Saturday, May 9, 2009

John Brown's body

What's left of his bones lie a-mouldering in the grave, but his beautiful beautiful spirit--that is, the spirit of struggle against racism, for justice and equality--does indeed go marching on. Today is the anniversary of the birth of John Brown on May 9, 1800. He was murdered by the U.S. government on December 2, 1859, for the "crime" of attempting to lead an uprising against slavery. The troops who carried out his hanging were under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee, soon to lead the Confederate army in the Civil War; one of the soldiers who walked Brown to the gallows was John Wilkes Booth, later to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

Brown is generally portrayed, when he is remembered at all, as a wild-eyed lunatic. Of course. For otherwise the truth would have to be acknowledged. The truth is that it was not insanity for a white person in the pre-Civil-War era to devote his life to the fight to abolish slavery. It was commitment to the cause, a cause worth dying for: to end racism. And he was in fact thoroughly anti-racist, unlike most of the Boston eminences in the abolitionist movement who were against slavery yet quite racist but whose names have not been slandered the way John Brown's has.

He founded the first fully integrated community in the United States, in North Elba, NY, where Black and white families lived and farmed together, and which also functioned as an Underground Railway station from which he guided escaped slaves north to Canada. This is now the location of his gravesite (photo at left). Brown led the decisive battles in Bloody Kansas that ensured that state's entry into the union as a free state. He studied and learned from Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Maroons of Jamaica. He collaborated closely with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and it was he who dubbed her "General" and deferred to her experience and tactical guidance. In the organizing for the raid on Harper's Ferry he recognized the leadership of the Black participants; had the plans for the raid and its aftermath succeeded, the state structure that would have been set up would have had at its head Black and white, women and men.

Consider this: In 1912, many years after John Brown was hanged and a year before she herself would die, Harriet Tubman said John Brown had been "my dearest friend." And this: W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a biography of John Brown. These two facts alone speak volumes about who this soldier for freedom actually was, giving the lie to the smears against him, spread to this day by the ruling powers in this country.

The 150th anniversary of Brown's valiant raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry is coming up, in October of this year. I'll no doubt have more to say then.

As to books, I've referred before several times to the Du Bois biography and the recent one by David S. Reynolds, both of which are well worth reading. As is the wonderful novel Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks. (Links in the books list at right.) But I'd be remiss if I didn't also urge everyone to read the one first-person account of the daring effort for which Brown and 16 others gave their lives in 1859. It is A Voice from Harper's Ferry by Osborne P. Anderson. Anderson was one of five participants who escaped and lived, and I believe he was the only Black survivor.

John Brown presente!