Showtime released the trailer for their new miniseries about abolitionist and freedom fighter John Brown, titled The Good Lord Bird, and I wanted to vomit after watching it. Brown, whose attack on Harper’s Ferry sparked the Civil War, is portrayed as a nuisance and loon that annoys and embarrasses Frederick Douglass. He is made equivalent to an antebellum bin Laden or Timothy McVeigh and his actions are lampooned by those who are staged as the “sane” straight folks to his spittle-spewing stage act.
This portrayal is a manifestation of a longstanding tradition in antebellum and Brown historiography, derivative of the larger “Dunning School” movement that provided a historical justification for institutional Southern terrorism from the end of Reconstruction unto the Civil Rights era, when African Americans repudiated brooking with these practices of governance via militant nonviolent direct action.
Contrast this with the magisterial biography of the abolitionist published by W.E.B. Du Bois (admittedly one of my personal favorites, more impactful on my politics than anything written by Marx or Lenin). For Du Bois, writing at the height of the post-Reconstruction reaction, when the White Terror of Jim Crown and lynching pogroms were sweeping the land, Brown was a sane man in an insane world. He was a successful businessman and coherent political thinker who intentionally sacrificed first his class privilege and eventually his white privilege in the name of trying to start a revolution. What drove Brown was not religious fundamentalism equivalent in mode and rendition to the lunacy compelling madmen to bomb women’s healthcare clinics, instead it was a proto-Liberation Theology that would ring true with the Central American theologians that allied with the Sandinistas in the 1970s and ’80s.
Did Brown make mistakes? Yes, he should have been willing to wait for and take leadership from his planned co-conspirator Harriet Tubman, who had a long history of success with guerilla warfare actions in the South that Brown lacked.
But Brown was still no Unabomber. He had studied the military tactics of the Haitian Revolution and chose his target of assault, Harper’s Ferry, with a calculus that determined a success at that major metropolitan and mercantile port would have created a ripple of slave rebellions across Dixie resulting in a larger revolution. If he had been successful, the Civil War would have been a completely different battle and the outcome for emancipated African Americans would have been far superior precisely because a Tubman/Brown militia movement would have granted a level of power, autonomy, and liberation to them which the federal government never was willing and able to grant after Lincoln’s death.
By mocking Brown and caricaturing his mission, Showtime engages in one of the most vile, subtle forms of paternalistic liberal racism imaginable. If we see Brown as mad, his mission as untethered from the material circumstances, and the abolitionists as embarrassed by him, we engage a logic that is both ahistorical and vile. It says that extremity in action against one of the greatest acts of genocide in human history is somehow unacceptable.
It further repudiates Brown’s contemporaries, who left a powerful record of high appraisal. Ralph Waldo Emerson, known as an advocate of Transcendentalist pacifism, said Brown’s execution “will make the gallows glorious like the Cross.” Victor Hugo, a democrat but also wary of the working class, wrote “When we reflect on what Brown, the liberator, the champion of Christ, has striven to effect, and when we remember that he is about to die, slaughtered by the American Republic, that crime assumes an importance co-extensive with that of the nation which commits it.” Douglass, far from embarrassed, said “His zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine. Mine was as the taper light, his was as the burning sun. I could speak for the slave. John Brown could fight for the slave. I could live for the slave, John Brown could die for the slave.”
When Du Bois authored his biography, he ended it with an entire chapter dedicated to making a pitch on behalf of a radical socialist politics, drawing a tautology between Harper’s Ferry and Marxian socialism:
It is not well with this land of ours: poverty is certainly not growing less, wealth is being wantonly wasted, business honesty is far too rare, family integrity is threatened, bribery is poisoning our public life, theft is honeycombing our private business, and voting is largely unintelligent. Not that these evils are unopposed. There are brave men and women striving for social betterment, for the curbing of the vicious power of wealth, for the uplift of women and the downfall of thieves. But their battle is hard, and how much harder because of the race problem-because of the calloused conscience of caste, the peonage of black labor hands, the insulting of black women, and the stealing of black votes? How far are business dishonesty and civic degradation in America the direct result of racial prejudice?… We have here a wonderful industrial machine, but a machine quickly rather than carefully built, formed of forcing rather than of growth, involving sinful and unnecessary expense. Better smaller production and more equitable distribution; better fewer miles of railway and more honor, truth, and liberty; better fewer millionaires and more contentment. So it is the world over, where force and fraud and graft have extorted rich reward from writhing millions.
In the face of heightened public knowledge of police murder of Blacks, a solidarity built in support of projects that assemble neath the banner of Black Lives Matter, and a general growth in sentiment for socialism of varying radical temperatures, this miniseries is evidently a propaganda film intended to oppose these developments.