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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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

SHOWTIME's "Good Lord Bird": Is "All of This" True?

For some time now we have known about the television series, "The Good Lord Bird," based upon the James McBride novel of the same name, and it was anticipated that it might be released some time ago.  However, we now learn that the series has been once again rescheduled to air in October on SHOWTIME.  In May, SHOWTIME posted the official trailer for “The Good Lord Bird” on YouTube and it appears to be everything we feared it would be.  

Once more, it seems, Hollywood will serve up another mad John Brown, the only difference being that in this cultural installment, Brown is a lovable, crazy, and over-the-top good guy, a man that is doing the right thing despite being a quixotic hero and a religious fanatic.  In the unfortunate film, "Santa Fe Trail" (1940), Brown was portrayed as a crazy man, but the heroes in that film were future proslavery rebels like Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart.  In "The Good Lord Bird," Brown is on the right side of history, even if he is a caricature of a likable lunatic who cannot tell the difference between a girl and a boy.

Given what we’ve seen in the past, it appears that John Brown's cultural image is not going to escape this unscathed. True, he has never been loved by the whole nation; but that's not really the point.  What concerns me is that the core perspective on Brown, which apparently is conveyed quite seamlessly from McBride's novel to Hawke’s film, is a kind of nose thumbed to the historical narrative.  Instead of history, then, McBride and Hawke want to give us a comic, laughable, approach to the story.

When McBride's novel came out in 2013, he gave a particularly insightful interview for NPR's Boston affiliate, WBUR. In his interview, McBride described his novel as "caricature and satire" with exaggerated characters. "It’s supposed to be a funny book," he said.

Fine.  But then he made it quite clear that he was almost standing in defiance of history: 

I hate books that tell me what I should know and tell me how to feel. . . .  I wanted to kind of thrust John Brown into the modern day legendary status like Jesse James without writing a book that was very depressing, and that this is what you should know,  here, ‘take your medicine,’ I just don’t like those kinds of books, so I wanted to write something that was really interesting and funny.

To be fair, McBride gets some points because at least he respects Brown's sincere religiosity, and even admitted that his novel doesn't capture the abolitionist's "seriousness of purpose in terms of his deeply felt belief that slavery was morally wrong."  

The problem, however, is that despite his intention of writing a "funny" book, in the end he still wants to teach us history, and this is what bothers me about both McBride's book and the movie cloned from it by Ethan Hawke.  McBride concluded that despite the fact that he wrote a satire that grossly exaggerates Brown, in the end he expressed hope that The Good Lord Bird would be "an effective way of opening up some of these issues for readers to make decisions for themselves about whether John Brown did the right thing or did not do the right thing." Ethan Hawke insinuated the same thing in a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon in which he said: "I have been trying to put this show together.  It's huge, it has seven parts, it's hysterically weird and funny and I have a feeling, I hope it means something to people.”  But what would it mean besides conveying a perspective of John Brown that will shape people’s historical understanding?

So, on one hand, McBride and Hawke seemingly want to cut John Brown loose from the serious cords of the historical record, and on the other hand they want to empower the reader/viewer "to make decisions for themselves" about John Brown’s historical meaning.  Following McBride, who hates being told by scholars what to believe about Brown, Hawke apparently has reduced him to a caricature, the "44 caliber abolitionist," declaring him "nuttier than squirrel turd."  

In the SHOWTIME trailer, Frederick Douglass waves off
John Brown, calling him a "lunatic" under his breath

This kind of thinking is what Neil Postman warned us about years ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death.  It is the mentality of a television-  and entertainment-based culture where too many people don't want to be bothered with history unless it is reduced to blood-splattered drama or comedic spoofs on figures like John Brown and Frederick Douglass—men who really should be the serious study of this society, particularly at a time when we have a president in the White House who is somewhat reminiscent of the president who occupied the oval office at the time of John Brown's raid. McBride and Hawke are artists, and artists can always appeal to their freedom of expression. But whether they want to admit it or not, they are providing a warped sense of history and calling it thoughtful and instructive—and they will get away with it in a society where lots of people want entertainment to be their teacher. 

For the record, I know for a fact that two of John Brown's direct descendants are not at all pleased with the coming broadcast of SHOWTIME's "Good Lord Bird."  I can also attest that the larger John Brown community of scholars, musicians, actors, activists, and grassroots researchers and caretakers of local history in many communities associated with John Brown, are also quite displeased with what is anticipated in SHOWTIME’s “Good Lord Bird.”  Beyond these, a good many more of Brown's admirers are not going to be happy about having this important episode in the history of the struggle for justice reduced to a shoot-em up sitcom, courtesy of James McBride and Ethan Hawke.  

I hope we can get past “The Good Lord Bird” quickly after it airs this fall, and that other films yet to be produced will provide a more positive and historically fair presentation of Old Brown in the twenty-first century.  Indeed, we may yet see a thoughtful, smart, and entertaining film about John Brown come to the screen--that is, the Good Lord willing. 

Monday, July 06, 2020

Three John Brown Statues

To my knowledge, there are three statues of John Brown in the United States (not counting smaller statuary, like busts and smaller pieces): First, and perhaps the most well known, is the statue of John Brown and a young black boy, situated at the John Brown Farm (a NY State Historical site) near Lake Placid, NY. It was sculpted by Joseph Pollia and unveiled in 1935. Pollia shows Brown walking with a young black youth, which some--both mildly and critically--have taken as a paternalistic image. However, it should be pointed out that this image could very well be taken to resemble Brown's actual relationship with black neighbors, including Lyman Epps, Jr., whose father was very close to Brown.  Lyman Jr. loved John Brown so much that he wrote in later life that he would not leave the cold Essex County, even after all his family had died, because he wanted to tend to Brown's grave at the farm. I prefer to see this statue in this light.
Pollia's 1935 Statue, located at the
John Brown Farm Historic Site, 
Lake Placid, N.Y. (photo by Kevin Stewart, flickr)

The same year, 1935, a life-sized bronze statue of Brown was dedicated in John Brown Memorial Park in Osawatomie, Kan.  It obviously reflects the Kansas memory of Brown as a militant free state fighter and hero. The Osawatomie statue was erected by the Woman's Relief Corps of Kansas and sculpted by George Fite Waters in Paris.  Both the Lake Placid and Osawatomie statues honored Brown's 135th birthday.  At the dedication, according to the Osawatomie Graphic News, the African American Bishop W. T. Vernon said: "Sleeping or walking, John Brown could not, and did not, try to shut out the vision of slavery."

Marble Statue of Brown at Osawatomie,
sculpted by George Fite Waters
(photo from KC Restoration, 2018)

However, the oldest is perhaps the most interesting, shown below, left, portrays Brown standing as a kind of statesman. This statue was unveiled in 1911, making it the oldest major statue of John Brown in the United States. It stands in the Quindaro section of Kansas City, Kan.  It is, for all intents and purposes, an African American production, although it was actually executed in the town of Carrara, Italy, known for both its white marble and its statuary.  The sculptor's last name, according to the Topeka Plaindealer (Jun. 16, 1911), is Chignelle, although I have not been able to find him elsewhere online.  

The idea of this statue was the brainchild of Bishop Abram Grant, of the African American Episcopal Church, the oldest black denomination.  Grant spearheaded this project but unfortunately did not live to see its presentation, having died only five months before its dedication.  This was no small production: its cost, $2000 in 1911, which is equivalent to about $55,000 with modern inflation.  It was entirely funded by African Americans, which not only shows the degree of admiration and support that black people at that time felt toward Brown, but should also be seen as "pushback" to all the racist statuary that was being erected in that period to commemorate proslavery figures.  While it is a salute to John Brown, it is perhaps even more an expression of black resistance.  

The Quindaro 1911 Statue of Brown,
Kansas City, Kan.
(photo by Donna, Roadside America.com)

It is no small thing, however, throughout a time of great crisis brought about by white racist betrayal in the North and brute terrorism and systematic racist assault in the South, many African Americans remembered John Brown as a beacon of hope.  It has been observed that when many African Americans fled the South because of white racist terrorism, they went west to Kansas because of its association with John Brown. Today, one would not expect black people to hold the same passion for Brown as their forebears did in the midst of the white supremacist assault upon them.  With the passing of time and the continuation of the struggle, the black community has gone on to commemorate and advance monuments both locally and nationally that recall African American leadership. 

Sadly, the Quindaro statue has repeatedly been subjected to racist vandalism, first in 2018, according to the Kansas City Star, when it was scrawled with swastikas and other racist graffiti, then in late 2019. According to KSHB in Kansas City (Nov. 20, 2019), the statue once more was intentionally damaged--fingers from the image having been cut off, and a scroll in the figure's hand having been stolen. 

Unfortunately, attacks on John Brown sites are not new.  In the mid-20th century, Brown aficionado Boyd Stutler observed that the local KKK had left burning crosses in front of the John Brown House in Akron, Ohio, in January and November, 1966 (Stutler to Gee, Nov. 27, 1966, in Hudson Library and Historical Society).

As a kind of coda, it is interesting to learn that at one point, Kansas advocates had attempted to install a statue of Brown in Washington, D.C.  In a letter to the Presbyterian clergyman and Brown admirer, John S. Duncan, Stutler wrote that about thirty years before (around 1900), authorization was gained to place a statue of Brown in the Capitol Building's Hall of Fame, known as the National Statuary Hall Collection.  In this collection, the states of the union are given space to place statues representing their histories. In the 21st century, a good many older statues have been removed and replaced with other statues (e.g., Nebraska's statue of William Jennings Bryan was removed and replaced by a statue of Chief Standing Bear).  According to Stutler, Kansas representatives wanted to place a statue of Brown in the collection, but "for some reason, perhaps largely political, the statue was not made and the places have since been filled by two others of lesser fame" (Stutler to Duncan, Feb. 15, 1928, in Stutler Papers, RP04 0120). 

There is yet no national statue honoring the memory of John Brown as being among the great liberating figures of the United States.  That day may yet come.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

NYU PRESS FALL 2020 CATALOGUE: The Untold Story of Shields Green: The Life and Death of a Harper's Ferry Raider

When John Brown decided to raid the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry as the starting point of his intended liberation effort in the South, some closest to him thought it was unnecessary and dangerous. Frederick Douglass, a pioneering abolitionist, refused Brown’s invitation to join him in Virginia, believing that the raid on the armory was a suicide mission. Yet in front of Douglass, “Emperor” Shields Green, a fugitive from South Carolina, accepted John Brown’s invitation. When the raid failed, Emperor was captured with the rest of Brown’s surviving men and hanged on December 16, 1859.

“Emperor” Shields Green was a critical member of John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raiders but has long been overlooked. Louis DeCaro, Jr., a veteran scholar of John Brown, presents the first effort to tell Emperor’s story based upon extensive research, restoring him to his rightful place in this fateful raid at the origin of the American Civil War. Starting from his birth in Charleston, South Carolina, Green’s life as an abolitionist freedom-fighter, whose passion for the liberation of his people outweighed self-preservation, is extensively detailed in this compact history. In The Untold Story of Shields Green, Emperor pushes back against racism and injustice and stands in his rightful place as an antislavery figure alongside Frederick Douglass and John Brown.