John Brown and Frederick Douglass: Maybe the White Abolitionist Should Have Listened to the Black Abolitionist
tags: John Brown
In a rave review of the dramatic series The Good Lord Bird, the New York Times proclaimed in its headline “the necessity of John Brown.” As a muse, John Brown is having a moment. The militant white abolitionist already has a string of successes behind him, having inspired acclaimed literary works from Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter to Tony Horwitz’s Midnight Rising to James McBride’s 2013 National Book Award-winning novel The Good Lord Bird.
With the Showtime series, a new genre has been added to the catalogue…
Showtime has adapted The Good Lord Bird into a 7-part series starring Ethan Hawke as John Brown. Hawke, who also produced the series, gives an electrifying performance. He is easily up to the scenery-chewing challenge of portraying Brown’s messianic crusade to end slavery. James McBride was a producer of the series and the screen adaptation adheres closely to his conception of the events leading up to the doomed 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry. On its face a dire episode in American history, in McBride’s audacious imagining it is funny.
Confronted head on, John Brown can be hard to take. In Midnight Rising, biographer Tony Horwitz wears out his thesaurus describing his subject: domineering, grandiose, zealous, obstinate, righteous, fanatical, blustering, unflinching, brazen, unbending, outrageous, outlandish. James McBride avoids this adjectival pile-up by inventing an irresistible foil for Brown. The story is told through the mistrusting eyes of a child follower of Brown’s, a cross-dressing 12-year-old escaped slave named Onion. Joshua Caleb Johnson, who plays Onion, is a master of droll sidelong glances that telegraph his bemused skepticism of the Old Man. Onion is wary of Brown’s maniacal fervor and takes a dubious view of his self-proclaimed sainthood. Yet in the end Onion pays Brown tribute as someone who influenced events in the right direction.
Onion’s judgment is the judgment of history. John Brown’s invasion of Harpers Ferry was underprepared and failed and as it was bound to. He was captured by Colonel Robert E. Lee, and hanged by the state of Virginia in 1859. On the day of his hanging, he wrote, “[I] am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood.” Three years later the country was at war and the Union Army was marching through the streets of Boston singing “John Brown’s Body” – by then an abolitionist anthem.
It's indisputable that Brown’s execution helped ignite the Civil War and hastened the freeing of slaves.
But in a little-remarked irony of history, the execution had a major unintended consequence. At the foot of the scaffold on that December day in 1859 was another grandiose zealot bent on changing history. John Wilkes Booth, however, was on the wrong side of that history. A Shakespearean actor, Booth believed that slavery was a blessing rather than a sin. “I have been through the whole South,” he wrote in an unfinished speech, “and have marked the happiness of master & of man.”
Although Booth despised John Brown’s anti-slavery cause, he envied him his fame and heroic stature, calling him “the grandest character of this century.” He was so obsessed with Brown that he succeeded in getting himself attached to the militia unit sent to maintain order at the hanging. As he proudly noted, “I may say I helped to hang John Brown.”
History happens the way it happens and counter-factual musings are generally beside the point. Yet in this case, it’s hard not to wish that one thing had been different. As the series portrays, before John Brown’s raid he paid a visit to his friend, the eminent Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, to enlist his aid with the Harpers Ferry plan.
Instead, Douglass, portrayed in the series by Daveed Diggs, tried to talk Brown out if it. He believed that in the long run the raid would harm the cause. So was John Brown necessary? Should the white abolitionist have listened to the Black abolitionist? Five years after John Brown’s hanging, John Wilkes Booth wrote himself into history by assassinating the President who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It was an act for which our country is still paying a heavy price.
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