John Brown through different eyes

Submitted by AWL on 2 February, 2021 - 5:33 Author: Sacha Ismail
Henry Shackleford and John Brown

Many in the Abolitionist movement to destroy US slavery were originally pacifists, militantly anti-slavery but hoping to convince slaveowners to abandon the institution. Many of the growing number of black Americans who joined the movement opposed such ideas, and events would severely test even those Abolitionists most committed to non-violence. When the Civil War finally came in 1861, the vast majority backed the Northern war effort.

Abolitionist leader John Brown, the subject of recent seven-part TV series The Good Lord Bird, was frankly opposed to non-violence. He devoted himself to organising violence in the cause of freeing slaves, wielding it enthusiastically against slave-owners and their supporters, and was killed on the eve of the war attempting to spark a slave-insurrection.

Brown led guerrilla bands in the proto-civil war in 1850s Kansas, ruthlessly harrying and murdering pro-slavery settlers and invaders and helping to rescue slaves. In 1859 he organised and led a multi-racial (though mainly white) group to seize the federal armoury at Harpers Ferry in Virginia, with the aim of rallying enslaved people, first nearby and then throughout the South, to rise up. It was all over in two days; most of the group were killed and Brown put on trial and hung. Interviews he gave in prison and his speech at the trial made him a hero in the North and a reviled villain among white people in the South, inflaming opinion on both sides.

Harpers Ferry has been called “the first battle of the Civil War”. In the later, anti-slavery phase of the war, US troops sang the song "John Brown's Body" as they marched ("John Brown's lies a-mouldering in the grave / But his soul goes marching on...")

The Good Lord Bird is based on a 2013 novel by part African-American, part Polish-Jewish author James McBride. (I’ve got the book in the post.) It’s told from the point of view not of Brown, but of Henry Shackleford or “Little Onion”, a fictional enslaved teenager who ends up in Brown’s gang.

The novel got good reviews, but the Los Angeles Times commented that “those looking for verisimilitude or gravitas in their historical fiction might want to avoid” it. The TV series too combines weighty and blood-stained subject matter with action-adventure excitement and lots of irreverent humour. This is enjoyable and mostly works well; as another reviewer said of the novel, the TV series depicts “real historical events without dreary prostration”.

Ethan Hawke, who co-adapted the book for the screen, is excellent as Brown, vividly portraying “the old man”’s combination of serious revolutionary commitment and determination with a degree of wildness or lack of stability. 15-year old Joshua Caleb Johnson is also very good as Onion. Unfolding the story from his viewpoint introduces a number of important elements. It highlights some possible contradictions in Brown’s attitudes: sincerely and passionately committed to destroying slavery and to racial equality, he also seems to have had something of a “white saviour” complex.

In addition, Brown thinks Onion is a girl and puts him in a dress. Most of the central characters only learn the truth at the end of the story, creating some intriguing gender dynamics as well as comic episodes.

Among the people, black and white, male and female, free and enslaved, rich and poor, pro- and anti-slavery, Onion encounters in the course of the series are formerly enslaved Abolitionist leaders Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who did in fact work closely with Brown (though Douglass was, for good reason, highly sceptical of the Harpers Ferry adventure). It’s an irreverent, indeed pretty harshly mocking depiction of Douglass (played by Daveed Diggs) as vain and image-obsessed, though as with Brown he is shown as flawed but heroic. Tubman on the other hand is stereotypically saintly. I thought it went too far in both directions.

Douglass was primarily a political activist; Tubman was extensively involved in direct action to rescue slaves and even armed action - but Brown was much more off at an angle from political Abolitionism, fundamentally a guerrilla leader. All of them were heroes; and the movement that in different ways they helped build hastened the destruction of slavery and drove the revolutionary struggle for equality which followed the Civil War. As long as you have pinches of salt to hand, The Good Lord Bird is a very entertaining way of learning more about Brown and his comrades.

• The Good Lord Bird is on Now TV (you can get a free trial and cancel for up to seven days)

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