Why the White Abolitionist Should Have Listened to the Black AbolitionistRoundup
tags: abolition, John Brown
Ann Banks is a journalist and writer living in New York. She edited an anthology of oral histories from the Federal Writers Project, First Person America, and co-produced a radio series for National Public Radio on the same subject.
In a rave review of the video 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 a dire episode in American history, in McBride’s audacious imagining it is funny.
Confronted head on, John Brown is 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 the blowhard 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 another major impact as well. At the foot of the scaffold on that December day in 1859 was another grandiose zealot bent on achieving lasting fame. John Wilkes Booth, an aspiring Shakespearean actor, 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.”
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