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


Thursday, November 19, 2020

White Messiahs and Black Resentments: What About John Brown?

 This evening I re-watched a part of the highly fictional movie, "Emperor" (2020) including a particular dialogue that the screenplay writers presented for the Chambersburg quarry meeting between Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Shields Green. While the portrayal of Douglass by the wonderful actor Harry Lennix is far better than was the petulant prima dona version of Douglass portrayed by Daveed Diggs in SHOWTIME's "The Good Lord Bird," there is a similar ideological inclination in both stories. My sense is that this inclination reflects a certain contemporary black critique that really has no precedent in black history. Indeed, it is not in any sense the black viewpoint, since African Americans are not a monolith any more than any community. However, a certain view has become more commonly expressed and it has repeatedly found John Brown as a target.

To the point, in both "Emperor" and "The Good Lord Bird" television series, the charge of white privilege and/or the complaint of the "white savior syndrome" is associated with Brown's life and legacy. The gist of this charge is that John Brown, being a white man, gets more credit from black people than he should, since black heroes deserve more credit. Likewise, Brown's intentions were indicative of his "white privilege" and even paternalistic racism. It was easy for him, goes this view, to speak of invading the South. But couldn't he see the trouble he was causing to poor, enslaved black people, who would suffer the consequences of his bold plan?

I have already addressed the latter view as it has been espoused academically by Kay Wright Lewis in a chapter about John Brown in her book, A Curse Upon the Nation. (Read my response to Wright Lewis on this blog, "Did John Brown Really Make a Mistake?") However, resentment toward Brown along these lines clearly has it proponents in popular culture as well. Take for instance a 2017 piece published in The Atlanta Black Star written, presumably, by a black author named Gus T. Renegade.

In this piece, Renegade complains about black admiration of John Brown in an article entitled, "White Savior Syndrome: Even in Fight Against Racism, Black People Are Falling Victim to It" (May 21, 2017). In his screed, Renegade begins by criticizing the great admiration that the late Dick Gregory had often expressed for John Brown:
Dick Gregory and generations of Black people have been inundated with hymns and propaganda praising Brown or any white person who’s alleged to have lent a hand to end racism. Frequently, these helpful whites garner greater attention than the Harriet Tubmans, Nat Turners and thousands of Black counter-terrorists who invested their complete existence in Black liberation.
Renegade then points out how W.E.B. DuBois wrote a reverent biography of John Brown too, but concludes that DuBois really wanted to write a biography of Nat Turner but was prohibited by "whites" from doing so. But like the rest of his article, Renegade is half correct. In fact, DuBois wanted to write a biography of Frederick Douglass for a publisher's series but was prevented from doing because Booker T. Washington already expressed the desire to write it (and he did). His intentions being sunk by a black leader, DuBois then proposed that he write about Nat Turner, and here was refused by the publisher's white editor. Still, the fact that DuBois's third choice was to write about John Brown somewhat undermines Renegade's point. Black people have always prioritized their own leaders and leadership, including DuBois.

Renegade's insistence that black people have been "inundated" with propaganda for generations in terms of white saviors has truth to it for sure. But the only real white savior that was propagandized by whites for blacks was Abraham Lincoln, and often the same white people who advanced Lincoln have been intent on demeaning John Brown. Renegade is ignorant of this history, and ignorance clearly is the father of prejudice in Renegade's case. In fact, Dick Gregory and other older black people were not propagandized by whites into admiring Brown and allegedly putting him above black heroes.

If Renegade were not driven more by petty jealous than by history, he would have realized that it was black people who held forth on behalf of Brown from the beginning. If an appreciation of John Brown is propaganda, then black people were themselves the propagandists, not the targets of it. Renegade picks his facts like cherries from a tree or else he would have known better. For generations it has been African American activists, authors, artists, and historians who have consistently upheld John Brown--even in the face of the Lincoln propaganda that constantly came forth from white society.

Renegade then goes on to write that the "orchestrated and disproportionate focus on the handful of John Browns is designed to promote Black glorification of and immense gratitude for “good white people.” His ham-handed treatment of history allows him to slop Brown into the same category with 20th century white liberal civil rights activists and even the tragic Georgia politician, Tom Watson, who started as a liberal and ended an enemy of black people in the late 19th century.

To top off his work, Renegade then cites the notable white anti-racist, Jane Elliott, who contends that what she does as an activist does not take courage, even though she’s been "assaulted and her life and the lives of her children threatened." According to Renegade, Elliott says that it takes more courage for black people "to rise daily to endure and oppose racial terrorism."

Jane Elliott, A Heroic
Anti-racist Activist 
Elliott is an admirable woman, but her point is principial not literal. Elliott may deny that that it takes courage to stand against white racists, but I'd suggest her point is made in humility and with the intention of not allowing herself to be praised to the exclusion of the principle she represents, which is to confront and challenge whites for their racism. If Elliott says that she's been attacked and threatened along with her family, then she must be, humanly speaking, a courageous woman to continue doing what she does everyday. John Brown would make essentially the same point, but that does not mean that his life did not require courage. One might go further and ask if Elliott is actually less courageous than every black individual in the United States because she is a so-called white.

In principle, as Renegade seems to miss, Jane Elliott's single life as an activist cannot compare to the vast experience of oppression and assault at every level that the black community faces daily, even hourly, as well as systemically. Of course, no single white activist's suffering can compare, which is Elliott's point. But it is ridiculous to deny that she is not courageous, and it is petty and stupid on Gus T. Renegade's part to deny her that salutation, just as it is petty and stupid for him to suggest that any admiring word for John Brown by black people is the result of propaganda.

Renegade's "White Savior" article is thus a kind of slop that has blended truth with bitterness, prejudice, and even a kind of jealousy. In fact, this is really Renegade's bottom line: apparently he is of that stripe that doesn't want any white person--not even John Brown--credited by black people for fear that black heroes will be shortchanged. This speaks to a selfish soul, not a point of justice.

Of course, on one level, one cannot blame Renegade as a black man for resenting how whites will typically turn any opportunity into a means of patting themselves on the back and alleviating their guilt at black people's expense. Malcolm X did not publicly praise John Brown for this reason; but he never demeaned him either; instead he passively saluted him by insinuating that Brown was the only white man who might be able to join his organization. This was the sentiment of other strident black critics like James Baldwin and John Oliver Killens in the 1960s and '70s. But you never read Baldwin or Killens or any other intelligent black "radical" diminishing John Brown. When they do, it suggests either a streak of petty jealousy and prejudice--or perhaps senility.

Some years ago, I was invited to attend the reading of a play about John Brown's black Harper's Ferry raiders that was beautifully performed at the Audubon Ballroom in upper Manhattan. After the reading, I was invited to participate as a panelist in talking about John Brown and his black raiders. Toward the end of the discussion, Amiri Baraka, the late great poet and author, who was seated on the front row, suddenly spoke up. I do not remember precisely what Baraka said, but the gist of his words was the complaint that John Brown gets too much attention, and that more attention should be paid to Frederick Douglass.

The late great Amiri Baraka
Now, I must admit that I was put off. Despite my admiration for Baraka's literary legacy, I was frankly appalled at how petty he sounded. Was he even serious that John Brown got more acknowledgment than Frederick Douglass? The truth is that Douglass has been far more celebrated and memorialized than John Brown ever has been. Unlike Brown, Douglass was mainstreamed, even during his life; after his death, Douglass has had no anti-literary tradition. His stature has only grown more monumental over the generations (and rightly so). Indeed, Douglass's political and personal foibles and flaws are fairly well covered and excused by historians.

To the contrary, John Brown is not mainstreamed, and his legacy has been constantly criticized and attacked since the late 19th century. Brown's imperfections have been exaggerated to the point of monstrosity, and the considerations granted to war heroes and other national figures, no matter how racist, is never extended to John Brown. Douglass is remembered in grand biographies, statuary, and so forth across the country. Where I live in Manhattan, there are two statues of Frederick Douglass within a mile of my apartment, including a beautiful circle with his words in illuminated stone, a housing project bearing his name, and a subway station decorated with a lovely montage in his honor. Douglass is the most celebrated black man in the history of the United States, and it is striking to me that Amiri Baraka would make such a jealous and unfair complaint to John Brown's disadvantage, especially since Brown has considerably fewer allies and cultural lobbyists than Douglass. Perhaps it was Baraka's advanced age, or his fatigue at living in a racist society. But he was as wrong on the point as he was unfair, just as Gus T. Renegade of The Atlanta Black Star is wrong and unfair.

Shields Green (Dayo Okeniyi) and Frederick 
Douglass (Harry Lennix) from the "Emperor"
Obviously, these individual black critics are as entitled to have an opinion as anyone else, just as they are as likely to engage in revision that reflects contemporary readings and reflexes. This must be particularly true in an era when Trumpism has given overt permission to white society to vomit up its worst bigotries once more without shame.

Still, the historical question is worth stating.

The fact is that nowhere in the historical record does Frederick Douglass or any other black contemporary of John Brown throw up white privilege in his face, or use it as a way of marginalizing his legacy from the narrative of liberation as we see it done in both "Emperor" and "The Good Lord Bird" television series (I cannot address McBride's book in this regard, as I have not read it and probably never will read it.)

In the unsuccessful movie, "Emperor," the marginalization of Brown is vivid and layered: While the movie is Shields Green's ostensible story (it is 95% fiction and very unfaithful to the little that we do know about Emperor), John Brown is treated as a kind of co-star in "Emperor." In the movie, Brown wants Emperor to "be the spark" of the liberation movement, which was not the case. If Brown wanted anyone to be a spark in his movement, it was Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass, and neither of them supported him in the hour of crisis.

Shields Green (Quentin Plair), Frederick Douglass (Daveed
Diggs), and John Brown (Ethan Hawke) in SHOWTIME's
"The Good Lord Bird"
In the movie, Emperor rides side-by-side with Brown, calls him "John" (something that none of his men would have done). In shabby Harper's Ferry "raid" scene, the movie makes Shields Green into an almost de facto leader. This may simply be the writer's means of centering Emperor as the hero, but it effectively diminishes Brown's leadership. Even in the movie's end credits, the closing text lists Shields Green "and John Brown." However, Green was never a co-leader, let alone a leader among the raiders. He was a brave soldier and fighter, and while he had his own agenda and ideological purpose for following Brown, Shields Green was following Brown just like the other raiders, white and black.

I should add that I am well aware that historically, at least in books about the Harper's Ferry raid, more attention has been paid to Brown than to his men. I have just published my own book about the real Shields Green, and this point is made quite clear. It is important that all of Brown's men receive historical attention, both the black and white raiders, because they were all noble men who paid the ultimate price for freedom. Still, we do not correct historical errors by fabrications and distortions of history.

As I've said, in "Emperor," the attitude that Lennix's Douglass shows to James Cromwell's Brown in the quarry meeting is completely foreign to the real Frederick Douglass' memoir--and Douglass repeatedly recounted his differences over strategy with Brown in later years. The notion that he would so boldly impute a careless disregard of black lives to John Brown is without basis and is quite unthinkable given all that Douglass has written about John Brown. This resentment of Brown is not historical at all: it is a contemporary prejudice among certain black artists and writers, and it is historically unfair, and to some degree even perfidious.
First, it is unfair because every black person on record, leader or otherwise who knew John Brown, also knew that he willingly sabotaged his own white privilege in order to oppose slavery. Brown was not a self-elevated white liberal who was exploiting black lives. He gave three sons to the cause and then happily died for it himself. He asked nothing of any man that he was not more than willing to give himself. To be sure, John Brown was not perfect, and there is room to criticize him for his strategic errors at Harper's Ferry as does the black raider Osborne Anderson in his 1860 classic, A Voice from Harper's Ferry. But even Anderson did not strike such a low blow.
Secondly, Brown was well aware of the consequences that blacks faced for participating in any kind of liberation movement. He was not indifferent to those consequences, but he believed that it was better for black people to suffer the consequences of rebelling against oppression than to continue to remain oppressed. I do not see how this makes him a paternalistic racist as the historian Kay Wright Lewis seems to think.

My own sense is that Wright Lewis and other black artists and journalists who call Brown's sense of racial parity into question are playing at the historical version of the "Monday morning quarterback," and that they are doing so from a critique that is more about the 21st century than it is about 1859.

John Brown believed that any human being who was not willing to live and die for liberation and justice was not worth his or her life, period. His standard was simply that oppressed people themselves ought to prefer to fight and suffer for freedom rather than remain oppressed. He was aware that there were consequences, but he believed that such consequences should be faced if liberation was going to be attained.

Furthermore, Brown was both encouraged and energized in this opinion by listening to the more militant black voices of his generation, especially men like Henry Highland Garnet and Jermain Loguen, whom he admired greatly. Unlike Douglass, who had to wean himself off of breast of Garrisonian pacifism, other black leaders held forth the same view that influenced John Brown in his own militancy. So, to suggest that Brown was functioning primarily from a paternalistic or racist orientation is quite unfair and not substantiated from the record. To diminish his work on the basis of his access to "white privilege" is a peculiar rebuff.

Of course, John Brown had white privilege. But he used it to oppose slavery and racism, and he took up arms when even comfortably situated black men like Frederick Douglass balked.
From the late 1850s, this was the reason that many in the black community viewed John Brown as their foremost ally, and why black people have floated some admiration for Brown ever since then--until now, that is. For contemporary black voices to diminish Brown on the basis of "the white savior syndrome" is really indicative of a contemporary misapprehension. On one hand, if John Brown had not taken up arms or made an attempt in Virginia, he could be easily dismissed as yet another "talk-only" white liberal as were so many in his day. Yet, on the other hand, because Brown dared to take up arms and invade the South, he is then criticized as a "white savior," or as someone who devalued the life of black people and placed them in jeopardy.

It is hard not to believe that underlying this kind of thinking is just plain old prejudice and a small-hearted kind of jealousy on the part of the black people espousing it. I am hesitant to write these things because it may offend some people, but it should be said nonetheless. Some people are so jealous and prejudiced that they find it much easier to be resentful than to listen to the narrative that their own ancestors and heroes wrote for them.

In all of this, I am reminded finally of a certain parable of Christ, about a musician who complained about the fickleness of his audience: "We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn." I wonder what kind of ally these black critics would want in the retrospect of history--one who made speeches and preached sermons, or one who gave all that he had, and even in failing gave his life for the cause of justice? It seems a kind of malignant absurdity that it has come to this. Those who will not either dance or mourn are themselves an unpleasant lot. Perhaps they do not deserve allies after all.

Monday, November 16, 2020

So We Go: "The Good Lord Bird" Has Flown (And We're Left to Clean Up the Feathers & Droppings)

Last evening, SHOWTIME aired the final episode of "The Good Lord Bird," which saw Ethan Hawke's John Brown defeated at Harper's Ferry, jailed, and raising a ruckus with his jailhouse letters. In the closing scene, Hawke's ragamuffin Brown slowly ascends the gallows steps and his head is covered, but we do not see the hanging. The final moments of the episode are devoted to "Onion" who gets to ride off after visiting John Brown in his jail cell on the night before his execution. 

In the last moments, the faces of various black people are shown, both characters in the story as well as others, all representing the enslaved that Brown had sought to liberate. For what it was worth, it was a beautiful closing. After "Onion" disappears beyond the lens of the camera, we catch a glimpse of a feather blowing past the lens. Unlike the lingering feather that floats upward at the end of "Forrest Gump," the "Good Lord Bird" feather is barely noticeable and then is gone--perhaps resonant with the words that Brown tells "Onion" in his jail cell, that the Good Lord Bird, like the spirit, had to fly alone--perhaps a metaphor for John Brown's lone trail that began in the wilderness of Ohio in the 1800s and ended in a jail cell in Charlestown, Virginia. That's the best I can squeeze out of the series--the whole series.

As I have shared on my podcast, as a biographer, I watched "The Good Lord Bird" with mild amusement for the most part, but mainly because I learned to "bracket" my historical expectations, and just take the story as a work of fiction.  To try to correlate "The Good Lord Bird" to the historical record as some have done is a fool's errand.  Every episode of "The Good Lord Bird" departs significantly from the historical record, not only in its unworthy portrayals of Brown as a goofball and Frederick Douglass as a petulant prima donna, but in too many large and small details to name.  

The other day I got an email from Marty Brown, one of John Brown's direct descendants, in which she informed me that she had gotten around to watching "The Good Lord Bird." To no surprise, she was understandably annoyed by the inaccuracies, particularly by how Brown's children were portrayed, such as placing John Brown Jr. and Jason Brown at Harper's Ferry, when neither of these sons went to Virginia with their father (the sons who went with him were Owen and his two younger half-brothers, Oliver and Watson, the latter two having been killed at Harper's Ferry).  "I'll never understand why writers insist on treating the Brown family like interchangeable cardboard cutouts," she wrote, "when there is so much true character to be mined and put to use." Marty added:

I understand that it's sometimes necessary in drama to conflate characters for plot purposes, but when it serves no conceivable purpose at all and runs exactly counter to the truth, it's just sloppy and stupid. And insulting. So there's my three word review: Sloppy, stupid, and insulting. You can quote me.

So it was, and so I do.

"The Good Lord Bird," first the novel and then the television series, is a story that appropriates history, only to chew it up and spit it out, and then expects us to have a tear in our eye at the end that will justify its abuse of history.  But fiction and (possible) television awards aside, those of us who care about the story of John Brown feel about this series like the guy who lets a friend use his apartment to throw a party. Now that the party's over and the guests are gone, we're relieved. But we're also  annoyed because we have to clean up the mess. 

Last evening, when I was getting ready to watch the final episode, my wife Michele came into the room and passingly asked me if I was going to watch, "The Dead Bird Walking." I almost split a gut because she wasn't even being sarcastic.  It just came out that way.  But somehow, being my better half, she intuitively captured my feelings about "The Good Lord Bird."

 As John Brown once said at the news of someone's death: "So we go."