Kay Wright Lewis is a professor of history at Howard University, and is the author of a fascinating and well written volume entitled, “A Curse Upon the Nation”: Race, Freedom, and Extermination in America and the Atlantic World (University of Georgia Press, 2017). Wright Lewis has an impressive resume, including a fellowship at the Gilder Lehrman Center of Yale University, a dissertation finalist’s position for the Southern Historical Association, and other fellowship awards that certainly highlight her as a distinguished scholar.
A Curse Upon the Nation is concerned with race-based violence and its horrific consequences for black people. In the introduction, Wright Lewis contends “racialized violence toward African Americans became inscribed in race relations in America, continuing throughout the civil rights era,” and became “entangled with how certain narratives are privileged over others in the production and creation of what is considered fact or truth.” This “erasure,” Wright Lewis continues, “is made manifest by the countless testimonies of African Americans about the violence they experienced and the trauma that such violent events caused in their lives, events that have not been acknowledged” (p. 2). Wright Lewis further argues that the real concern of racial extermination “forces us to reevaluate the conditions in which slaves and free blacks exerted power.” In fact, throughout history, black people shared a “common wind”—conveying information through oral communications—that made all Africans in the Americas “well aware of what they were up against” (p. 4). Today, however, “most people today, white or black, do not know that the history of racialized exterminatory warfare is an essential part of the American story” (p. 7).
One must agree with Wright Lewis that the development of the United States as a powerful nation was not merely the result of courageous pioneers and “political brilliance,” but also “acts of incredible violence toward those enslaved”—“exterminatory warfare and violent conquest” with roots in Europe and Africa (p. 10). Southern whites, then, carried forth this long tradition of racist violence by enslaving blacks, always with the belief that enslavement could only end with the extermination of black people. As a result, her book surveys a number of themes reflecting the terrible history of racial violence and “how the potential for a race war between blacks and whites shaped the human cost of slavery— and freedom—in ways that have been previously unexamined” (p. 10). Overall, this is an estimable work. Wright Lewis presents a tragic theme and does so with erudition and insight.
Notwithstanding my admiration for her work, however, I must stringently object to the conclusions she draws in chapter seven, entitled, “John Brown’s Mistake: The Power of Memory and the Dangers of Violence.” It seems to me (1) that Wright Lewis has constructed her entire argument on a flawed premise concerning John Brown’s plan and intentions; and (2) that she erroneously uses certain sources to prove her point, and in so doing only ends up reinforcing a mistaken conclusion herself. As concerns the subject, it seems that Wright Lewis holds Brown historically at arm’s length. While acknowledging the longstanding tradition of black appreciation for him, actually she thinks Brown a half-loaf ally, a well-intended outsider with intrinsic racist proclivities in his thinking about black people.
I. The Deep Flaw
The deep flaw that runs through the whole of chapter seven on Brown is the persistent representation of John Brown as having an insurrectionary intent. In fairness, Wright Lewis cannot be solely blamed because this is a longstanding error that prevails in the literature and in the academy. In A Curse Upon the Nation, then, the entire argument concerning (really, against) Brown is based upon a false premise. As Jesus said, building one’s house on sand is risky business.
Wright Lewis generally uses the term “insurrection” in this chapter many times but speaks of Brown’s actual plan as an “insurrection” at least fifteen times, and only one of these times is she quoting someone else’s words. However, amidst her discussion, Wright Lewis passingly writes: “Although Brown testified that he was not attempting to instigate an insurrection, southern whites believed that he was, which would have led to a war between the races” (p. 166).
This is problematic because Wright Lewis is blurring the difference between two historical questions and apparently has done so because it is convenient to her thesis. It is one thing to repeatedly say that Brown planned and intended to carry out an insurrection; it is quite another to say that “southern whites believed that he was.” The answer to the latter is self-evident. It is the Southerners who invented the charge that John Brown was an insurrectionist. Brown denied the charge although Virginia indicted and executed him on this basis, then the Southern press advanced it, and finally the US Senate embedded it in the so-called Mason Report of 1860. Far too many historians have then followed suit without questioning whether the evidence supports it.
Wright Lewis herself acknowledges how Brown explicitly denied that he intended an insurrection. What is disappointing, however, is that although she knows Brown denied the insurrection charge, as a historian she makes no effort to evaluate his claim by examining his words or the evidence. Again, this appears to be the case because she needs John Brown to be an insurrectionist not only to make this chapter work, but in order to justify impugning his judgment and calling him a well-intentioned paternalistic “romantic racist.” This is most unfortunate.
I should reiterate that although Wright Lewis has failed in part because of drawing upon questionable narratives, there is sufficient evidence in the record to question the “insurrection” fallacy. Even Wright Lewis herself relays the testimony of Harriet Tubman, who said it “was not John Brown’s idea to murder the white people but to stir the slaves so as to attract the attention [of the] country and to strike for freedom” (p. 171). Franklin Sanborn—a source to which Wright Lewis has access—likewise denied that Brown intended an insurrection “in any sense of the word, but an invasion or foray” (Life and Letters, p. 123). There are other witnesses who make the same claim, although sadly many historians are either bound to the Southern claim or are too dull to make this important distinction. As I have argued in both Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia and in my forthcoming book about Shields Green, the following should be understood as a corrective to two errors in conventional notions of the raid: (1) Brown did not intend an insurrection; and (2) Brown did not seize Harper’s Ferry to arm the slaves with guns as Wright Lewis suggests (p. 142).
Having built her thesis primarily on this first error—the defining flaw of the chapter—Wright Lewis sets up the interrogative that she badly wants to answer. “The question, then,” she asks, “is why Brown, a colleague and friend to many black abolitionists, would attempt to initiate a slave insurrection in the South?” (p146). The answer, esteemed professor, is that Brown did not “attempt to initiate a slave insurrection in the South.” He attempted to launch a movement that would destabilize slavery’s operations, not “terrorize” slaveholding families or spark a race war that would backfire upon black people in racial “extermination.”
II. Further Errors
There are a good many secondary problems with Wright Lewis’ chapter on “John Brown’s Mistake.” Some of them are sketched as follows:
A. Misreading Brown on Black People
It is a matter of history that Northern blacks showed little interest in Brown’s plan. Wright Lewis does a good job of highlighting a number of black leaders who lacked confidence in Brown’s plan, declined from joining him, and even disagreed with him. She also notes the late Benjamin Quarles’ explanation, that the prominent black discourse on resistance in Brown’s day was rhetoric. To otherwise put it bluntly, most of the militant black talk in Brown’s time was hot air and he didn’t realize it. Wright Lewis says instead that Brown actually “was well informed by the end of the 1850s,” and that he knew that “the black community North and South would have been unwilling to instigate a violent uprising of the slaves.” Therefore, she argues, Brown’s “insistence on going ahead anyway with his insurrection plans points toward his style of leadership, as well as his and other white radical abolitionists’ racial assumptions” (p147).
In other words, Wright Lewis thinks that John Brown was quite aware of how hesitant black people were when it came to taking up arms, and went ahead anyway in promoting his “insurrection.” The reason he did so, it turns out, is because he was a “romantic racist” who shared “common social assumptions” about blacks and enslavement—notions like violence could prove black manhood and that whites had to lead black people to fight. Not only did Brown hold these warped views of black people, but he was quite willing to send them to their deaths and provoke mass racial “extermination” in order to accomplish his “insurrection” (p. 149).
To be sure, Brown cannot be separated from the time and context in which he lived, and to some degree his life reflects the patriarchy, patriotism, and ethnocentrism of his time and context. As Wright Lewis points out, Brown praised Harriet Tubman privately with masculine references. As I have pointed out in my forthcoming work on Shields Green, at times he took it upon himself to write, as it were, speaking in the voice of black people to argue on their behalf. He did have concerns about leading people from slavery, arming them with pikes, and forming them into a functioning outlier community, which is why he wrote both a constitution and tried to recruit black leaders to guide them.
Like any historical figure, John Brown must be judged by history and evaluated, but most of the judgment that he has faced over a century has been unfair, often biased. Typically, this bias has emanated from the “the top down”—either from romancers of the South or from high holy Lincoln and Civil War scholarship. Very rarely, however, has the bias against Brown come from the black community, although there are a few cases (e.g., Vincent Harding). Unfortunately, it appears Wright Lewis is such a voice since she is essentially blaming Brown for being a paternalistic racist who didn’t care what happened to black people as long as they did what he wanted them to do.
For instance, Wright Lewis writes: “Brown and other white radical abolitionists discounted the atrocities that the black community would face if they were to initiate an insurrection in the South.” (p149) But in order to buttress this accusation, she misreads John Brown twice! First, she misapplies his famous statement that “it would be better that a whole generation should pass off the face of the earth—men, women, and children,—by violent death” as a reference to black people. To the contrary, Brown was speaking of the entire nation and reading the complete quotation would make this clear. That Wright Lewis twists this to mean Brown was willing to sacrifice all of the lives of black people is a misrepresentation that suggests she is groping, and perhaps is driven by some form of prejudice.
Likewise, Wright Lewis refers to Brown’s Sambo Mistakes (not “Sambo’s Mistakes as it is commonly misrepresented in texts). This is a document, written in the 1840s, ostensibly for a black newspaper, The Ram’s Horn, although we do not know if it was actually published. In Sambo, Brown’s literary black persona admonishes blacks not to think they would secure favor with whites by tame submission but advises rather “nobly resisting” the “brutal aggressions from principle” (p. 149). But here Brown is not speaking of insurrectionary violence. He is writing to free blacks who are bullied and abused on the streets of Northern cities, suggesting to them that there is nothing principled nor admirable in tolerating racist abuse as free people. This was an opinion that Brown doubtless shared with militant black abolitionists who, like him, disagreed with the Garrisonian “moral suasion” school. To make more of this statement is once more a misrepresentation on the part of Professor Wright Lewis. The question is, why does she want to create a breach which generations of black writers going back to Brown’s time have never discussed?
B. Further Misuse of Sources
1. Edward V. Clark
Just as Wright Lewis has abused two of Brown’s own statements in order to substantiate her claims, she also misrepresents the first source presented under a section called, “John Brown’s Plan from the Black Perspective.” Starting with the premise that “blacks overwhelmingly rejected John Brown’s plan to arm those enslaved in the South,” her first evidence is in quoting Edward V. Clark, a black entrepreneur who objected to the use of force in a meeting at the Zion Church in New York City. But an examination of the citation shows that Clark made this objection in 1850 (p. 154; see ch. 7, note 57). The quotation has value, of course, but it is misleading because the quotation was not made in reference to John Brown, and Wright Lewis should have pointed this out instead of apparently hiding the chronological issue in her endnotes.
2. Frederick Douglass
Wright Lewis misuses Frederick Douglass’ reminiscences as well, citing his famous objections to Brown’s decision to seize the Harper’s Ferry armory in this third autobiography. “When Frederick Douglass found out that Brown intended to capture Harpers Ferry,” Wright Lewis states, “he also rejected the plan because it would be dangerous to the black community. Douglass told Brown that ‘to me, such a measure would be fatal to all engaged in doing so. It would be an attack upon the federal government and would array the whole country against us’” (pp. 155-56).
There are two problems with how Wright Lewis uses Douglass. First, it should be remembered that by his own admission, Douglass fully supported Brown’s original plan to invade the South. In fact, it is Douglass who provides us the best sense of what Brown’s plan was (up until about 1856), before he decided to seize Harper’s Ferry. Even in the original plan, Brown had intended to arm enslaved people, retreat to the mountains, and create a movement through the South that liberated people and destabilized slavery with the possibility of using force. “The true object to be sought is first of all to destroy the money value of slave property,” Brown told Douglass, “and that can only be done by rendering such property insecure.” As to this first plan, Douglass summed up: Hence, I assented to this, John Brown’s scheme or plan for running off slaves” (Life & Times of Frederick Douglass, Ch. VIII, p. 220, Ch. X, p. 319).
Wright Lewis says that whatever Brown’s intentions, it was what southern whites believed “which would have led to a war between the races” (p. 166). [Let us set aside for the moment that this wasn’t the case—not even in the Turner insurrection, since slaveholders were not willing to engage in mass extermination as long as they retained the property value of enslaved people. ] But if Douglass shared Wright Lewis’ belief that any movement upon the South would have provoked racial extermination, why did the abolitionist orator approve of Brown’s campaign in the first place?
To be sure, Douglass liked Brown’s original plan because it would begin quietly, “gradually and unaccountably drawing off the slaves to the mountains.” Conversely, he was put off when Brown “completely renounced his old plan in favor of “striking a blow that would instantly arouse the country,” which was to seize Harper’s Ferry (Douglass, Ch. X, p. 324).
This much is true, although Douglass must have understood that even in Brown’s first version of the invasion, Southerners would have quickly learned of the movement and would have begun to attack. This hardly affirms Wright Lewis’ argument, since Southern violence and retaliation was inevitable, even with a plan that Douglass himself approved.
Secondly, as Wright Lewis interprets Douglass, she presents the orator’s objection to Brown’s revised plan as posing an immediate threat to black people. “To me, such a measure would be fatal to all engaged in doing so,” Douglass wrote. “It would be an attack upon the federal government and would array the whole country against us” (Wright Lewis, pp. 155-56; Douglass, Ch. X, p. 323). But what did Douglass mean by “against us”? Contrary to Wright Lewis, he was not referring to black people generally, or to enslaved people. Rather, Douglass was speaking of the antislavery cause. His point to Brown was that by attacking a federal institution, he might put the entire antislavery cause at odds with popular opinion in the North. Like other misused references in this chapter, Wright Lewis has unfortunately twisted Douglass to suit her argument against the black community’s traditional reading of John Brown.
3. George DeBaptiste
Wright Lewis’ use of George DeBaptiste is particularly peculiar as well as problematic. DeBaptiste, an underground railroad leader, was present in a Detroit meeting with Douglass, Brown, and a number of black leaders from Detroit and nearby Chatham, Ontario, in March 1859. The meeting took place right after Brown arrived in Detroit and triumphantly delivered twelve enslaved people to Canadian freedom. DeBaptiste is described in the meeting as being critical of Brown’s plan because, in his estimation, it did not go far enough. Instead, DeBaptiste proposed the use of terrorism, suggesting that a number of white churches in the South be blown up during Sunday service on a given day. Brown opposed the idea immediately since he had no intention of practicing terrorism. Yet, somewhat incredibly (according to Wright Lewis) DeBaptiste also objected to Brown’s plan because it would have brought tremendous violence down upon the heads of blacks throughout the South (p. 158).
A description of this meeting between Brown, Douglass, and local leaders in Detroit is found in a number of sources, although Douglass himself omits mention of this meeting from his autobiography. However, the claim that DeBaptiste, of all people, worried that Brown’s actions might bring violence down on black people is either strange or suspect. Accounts vary of how many churches DeBaptiste wanted to blow up, but it is hard to imagine that DeBaptiste actually thought that Brown’s plan, and not his own suggested terror plot, would bring a more violent reaction from Southern whites. This may suggest that Wright Lewis has depended upon an unreliable source, or that an error has been made on her part, or possibly that DeBaptiste’s judgment was questionable. After all, if invading Virginia could drive white Southerners to violently attack black people, what sort of mad bloodletting would have followed the blowing up of even a handful of white Southern churches on a Sunday morning?
C. Was the Aftermath of Harper’s Ferry a “New Reign of Terror”
To justify her sideways condemnation of John Brown, Wright Lewis naturally has to find the outcome that proves her thesis, namely that black people suffered more extensively because of Brown’s effort after the fact. The problem for her thesis is that her argument must be spread far and thin to make a fitting conclusion for her claim.
Of course, there is no question that black people suffered reprisals after the Harper’s Ferry raid. Black people suffered locally when any wind of uprising or threat of uprising blew upon the South, and no one would question Wright Lewis as to this tragic reality of history. However, it may be that by prioritizing “the potential of a race war and black extermination,” Wright Lewis has failed to consider other aspects that informed slavery. For instance, her argument fails to consider that even a violent, racist slaveholding society bereft of conscience and genuine morality had other motivations that preempted “black extermination” as long as black people were held as property. As Patrick Breen has shown in his treatment of the Nat Turner incident, Southern leaders may have tolerated a measure of racist violence and black extermination when Southern whites threw violent fits of rage against black people. However, the norms of the slave economy required that these murderous impulses had to be limited. The idea of “black extermination” was actually out of the question during slavery—quite in contrast to what happened to black people after slavery, and after they were betrayed by the Republican party and Reconstruction was completely undermined.
Wright Lewis is certainly correct that black people fell prey to white racist violence after the Harper’s Ferry raid. I am the first scholar to argue that one of Brown’s black raiders, Lewis Leary, was taken prisoner a wounded man, but was murdered—his throat cut—after he was taken prisoner, by an irate white citizen. Not a few blacks who were associated with the raid or suspected of associating with the raid, were killed in the immediate aftermath. No doubt, too, as Wright Lewis shows, racist anxiety and rage flared throughout the South, and undoubtedly more black people were harmed.
Yet the fact is that Wright Lewis has to stretch all the way down to Texas to find a fairly remote incident where blacks were killed, ostensibly in reaction to John Brown’s raid. What she cannot do is find sufficient evidence in Jefferson County and neighboring areas to justify her “black extermination” thesis. To be sure, again, people were tragically killed and abused in the immediate aftermath of the raid. But having studied the last days of John Brown closely, I can state that Wright Lewis is quite wrong: there was no “new reign of terror” after the Harper’s Ferry raid. Virginians—led by their leaders—did not turn violently upon blacks en masse, but rather called for reinforcements and prepared for another invasion, either from white abolitionist invaders (which they openly discussed) or a servile insurrection (which they didn’t discuss).
Instead of turning upon the black population, white Virginians suppressed information, blocked Northern newspapers from getting too close; intentionally portrayed John Brown as a failed insurrectionist and their slaves as loyal and faithful servants who rejected him; blamed white abolitionists in the North; and looked for a conspiratorial connection between Brown and the Republican party.
Then—which Wright Lewis misses completely, there was no “black extermination” as much as there was an unreported black exodus. As Jean Libby showed us twenty years ago, the 1860 census records show that many blacks from Jefferson County and neighboring counties actually disappeared—they fled northward after the raid, depriving local slaveholders of their chattel and to some degree vindicating John Brown.
Finally, it is interesting that Wright Lewis, who thinks Brown was careless with the lives of black people, is unaware of his apparent concern for local blacks immediately following the raid. As a prisoner in Charlestown, he wrote a note to the prosecuting attorney, Andrew Hunter, on November 22, 1859, in which he passingly included the phrase, “the slaves we took about the Ferry.” The legal point Brown was making in the letter matters less in this case than does this phrase, by which he was essentially misleading the authorities into thinking that the slaves who followed him in the area of Harper’s Ferry had been “taken,” when actually they had chosen to follow Brown. The letter thus hints at Brown’s concern for local blacks in seeking to alleviate them of any blame, and doing so by the slaveholder notion that blacks preferred to stay in slavery rather than follow a white abolitionist from the North.
More could be said about the problematic nature of Wright Lewis’ chapter on John Brown in A Curse Upon the Nation. Taken as a whole, this chapter is fraught with problems, and its main argument is misleading and flawed at its core.
On one hand, Wright Lewis says that Brown knew that his invasion of Virginia would cost black lives, and that he was willing to see all black people die in justification of his white male notions of violence and liberation. In other words, John Brown understood how black people would suffer and he didn’t care. On the other hand, in her conclusion, she writes: “John Brown’s detachment from the lived experience of blacks made it impossible for him to foresee that his capture of Harpers Ferry would inevitably end even more violently than he imagined” (p. 173). So, Professor Wright Lewis, which one was it? Was John Brown aware and willing to sacrifice an entire generation of black people to prove a point? Or was he so “detached” from the “lived experience of blacks” that he was clueless as to what might happen to them?
Has Kay Wright Lewis given us insight into the John Brown of history, or has she fashioned a revisionist version of the abolitionist that services her own project? To be sure, the importance of her quest to explore racist violence and the perpetual threat and suffering that a fundamentally racist society has always imposed upon black people is undoubtable. But her work also raises questions about her own ideological underpinnings with respect to force and her apparent desire to push white abolitionists categorically, and John Brown particularly, in some sense to the margins of the narrative. Does Professor Wright Lewis finally see with greater clarity than the many black forebears who could speak appreciatively of John Brown without calling him some sort of racist?
In concluding her chapter on Brown, Wright Lewis makes a last-minute concession, stating that his presumed “mistake” was a matter of the head, not the heart (p. 173). This, she concedes, is why the black community included him in the story of liberation—even though, apparently, they believed he had nearly lit the fuse that would have blown them to kingdom come. But is this, in the end, an adequate assessment? I do not think so. After Frederick Douglass met John Brown, he wrote in 1848 that it was as if Brown's "own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.” Over thirty years later, Douglass again recalled John Brown, writing in 1883 that he “saw Slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed.” It seems unlikely, then, that the man that Frederick Douglass and other black abolitionists knew and the man that Kay Wright Lewis has presented in "A Curse Upon the Nation" are the same person.--LD