the case.  Brown chose to lay down his life for the slave, while Douglass chose to save his life, believing he could do more good alive than dead.  But Douglass also disappointed Brown, somewhat inteferred with his recruitment efforts, and ultimately proved an "unreliable" associate (to use Brown's term).   Yes, Brown's "ghost" in the video-play is also correct: he and Douglass are forever paired as allies in radicalism, but Douglass enjoyed a long life to match the horrible oppression of his youth.  He loved and made love time and again, and he ultimately won status quo acceptance as an "American hero." Brown devoted his life to the antislavery cause and then gave up life for it, and he has been rewarded by being called mad, fanatical, and terroristic. You can count the number of statues of Brown on almost one hand in this country; the number of tributes to Douglass are numerous.  Not that he doesn't deserve it.  For my money, Douglass' image belongs on our money.

Still, Bradshaw's risque dialogue has some elements of truth, although it largely is a caricature of imagination--playing with the jealousies and fates of human nature and history. You can't help but laugh at points--the performance is good, although Simpson's Brown sometimes reminds me of Will Farrell playing John Brown.  Still, the only reason I took the time to even consider it is because its easy to watch a video.  Watching a video is a passive experience.  I wouldn't have read Bradshaw's text if it were offered me as a script or a novel, which is why I have no interest even in reading last year's acclaimed humorous novel about John Brown and a runaway slave who dressed like a girl. It's too much work for nothing.  I'm interested in the man who lived, not every other artist's imaginary John Brown.  Sic semper ineptias.

You can check out the video-play yourself if you want.  If you know anything about Brown, it will annoy you at points, but it will also make you chuckle.  However you react, don't take it seriously. Art often imitates life very badly, and artists can get away with it since art is often its own justification for misrepresenting the truth.--LD

johnbrown (video-play) from Dean Moss on Vimeo.

Here's an interesting interview with Dean Moss by Young Jean Lee for Bomb magazine (2012).
Here is Dean Moss' page on the website of the Foundation for the Contemporary Arts