Tuesday, October 16, 2012

On the Anniversary of the Harpers Ferry Raid

Let me just say, off the top, I love John Brown. A devoted abolitionist willing to pay the ultimate price to bring slavery to its end? It's the stuff of fantasy.

...for people who think like I. For many other people who have lived in the U.S. since 1859, it's a reason to portray the man as "crazy" and "unstable." John Brown's contemporaries didn't think of him in these terms, according to James Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me; instead, this portrayal arose largely to dismiss his efforts, his dedication, and because it is hard for people to imagine that a white man would give his life to destroy the slave system. I tell my students it's the same reason people try to make the Civil War about everything except slavery. White people were willing to tear their country apart and kill each other and "black people were at the heart of it?" Oh, no!

But I, as usual, digress. I admired Brown and didn't believe the characterizations even before I read Loewen's book. I wrote a paper about him during my M.A. program in defense of his sanity. My professor thought I was in denial :-)

As I've grown since, I am trying to think of careful ways to have this argument. If I try to "redeem" John Brown by insisting that he did not grapple with mental illness, am I just, from another perspective, furthering stereotypes about those that we label "crazy?" And so, I want to make it clear that my issue right now is not so much insisting that John Brown was "perfectly sane," but in the common invocation of mental illness to render people and their actions questionable, insignificant, or downright wrong.

Maybe Brown was an extremist in the sense that MLK, Jr. used the term in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Maybe Brown faced that choice MLK talked about, choosing what kind of extremist to be. "Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?" King asked. That Brown may have struggled, a century before, with just such a sentiment is evident in his words:
[H]ad I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.


I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!
I will always love me some John Brown.

1 comment:

feMOMhist said...

LOVE. Whole damn system of slavery predicated on self-delusion (mammy loves my white kid more than her own, etc) anyway. I do like idea of him as extremist, which some may judge as madness, but others as extreme dedication to a cause. FWIW also hear the same about suicide bombers, they are all "mentally ill" b/c again assumption no one would give life for a cause. Yet think of the monks who self immolated during Vietnam, etc. Stories of G.I.s jumping on grenade to save others. COntext is everything

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...